Cleopatra: History's Hottest and Most Controversial Woman

Gwendolene Keller

An Introduction to History's Hottest

The year is 51 BC and one of the world's greatest queens has just inherited the Egyptian throne at 18 years old; Cleopatra VII. 300 years after Ptolemy’s inheritance of the Egyptian throne by Alexander the Great, a beautiful, brilliant and intelligent woman rises and ends one of the greatest dynasties in history. Cleopatra is known across time as being one of history's hottest topics. She’s controversial, seductive and smart, using men, money and power to get what she wants; If she were born in the 21st century, she’d be a successful businesswoman and an absolute powerhouse. Cleopatra navigated her claim to the Egyptian throne through brilliance and strategy. Cleopatra married two of her brothers, Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV. Both of them had died as a result of her hunger for power and control. Ptolemy XIII died leading an army against Julius Caesar and Cleopatra, whilst Ptolemy XIV died by hand of Cleopatra. And then, Cleopatra seduced Julius Caesar, a Roman general. As legend goes, Cleopatra rolled herself up in a carpet and was delivered to his private quarters. Hot, right? It's said that Caesar was absolutely captivated by her and who could really blame him? She came to him with an offer he could not refuse- alliance and protection. And an affair, because let's not forget the two of them were married at this stage (48BC). But all did not end so well for the pair, Caesar died in 44 BC, leaving behind Cleopatra and their son, Caesarean. Cleopatra and her son fled from Rome out of fear of Octavian and the Roman empire, where she met Marc Antony, another Roman general. In 41 BC, Marc Antony was summoned to Egypt by none other than Cleopatra. Just as fate would have it, Cleopatra seduced Antony by sailing into the city dressed as a Greek Goddess. The pair were infatuated with each other and went on to have one of history’s greatest romances, ending in a Shakespearean style death - saucy.
Cleopatra: History’s Hottest and Most Controversial Woman
Cleopatra Head Statue From The National Museum of Egyptian Civilization, RubaMorsi.

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The Controversies & Hot Topics

Cleopatra is a figure so controversial throughout history for many reasons. The mysteries and controversial debates of her ethnicity, death and beauty have consumed scholars and the general public for hundreds of years. Cleopatra's ears would be burning constantly at the heavily strewed debates of her life. The first controversy being that she was a woman- shock! Horror! Whilst Cleopatra was not the first female ruler of Egypt, she had used her sexuality to exploit, kill and gain power, making her the last female ruler Egypt would see. These methods were not something seen commonly across the ancient world and whilst in today's day and age it makes way for success (and jail time), women in antiquity had little to no power or authority, hence why her existence and thirst for power was so nerve wracking for men. Her hunger for power resulted in the death of herself and Roman general Marc Antony in 30 BC, as well as the collapse of the Ptolemaic empire, for which had reigned over Egypt for 300 years. Debate of her ancestry and ethnicity has been a heavily controversial debate amongst scholars, students and the general public for hundreds of years. The first, spanning back to the 19th century where her name was included among a list by J.A Rogers in 1946, labelled ‘World’s Great Men of Colour.’ Despite the fact that Cleopatra was evidently not a man, her ethnicity can be traced back directly to the establishment of the Macedonian empire under Alexander the Great, for which she can be attested to be Macedonian/Greek. It is through this link that it is generally agreed that Cleopatra’s ethnicity is Macedonian/Greek, however if she had any claim to Egyptian blood at all, it would be very minimal. Additionally, she would not be the woman loved by all today if her death was not also a hot topic. Killed by her own hand, poisoned or death by asp, conspiracy offers theories as to how Cleopatra died. Shakespeare captures Cleopatra and Marc Antonty in a Romeo-Juliet style suicide, where the lovers killed themselves moments apart, upon an unspoken mutual agreement that life is not worth living without the other- romantic. Shakespeare tells Cleopatra's death through the bite of an asp and this is generally considered the path the controversial queen took. However, Roman writers such as Plutarch and Strabo account for her death through poison, whereby Cleopatra is said to have used a toxicant of some kind. It is also suggested by modern scholars that Cleopatra was forced to kill herself by Octavian, as a result of the political rivalries and loss at Actium in 31 BC. All of these are possibilities, however given the historical records collated and the reputation Octavian and Cleopatra’s relationship yielded, it seems out of the question for Cleopatra to have faced Octavian and death in such a way and it's more likely that she killed herself by way of asp or poison- she did have dignity after all. However controversy does not end there for Cleopatra. We are as, if not more, obsessed with her in death than we may have been in life. Almost as heavily debated as her ethnicity, is her beauty. Though it's far from what has and did make her powerful, seductive and smart, the debate of her beauty has humankind wrapped around her little finger. Cassius Dio describes Cleopatra as being a woman of ‘surpassing beauty’ however, Plutarch describes her as not being strikingly beautiful. It doesn’t help that modern actresses such as Elizabeth Taylor have played the queen and have thus subconsciously fed into this controversy. Like most modern scholars argue, the controversial debate of Cleopatra’s beauty is significantly irrelevant in comparison to her intelligence. At just 21 years old, she seduced Julius Caesar and created one of history's most famous alliances. When she was around 38 years old, she married Marc Antony and defended her empire in the infamous battle of Actium against Roman forces. She learnt to speak the Egyptian language, among many others and is considered one of history's greatest administrators.
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It’s not her, it’s us.

History may always view Cleopatra as controversial. She fought battles against Rome and caused scandal with some of their biggest players. There’s no doubt that the gossip, rumours and stories of her seductiveness and power caused quite the stir in ancient times. However, is she really that controversial now? Taking away the ancient glasses that are so crucial in analysing the past, Cleopatra isn’t the problem. It's actually us and it’s one of those “it’s not you, it’s me” moments. Despite the fact that we’re obsessed with her for many positive reasons, our obsession with her ethnicity and beauty have caused her to be one of, if not the most controversial woman in history; by way of nothing more than our modern values and ideals. It’s highly unlikely that during antiquity, her ethnicity was as controversial a topic as it is now. Of course, with her encounters with Rome she faced alienation- but that’s not what we’re talking about here. It would appear that by looking back on past events, particularly those from antiquity, we love to obsess over figures and events, applying a strong modern perspective. Whether Cleopatra was beautiful or not is irrelevant. Whether her ethnicity was more than Macedonian/Greek should be irrelevant. She was an incredible queen who fought for her empire. She was a genius, by which ancient sources remind us and a successful administrator, who eventually got her own Shakespeare moment. If we once again, remove us and modern perspectives from the equation of Cleopatra = controversy, we will find that it’s definitely us. We’re the problem. We no longer celebrate one of history's greats, but instead dissect her just enough for her to still be, if we’re generous in some cases, recognised as fit enough to run an empire. No one ever questions if Alexander the Great was controversial, just if he was ‘great’ (but not so much that we denote everything he did).
Cleopatra: History’s Hottest and Most Controversial Woman
Cleopatra by John Byam Liston Shaw
Cleopatra: History’s Hottest and Most Controversial Woman

Gwendolene Keller

Gwendolene is a graduate of Ancient History and an undergraduate of Archaeology from Australia. She is currently finishing up her bachelors degree in Ancient History, before continuing on to a masters degree. Gwendolene has a particular interest in ancient Egypt and the Near East, with a focus on women and life in ancient Egypt. She also runs a small history page, @flirtingwhistory, on Instagram and TikTok, discussing some of history's greatest.
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