Faces of Greece: Cleopatra

Was Cleopatra Greek? What was her connection to Alexander the Great and the Macedon? Was she a seductive queen who used her beauty to influence the Romans?

Who was Cleopatra?

Cleopatra was a Macedonian Greek queen of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt from 51 to 30 BC. In fact, she was the last ruling member of the Ptolemy – a Greek royal dynasty that ruled over ancient Egypt from 305 BC till their kingdom eventually fell under the Romans. Although they did not originate from Egypt, the Ptolemy were generally accepted by the local population. By often following the local fashion and participating in Egyptian religious ceremonies, the Greek royals were accepted by the Egyptians, who often saw them as the successors of the Pharaohs. Cleopatra was particularly liked and her reign was characterized by an absence of revolts in the countryside. She was one of the few Ptolemaic kings and queens who learned to speak Egyptian and made sure to present herself as the personification of the goddess Isis. In other words, she was ethically and culturally Greek but she had adopted some of the ways of the native population to gain their acceptance.

Cleopatra’s name

Cleopatras’s full name was “Cleopatra VII Philopator”. The name “Cleopatra” is Greek in origin. It comes from “κλέος” (glory) and “πατήρ” (father) – her name translates to “the glory of her father”. The Roman number VII (seven) indicates that she was the seventh woman with this name to rule over Egypt; before her, there were other Ptolemaic Cleopatras that sat on her throne. Her last name “Philopator” also derives from Greek (“φιλώ” + “πατήρ”) and translates to “father-loving”.

Cleopatra and Alexander the Great

Cleopatra was born in the city of Alexandria in Egypt, which was founded in 332 BC by the Macedonian Greek king Alexander the Great. Her connection to the mighty king, however, is much deeper than that. The Ptolemaic dynasty started with her ancestor Ptolemy I Soter, one of the most trusted generals of Alexander who ended up moving permanently to Egypt. Rumor had it that the first Ptolemy was in reality the half-brother of Alexander, born out-of-wedlock by a lover of king Philip of Macedon. If this rumor is true, Cleopatra was related by blood to Alexander. This rumor is not accepted by most historians nowadays. However, there are many ancient writers, including Pausanias, who confirmed this belief.

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Cleopatra’s beauty

In our modern era, Cleopatra is often portrayed as exceptionally beautiful and seductive. In reality, based on Roman accounts and ancient depictions of her, we understand that she was not a classically beautiful woman. The Ptolemy strived for maintaining the purity of their lineage, meaning that cousins -or sometimes even siblings- married each other. Due to the many years of inbreeding, the last generations of the Ptolemaic dynasty were not particularly beautiful. However, due to their status as divine rulers, they were considered attractive. Cleopatra had an extensive beauty routine and spent hours maintaining healthy, glowy skin. She wore bold eyeliner and used essential oils to enhance her natural smell. She used her perfumes and makeup just like magic; to seductively influence those around her, even Roman political leaders. 

Cleopatra and the Romans

When Cleopatra was ruling over Egypt, one of the main military powers that were rising in the Mediterranean was no other than the Roman Empire. Cleopatra is known for becoming the lover of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, a Roman general who ended up marrying the Ptolemaic queen and had three children with her. This relationship was used by Mark Antony’s rival, Octavian, as propaganda to portray the general as a traitor. As a result, Rome declared war on Antony and Cleopatra, which resulted to the defeat of the Ptolemaic dynasty. Marc Antony died in the battlefield and Cleopatra ended her own life. 

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One of the last Hellenistic figures

Queen Cleopatra’s death in 30 BC marked the end of an era. For three centuries, starting with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, the Hellenic (Greek) spirit was spread across the Mediterranean. Greek was the most popular language, like English is today. This is known as the Hellenistic period, which was followed by the emergence of the Roman Empire. The Hellenic spirit might had lost its influence at that time but it did not die with Cleopatra. The Eastern Roman Empire, with the prevalence of Greek over Latin and with its cultural differences from the Western Roman Empire, was the continuation of Greece through the centuries. If you are interested in learning more about this era, known as also as “Byzantium”, you can watch Helinika’s dedicated playlist.

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Marialena Perpiraki is a journalist and writer from Athens, Greece. In 2020, she founded Helinika as a cross-media platform.