Cleopatra VII (69-30 BC), the last queen of Egypt, is probably the most famous woman from classical antiquity, if not all history. Yet her modern reputation is based largely on the presentation of her in art and cinema, rather than the actual historical reality. Here are several things about her that are not generally known:
1. She was by no means a great seductress.
She had only two known relationships in 18 years, hardly a sign of promiscuity. Both of these were with carefully selected partners (the most powerful Romans of the era), and were designed to produce heirs (the only way her kingdom could survive).
2. She was a highly educated person.
She knew at least a dozen languages. She was also a published author, writing at least two treatises on medical subjects, the predominant discipline of her era.
3. She was a naval commander.
As a royal personage, she was skilled in the arts of warfare, and twice led her fleet in battle.
4. She was connected with contemporary Messianic thought.
Many were suggested to be the Messiah in her day; an oracle tells of a woman who will restrain the Romans and push them out of the eastern Mediterranean. There is no other candidate for this woman than Cleopatra.
5. She did not die by the bite of an asp.
The Egyptian asp (cobra) is several feet long and generally not fatal. She probably died by poison, as the sources consistently say, but may have left a suicide note fabricating the story of death.
Duane W. Roller is Professor Emeritus of Greek and Latin at the Ohio State University and author of Cleopatra: A Biography (Oxford 2010).
IMAGE: Wall painting in Room 71 of the House of M. Fabius Rufus, Pompeii, showing the statue of Cleopatra VII in the Forum Julium. Courtesy of Pietro Giovanni Guzzo, Domenico Esposito, and the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Pompei.