Egyptian culture has always been of great interest to me. Ever since I was little, I've been fascinated by Egyptian myths, death rituals, and style. Today I was lucky enough to see the Cleopatra exhibit at The Milwaukee Public Museum. On display were Cleopatra related artifacts from a recent underwater discovery. After several natural disasters, her palace was covered with water and just waiting to be discovered. I got to see statues, vases, jewelry, and even a sample of Cleopatra's handwriting! I also learned a lot about who Cleopatra was as a person. In fact, I learned so much that this turned into a really long blog post. So, go get some tea or coffee and settle in for some reading!
Cleopatra was actually part Greek and spoke Greek in addition to Egyptian. She was the only ruler in her family (Ptolemaic) to speak both of these languages. She was highly intelligent and well educated in many subjects. Cleopatra was very interested in politics and watched her father's actions closely. Her father (Ptolemy Auletes) made the unusual move of leaving the throne to both Cleopatra and her brother. After Ptolemy's death, Cleopatra became Queen and her brother became King. Ptolemy probably recognized that as a very smart and older child, it would be helpful to have Cleopatra in a powerful role. She was 17 when she took the throne and her brother was 12. To have them both take the throne, they needed to be married. I know this is gross by today's standards, but it was pretty common for Egyptian royalty then. It kept the power in the family, and was basically a political union.
Both Cleopatra and her brother wanted full power. Her brother and his advisers wanted Cleopatra out of the way so much, that they planned to overthrow her. This lead to some fighting between Cleopatra's army and her brother's. Julius Caesar happened to be in Egypt fighting his own war at this time. As the story goes, Cleopatra was smuggled to Caesar in a rug and rolled out to form an alliance with him. Surprise!
Caesar instantly found Cleopatra charming and they became a couple. Once Cleopatra combined forces with Caesar, there was no way her brother could take over. She was now clearly the sole ruler of Egypt.
Cleopatra and Caesar had a son named Caesarion. This name translates to "Little Caesar", which makes me think of the pizza place! Cleopatra always dreamed Caesarion would be the ruler of a united Rome and Egypt. This was not meant to be, as Caesar wouldn't admit Caesarion was his son! When Caesar died, he did not pass the power to Caesarion, but instead to his power hungry grand-nephew Octavius (later called Augustus). For those who are wondering, Cleopatra was 21 when she met Caesar, and he was 52. Octavius was 19 when he received Caesar's powerful role.
Cleopatra decided to marry her three year old son Caesarion, so he would technically be the co-ruler of Egypt. She had already had her brother assassinated by this point, and needed a co-ruler. (I told you these were mostly political unions.) Marrying your brother is gross, but marrying your three year old son is just... huh?
Don't feel too bad for Cleopatra with her weird marriages, because she did eventually find real love with Mark Antony. These two were incredibly close. They talked about politics and traded advice and ideas. They had a very great respect for one another.
Cleopatra and Anthony even had their own private club, called "the inimitable livers". They would put on cloaks to hide their identities and go party around Egypt.
This part is going to sound a bit like a soap opera, or an episode of Maury, but try to follow... Antony and Cleopatra really hit it off. After meeting and having a great relationship, Antony was forced into a political marriage with Octavius' sister Octavia. (You remember Octavius, Caesar's power hungry grand-nephew.) Antony and Octavius were fighting over control of Rome, and this marriage was part of a political pact. Antony of course wasn't really into Octavia and after several years returned to Cleopatra. Surprise! In the time he was away, Cleopatra had given birth to their twins, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene. Antony and Cleopatra got married at this point and had another son, Ptolemy Philadelphus. Antony also declared Caesarion the son of Caesar. For some time, they had a happy and powerful existence as a family.
Sadly, things didn't stay happy forever. Octavius, who never liked Cleopatra, wanted both her and Antony dead. He wanted more power. While Cleopatra and her children were separate from Antony, a rumor spread that she had committed suicide. Antony believed the rumor and actually did commit suicide. It was all very Romeo and Juliet. His body was brought to Cleopatra, who tried to revive him. Sadly, she couldn't.
With Antony dead, Octavius set his sights on taking Cleopatra's kingdom and humiliating her. He planned to parade her through the streets in chains to show that he had overpowered her kingdom. Then he planned to kill her. Hearing that Octavius was coming, Cleopatra burned her most precious belongings so he couldn't take them. Once captured, Cleopatra's faithful servants managed to smuggle a poisonous asp snake to her. She actually did commit suicide at this point - by snake bite! She thought this was far more preferable than the embarrassment she would have to face alive.
Since Cleopatra was dead, Octavius couldn't lead her through the streets as an ex-leader. He resorted to having her twins walk the streets carrying a tiny Cleopatra statue. This was pretty lame, but I guess it was the closest he could get to having Cleopatra paraded down the streets. The twins were then sent to live with Octavius' sister Octavia. You remember her, the woman Antony left for Cleopatra. She was now the guardian of Antony and Cleopatra's kids! As for Caesarion, he was left as the rightful ruler of Egypt at age 17. Being "married" to his mother left him as King. He was in power for only 18 days, after which Octavian had him killed.
After Cleopatra's death, Octavian tried to rid the world of her memory. He defaced her statues, and tried to rewrite history. He wanted to erase her completely. As was said at the end of the museum exhibit, everyone is still talking about Cleopatra, but who talks much about Octavian?
To be fair, he is mentioned now and again as "Augustus Caesar" but he isn't discussed to the degree Cleopatra is. People have been fascinated by Cleopatra for the last 2,000 years! Many actresses have portrayed her, ever since movies were made. You can really see the style of the times reflected in their costumes and makeup. From the thin eyebrows of the 1930's to the extreme eyeshadow Elizabeth Taylor is sporting in the 1960's, you can almost guess when each film was made. Check this out:
If you'd like to try your hand at looking like Cleopatra (or whatever your vision of her is) this video will be of help to you. I seriously scoured YouTube for Cleopatra makeup tutorials. There were many strange options. Some of the videos showed the cat eye actually tilting down from the corner of the eye! Not to mention all the neon green/blue eyeshadow... So, here's one that I thought fit the bill for a classy Cleopatra. It's called "The Egyptian Queen" look:
The girl in this video found inspiration in a magazine called Asiana Wedding. I probably don't have access to this magazine, but there are lots of inspirational pictures online. Ladies: if you're looking for dramatic eye makeup ideas, look for Arabic and Indian eye makeup tutorials on YouTube. They're some of the best!
No one is really sure what Cleopatra looked like, although she was said to be very beautiful. Even her enemies had to grudgingly admit her beauty. There are some coins with her face stamped on them, but I learned today that the coins were stamped with a face that was supposed to symbolize her family. So the coins weren't meant to resemble her exactly. The main clues to how she looked are some tiny statues that remain. A huge search is on for Cleopatra's tomb, and archeologists think they're close to finding it. If her tomb is found, much more will be revealed about this mysterious queen!