Cleopatra VII: Alchemist, Scientist and Philosopher

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New texts may reveal another story behind the legend of the beautiful seductress Cleopatra. Has history done her a terrible injustice?  Copyright image by Decoded Past, all rights reserved.

New texts may reveal another story behind the legend of the beautiful seductress Cleopatra. Has history done her a terrible injustice? Copyright image by Decoded Past, all rights reserved.

When we think of Queen Cleopatra of Egypt, (69 BC – 30 BC) a mental image of a smouldering seductress comes to mind, a seductress with blue-black curtains of hair fringing her face, and vivid kohl-lined eyes.

It is possible this is all just a fallacy cooked up by her enemies. “All our current knowledge comes from enemy sources,” says Okasha El Daly, author of a book claiming that the entire Cleopatra hype has its roots based in Roman propaganda. “The Romans were scornful of her and wanted to portray her as this sexy little thing.”

However, another classics expert, Professor Mary Lefkowitz, speaking to News Discovery, insisted that, on the contrary, the Romans actually admired Cleopatra, although they were afraid of her power. Clearly, the experts are divided in this matter.

“Besides being a scientist, Cleopatra was also ‘a brilliant early mathematician, chemist and philosopher who wrote science books and met weekly with a team of scientific experts,'” says the website News Discovery. El Daly’s book also claims the amazing Cleopatra studied gynaecology.

The Other Cleopatras

Research indicates that many princesses of the Ptomelaic dynasty bore the name Cleopatra, so it is not certain that the texts we use to define her refer exclusively to the same person.

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I am not sure of the accuracy of the following information about the other Cleopatras, as sources conflict in their findings, or are incomplete. At best this may serve as a useful overview. In between the “Cleopatras,” there are differently named queens.

These are the birth/death dates of the queens, not the dates of their reign.

Cleopatra I lived from 204 BC – 176 BC.

Cleopatra II lived from 185 BC – 116 BC.

Cleopatra III lived from 161 BC- 101 BC.

Cleopatra IV was born in 132 BC and Cleopatra V in 95 BC. Some experts claims that Cleopatra V and VI were one and the same. It appears that Cleopatra VI may have been the older sister of Cleopatra VII.

The famous Cleopatra VII who loved two great soldiers, Mark Antony and Julius Caesar, was the daughter of Ptolomy XII and became co-regent with her 10-year-old brother Ptolomy XIII when their father died.

Cleopatra committed suicide rather than allow Octavius to parade her in chains through Rome, a shameful and humiliating fate for a proud Queen. The traditional story is that she committed suicide through a live snake’s venom, but it would be virtually impossible to kill three people – herself and two handmaidens – with a single snake. Some historians believe it is more likely she took drugs or poison.

The Real Cleopatra VII

So who and what was Cleopatra VII, the real woman who actually lived and breathed somewhere behind the myth? Impressions, which a mainly victors-written history foists on us, are changing with the new evidence. This evidence indicates that the most famous Cleopatra of all was no seductress, but a gifted scientist and a wise philosopher. If this is so, then the reality is truly even more fascinating than the myth.

Okasha El Daly wrote Egyptology: The Missing Millennium, Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arab Writings, which University College, London, published in January 2013. El Daly himself translated and analysed the Arab texts. News Discovery quotes:

“El Daly attributes the first Arab account of Cleopatra as a scientist to Al-Masudi, who died in 956 AD. In his book Muruj, Al-Masudi wrote of Cleopatra, ‘She was a sage, a philosopher who elevated the ranks of scholars and enjoyed their company. She also wrote books on medicine, charms and cosmetics, in addition to many other books ascribed to her which are known to those who practice medicine.'”

Her political achievement as Queen of Egypt was considerable, since the country was in a bad way when her father died in 51 BC. Bold Cleopatra took the reins of power over a bankrupt country already engaged in civil war, and she proved herself to be an “astute politician,” says the BBC article “Cleopatra, 60 BC – 30 BC.”


Historians believe the coins of the time, like this one photographed at the British Museum in 2009, show a truer likeness of Queen Cleopatra than the more representational statues and portraits. Image by PHGCOM

While doing her best to strengthen the economy, and succeeding, she also managed to prevent her enemies, the Romans, from taking over Egypt.

Cleopatra, Victim of Roman Propaganda

Cleopatra was neither beautiful nor promiscuous, says Joyce Tyldesley in her book Cleopatra, Last Queen of Egypt. Tyldesley says portraits of Cleopatra are not reliable or accurate, and are only representations meant to convey queenly attributes. It is difficult to access an accurate likeness of Cleopatra, as Tyldesley explains:

“People tend to think that her coins are more life-like and if you look at them, she’s not particularly beautiful, as she has a big nose and chin. But then, how accurate can a coin portrait be?”

News Discovery quotes El Daly who agrees with Tyldesley.

“El Daly pointed out that coins depicted her as actually being a very plain woman who was not a beauty ‘in any conventional sense.'”

It seems those ancient artists and historians were familiar with the insidious art of airbrushing! I believe they preferred to make the woman a sexy trollop rather than a philosopher, because it felt a whole lot safer that way!

It’s unlikely Cleopatra had more than two lovers, Mark Antony and Julius Caesar.

Cleopatra: Scientist, Inventor, Architect?

During Cleopatra’s time it wasn’t unusual for women to hold high positions in medicine, science and astronomy, in which she excelled. Her skills embraced expertise in such diverse area as cosmetics and gynaecology.

The following except from Anne Zaccadelli’s article quoting Duane W. Roller’s book Cleopatra, can be found on the Oxford University Press Blog:

“Cleopatra was a writer; she wrote a medical treatise called ‘Cosmetics.’ It may have been called ‘Cosmetics’ but this was no Cosmo article. It was a medical and pharmacological work including several remedies for hair loss and dandruff.”

El Daly, in The Missing Millenium, believes “…the earliest Arabic book to mention Cleopatra, a history of Egypt by the Egyptian bishop John of Nikiou, says the queen’s building projects in Alexandria were ‘the like of which had never been seen before.'”

El Daly continues:

“Yet another Arab historian, Ibn Ab Al-Hakam, credits one of the greatest structures of the ancient world, the Lighthouse of Alexandria, to Cleopatra… It was not just a lighthouse to guide ships, it was a magnificent telescope and it had a huge lens that could burn the oncoming ships of enemies that were going to attack Egypt.”


When Cleopatra came to power, Egypt was bankrupt and locked in civil war. Cleopatra strengthened the economy and brought peace to the land. Image by lisasolonynko.

Cleopatra – The Dark Side of a Powerful Queen

Historians believe that, in order to gain and maintain her exalted position as Queen, Cleopatra murdered – at least – two of her siblings. A brother was found drowned in the Nile shortly before she became Queen, but I feel we cannot be sure that his sister instigated his death.

Archaeologists discovered the skeleton of her younger sister, Arsinoe, in a tomb in Turkey in 2009. Arsinoe lived from 63 BC to 41 BC so she was only twenty-two years old when someone murdered her. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, once Cleopatra had secured the affections of her lover, Mark Antony, she persuaded him to execute Arsinoe.

In the end, we are left wondering, and forced against our will, to suspend judgement although it is tempting to read between the lines. We will never know for certain the entire truth about this amazing royal woman of antiquity and mystique, a mystique that goes way beyond the cute hairstyle and sexy pout with which we identify Cleopatra today.

Cleopatra VII was a strong, clever and powerful women who was good for her country for a time. It appears that she was also a woman who would stop at nothing to get exactly what she wanted.

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    • I think of Elizabeth Taylor, just like you. A goddess playing a goddess – metaphorically speaking, of course. Two women of great presence and charisma!

  1. A most interesting publication concerning the Bible book of Daniel says, “During the battle of Actium, in 31 B.C.E., Roman ruler Octavian defeats the combined forces of the last Ptolemaic queen—Cleopatra VII—and her Roman lover, Mark Antony. After Cleopatra’s suicide the following year, Egypt too becomes a Roman province and no longer plays the role of the king of the south.” – Daniel 11:14

  2. The Beauty of Cleopatra…/cleopatra/… – Similarto The Beauty of Cleopatra
    Plutarch provides the famous description of Cleopatra being smuggled into the …. In the Pensées, Pascal remarks “Cleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, the …

    • I can see an analogy here, between this ancient nose-shaming and today’s fat-shaming. I’m with Adele. Those busybodies should get a life.