Just as she is known by many names, Cleopatra VII of Egypt is an ancient ruler whose persona has taken myriad forms over the millennia. The Cleopatra depicted in movies is often very different from the Cleopatra described in verifiable texts and chronicles. In fact, many of Hollywood's beloved myths about the Queen of the Nile, influenced by ancient Roman propaganda about her, are far from historically accurate.
While the mystique surrounding Cleopatra makes for good storytelling, contemporary historians are working to debunk the fables and lore about this contentious Egyptian royal who reigned over Egypt between 52 and 31 BC. These academics are proving that most of pop culture's assertions about Cleopatra are totally dumb.
- Photo: Cleopatra / Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation1
She Was Otherworldly Beautiful
The Trope: Cleopatra is one of the most stunning and physically captivating women to have ever existed. She uses these preternatural good looks to her political advantage.
Why Is It Inaccurate? "The only absolutely verifiable images of her to survive are poorly imprinted coins minted during her life," says British Museum curator Susan Walker. In these coins, Cleopatra possesses a hooked nose and pointed chin - bearing little resemblance to the characterizations that followed.
Notable Offenders: Every painting and film featuring Cleopatra, the latter of which star beauties like Elizabeth Taylor, Theda Bara, and Claudette Colbert.Seen this a lot?
- Photo: Caesar and Cleopatra / United Artists2
She Was Egyptian
The Trope: Cleopatra was ethnically Egyptian.
Why Is It Inaccurate? Cleopatra and her ancestors, despite ruling over Egypt, were ethnically Greek. The Ptolemaic dynasty originated with Ptomely I, a Macedonian Greek general who inherited the empire after Alexander the Great's passing.
Cleopatra donned Egyptian attire and took the time to learn the language. She also adopted the customs and religious practices of Egyptian natives. Ptolemaic rulers like herself were even crowned as pharaohs. That being said, Cleopatra was a Macedonian royal through and through whose native language was Koine Greek.
Notable Offenders: 1945's Caesar and Cleopatra, starring Vivien Leigh, amplifies Cleopatra's "exotic" nature in very problematic and false ways, creating a stark contrast between the Egyptian ruler and her Roman advisor-turned-lover Julius Caesar.Seen this a lot?
Her Sexuality Was Out Of Control - And She Used It Like A Weapon
The Trope: Cleopatra was a seductress who used her feminine charm to lure Julius Caesar and Mark Antony into her bed. This was really the only tool she had to wield for political gain.
Why Is It Inaccurate? Cleopatra was an intelligent and well-read leader whose diplomatic approach did not include weaponizing her sexuality. Since Greek accounts from Cleopatra's era are mostly lost or destroyed, the world relies on skewed Roman annals to get a sense of how Cleopatra acted.
Notable Offenders: The aforementioned Roman historians, whose propagandistic writings influenced all the hyper-sexualized depictions of Cleopatra. According to modern historian Duane Roller, "They saw her as a dangerous threat to the Roman Republic and [built] her up as this horrible woman who led men to their doom."Seen this a lot?
- Photo: Cleopatra / Paramount Pictures4
Her Relationship With Mark Antony Was Based Solely On Mutually Destructive Desire
The Trope: Cleopatra was a "harmful beauty" and "fatal monster" who engaged in a toxic relationship with her lover Mark Antony that led to their shared demise.
Why Is It Inaccurate? While Antony and Cleopatra did perish in the wake of their defeat by would-be Emperor Augustus in 31 BC, their affair was far from doomed. They raised three children together, embarked on various military campaigns, and hosted indulgent parties on a regular basis. By all accounts, their relationship was based on mutual respect instead of mutual destruction.
Notable Offenders: William Shakespeare's tragic 1607 play Antony and Cleopatra remains the most popular modern source material for the couple's romance, which is framed as an ill-fated, catastrophic partnership for dramatic ends. Cleopatra plays a temptress who solidifies Antony's fate with her serpentine ways. Almost every cinematic and theatrical production about the pair paints Cleopatra in a similar light.Seen this a lot?