Cleopatra is something of an icon of our culture. How many people haven’t heard of Cleopatra’s famous suicide? Her infamous affair with Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony? Her kohl-rimmed eyes and irresistible sex appeal? But how much do you really know about Egypt’s last queen? Take the quiz below to find out – you might be surprised by what you learn! (Answers are at the bottom of the page)
1. How many children did Cleopatra have?
2. What was Cleopatra’s actual title?
A) Cleopatra VII Philopator
B) Cleopatra the Great
C) Cleopatra III Euergetis
D) Cleopatra I
3. How many languages did Cleopatra speak?
A) Only Egyptian.
B) Latin and Egyptian.
C) Seven different languages.
D) Fifteen different languages.
4. Who was Cleopatra’s first husband?
A) Julius Caesar.
B) Mark Anthony.
C) Alexander the Great.
D) Her brother.
5. Which of these images represents Cleopatra?
As you’ll notice, there’s actually quite a lot wrong in our understanding of Cleopatra. She wasn’t just a beauty or a femme fatale – she was highly political, with a fancy title to her name. She was smart, highly educated, and was the only one of her family to have learnt Egyptian, the language of the people she ruled (Cleopatra and her family were Greek by descent). She travelled widely when she was young, even going on a trip to Rome with her father, Ptolemy XII. At only eighteen years old, she married her own younger brother, Ptolemy XIII, to get to the throne. When things didn’t go too well for the newly married couple (rather unsurprisingly), Cleopatra coolly convinced the most famous Roman general, Julius Caesar, to side with her in a civil war against her brother by getting herself carried into Caesar’s rooms rolled up in a bit of sacking. The pair became lovers, and Cleopatra became pregnant with Caesar’s child, whom she later called Caesarion (“little Caesar”) after his father. It wasn’t, Plutarch tells us, that Cleopatra was that beautiful; but men just didn’t seem to be able to resist her. "For her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable,” Plutarch says, “nor such as to strike those who saw her; but converse with her had an irresistible charm, and her presence, combined with the persuasiveness of her discourse and the character which was somehow diffused about her behaviour towards others, had something stimulating about it. There was sweetness also in the tones of her voice; and her tongue, like an instrument of many strings, she could readily turn to whatever language she pleased..."
When her great gamble fell through, however, and Caesar was murdered in the Roman Senate House on the Ides of March, Cleopatra took advantage of events yet again to ensure her safety and the safety of her country. Sailing across the Mediterranean in a luxury yacht, she met with one of the new rulers of the Roman Republic, Mark Anthony. Dressed up in the guise of the goddess of love, Cleopatra must have made quite an impression on the notoriously pleasure-loving Mark Anthony. But she obviously decided it wasn’t enough. So she invited him to a feast, determined to impress him with her wealth and glamour in a rather more unusual way. Calling for a glass of sour wine, she casually took off her earring – one of the largest pearls in the ancient world – and dropped it into the drink. The pearl dissolved, and Cleopatra drank it, showing Mark Anthony just how much wealth Egypt had to spare – they could even drink it! Mark Anthony was instantly smitten. The two fell in love, married, and had three children together: a pair of twins, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene, and a son, Ptolemy Philadelphus. Only when Cleopatra’s second gamble fell through, and Octavian defeated Mark Anthony at the Battle of Actium, did the queen admit defeat. She committed suicide only moments after her husband: dramatic to the last, faithful to her husband and her country, a queen to the very end.
So does this sound like the Cleopatra you know? Most likely not. All the signs point to a Cleopatra who was, in fact, faithful to both the husbands she chose, a powerful and dedicated ruler who put the needs of her country before her own, and not even particularly beautiful – just very good company (to paraphrase Plutarch). So was Cleopatra a seductive siren or a good queen? Perhaps we’ll never know. But it seems, to me at least, that there’s rather more about Cleopatra than initially meets the eye.
ANSWERS: 1. C 2. A 3. C 4. D 5. All have been identified with Cleopatra, but the only one that we know for sure represents her is the coin (B), as it bears her name.
Emily Hauser is an author, scholar and lover of all things ancient. She loves to tell stories and inspire young people with her passion for the classical world. For more information and for details about her new book, For The Most Beautiful, visit her website at www.emilyhauser.com.