Cleopatra: The Story Of The Femme Fatale Par Excellence In 19 Paintings

Cleopatra is one of the most famous historical characters of all time. These paintings are proof of how she was vilified.

Perhaps there isn’t any other female character as vilified as Cleopatra. As Rachel Brown claims in an article for National Geographic, “in a narrative dominated by men writing about men, women only appear when they are being vilified.” Then, she adds that despite this there have been so many powerful women in history. Cleopatra’s case is probably the biggest evidence of this phenomenon. For millennia, she has been historically portrayed as a seductress who lured the most powerful men in her time to destroy them and, eventually, the Roman Republic, leading to the Empire of depravity, but was she, really? No, they turned her into that character out of fear; yes, fear of a really strong and powerful woman capable of running an empire by herself.

Cleopatra by Alexandre Cabanel (c. 1887)

Portrait of Cleopatra VII of Ptolemaic Egypt made in Herculaneum before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius (1st century AD)

The thing about Cleopatra is that it’s the vivid explanation of what Brown talked about. Her story and the historical documents on her were written by men, to be precise by those in Rome who saw her as an evil enemy, so are these valid and objective accounts? Of course, no. It’s all part of a myth that for centuries and centuries has been fed by the allure of the myth and the legend. So, what was really her story? Unfortunately, there isn’t much more than random documents, since most of the documents and evidence of Cleopatra’s life was lost around the 5th century AD after an earthquake destroyed her palace. But what historians in the past century have tried to do is shatter most of the vilified accounts that have existed since her days.

Cleopatra VII by Michelangelo Buonarroti (16th century)

Cleopatra by Guido Reni (1635-1640)

What we do know is that she was a brilliant woman who had been educated by some of the best scholars in Alexandria and that she had full access to what was then the biggest and most important library in the world. She was the last pharaoh of the Ptolemaic dynasty, (who weren’t actually Egyptians but Macedonian Greeks), and reigned for almost 22 years in a stable and prosper Egypt. She had been taught about politics since she was a little girl and knew how to command an army. She spoke several languages, and unlike her predecessors, she was the first ruler to speak to her people in their mother tongue. This, naturally, made her quite popular to the point that when her brother Ptolemy XIII (also her co-ruler) decided to exile her, a lot of people took her side in a civil war.

Caesar Giving Cleopatra the Throne of Egypt by Pietro da Cortone (c. 1637)

Cleopatra by Gustave Moreau (1887)

Now, where did the myth of the temptress start? The Roman Republic was going through one of many conflicts for power. Julius Caesar had been pushing Pompeii’s army to the east to the point that the latter decided to flee to Egypt when he saw it was all lost. Little did he know that he was going to be received by Ptolemy’s men to decapitate him. He sent the head to Caesar, who arrived in Alexandria in an attempt to be a mediator in the siblings’ quarrel. As the story goes, as soon as she knew Caesar had arrived in Alexandria, she decided to introduce herself first to negotiate with him. The legend and the story that has been told over time claims that, dressed in a very provocative way, she got inside a box as a gift to Caesar. However, it probably didn’t happen that way. What we do know is that she managed to negotiate with him to get back on the throne.

Cleopatra and Caesar by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1866)

Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Condemned Prisoners by Alexandre Cabanel (1887)

What historians claim today is that it’s possible that Caesar felt attracted to her, but not only for her looks and seductive weapons (he was known to be kind of a philanderer who had countless affairs), but also for her wit and intelligence. One of the things she was blamed for at that time (and still fuels the myth about her) is that Caesar lost sight of his power when he prolonged his stay in Egypt. Actually, apart from Cleopatra, he was fascinated by Egyptian culture and even believed they were more advanced in many things. Upon his return, he started implementing what he had learned there, from public libraries to infrastructure, and even the calendar. But of course, let’s blame the woman for everything.

Cleopatra Showing Octavius the Bust of Julius Caesar by Pompeo Batoni (18th century)

Cleopatra on the Terraces of Philae by Frederick Arthur Bridgman (1896)

By the time Caesar was assassinated, Cleopatra was actually in Rome. After his death, she stayed for a couple of months more working hard to make her son, Caesarion, be recognized as Caesar’s heir. It didn’t happen and the title went to one of his grandnephews, Octavian. Cleopatra returned to Egypt and continued ruling. Historians claim that she was just looking for who to seduce next for her benefit, but the truth is that the Romans approached her first. Cassius, one of Caesar’s assassins, contacted her for military support against the recently formed Triumvirate (Octavian, Mark Anthony, and Lepidus had agreed that each of them would rule for a period of time to avenge Caesar’s murder). She refused, and instead sent some of her naval armies to help them. After winning, Octavian and Antony basically took over with the first one on the western side of the Republic and Antony in the East. 

The Meeting of Anthony and Cleopatra by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1885)

Cleopatra and Anthony by Heinrich von Angeli (1863)

The relationship between Cleopatra and Anthony is much more than the tragic romantic story by Shakespeare and so many others. It was a political strategy that both depended on. On the one hand, Antony appointed allies in strategic positions that kept the Egyptian kingdom’s stability and growth, and on return, this gave him the tools to continue the expansion on his side. But this was not as Romans back in the Republic saw it. Soon, Octavian himself started a propaganda war against the couple, mainly focused on “exposing” Cleopatra as a temptress who had cast a spell on the smart and promising Anthony, to the point of taking away his virility and decision-making abilities. This was when the story of the strongest and most powerful woman in history was vilified in historical evidence. 

Cleopatra’s Feast by Jacob Jordaens (1653)

Cleopatra by Pierre Olivier Joseph Coomans (1877)

It all got worse in 31 BCE, when Cleopatra and Anthony organized a ceremony known as the Donations of Alexandria. He, dressed as Dionysus, and her, disguised as the goddess Iris, appeared in public for a formal and quite unprecedented ceremony that represented their vision of the future: that Rome and Egypt would be joined in power and strength. Anthony named her Queen of Kings (making an allusion not only to Egyptian mythology, but also to the power they were bestowing on her first son Caesarion, who was Caesar's only heir), and their offspring were named rulers of several territories acquired. This was seen in Rome as the worst offense and Octavian decided to declare war against Cleopatra only under the charges of providing military support to a private citizen; Anthony’s term as head of the Triumvirate had expired already.

The Death of Cleopatra by the School of Michele Tosini (c. 1560)

Cleopatra by Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1877)

Octavian’s troops eventually defeated Anthony’s, and when the war was pretty much balanced on Octavian’s favor, Anthony decided to kill himself. Cleopatra had time to embalm his body and give him a proper burial. Soon afterwards, she was taken before Octavian, who spared her life. In Livy’s accounts, he claims that Cleopatra found out thanks to a spy that Octavian planned on taking her to Rome to expose her as his prisoner and show his might. She decided not to give him that satisfaction. Octavian received a message from her asking him to put her body next to Anthony’s, and fearing that his glorious moment would be taken away, he sent some messengers to prevent her suicide. However, it was too late. She was found dead with the bodies of two servants at her feet. In a more morbid account written more than a century after her death, Cassius Dio says that Octavian even summoned some snake experts to attempt an extraction to revive her, which brings us to the most iconic part of the story.

Miniature illustration of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra found in Giovanni Bocaccio’s Des case de nobles hommes et femmes (1409)

The Death of Cleopatra by Jean-André Rixens (1874)

It’s said that she killed herself by getting an asp (an endemic Egyptian snake) to bite her. This part of the story has been highly questioned over the centuries, and although there’s not really a way to prove or shatter the theory, a common conclusion is that it never happened. Moreover, it’s believed that this part was included to give her that image of being a dangerous or evil woman who resorted to all sorts of magic to get her way. Or in a more simple explanation, this gives her that “exotic” vibe that draws so many to her story. All in all, this is just one of the many examples of how her story was constructed to the point that she’s still one of the most famous characters in history. The irony of it all is that we talk about her without really knowing who she was, and worst of all, we recognize her and even dress up as her without knowing what she actually looked like.


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Cover painting: Cleopatra by John William Waterhouse (1887)