Mental Floss

The Quick 10: Cleopatra

Stacy Conradt

It was"¦ a lot of years ago today that we Cleopatra committed suicide via asp. So the story goes, anyway (see fact #9 for more on that possible myth). She was a fascinating woman, and speaking to that is the fact that not many figures in history have the same allure and air of mystery about them that Cleopatra still has. Here are a few of the stories that add to her legend.

1. Cleo was probably not the ravishing beauty history has turned her into.

Most accounts of her say that she had a hooked nose and rather masculine features (that's her on the coin pictured), but that her charm and wit more than compensated for her lack of petite features. I'd have to say her power probably added to her legend of beauty over the years - power can be awfully alluring.

2. She had her half-sister killed to ensure that no one would be able to threaten her status and power. That's pretty cold.

3. Who but Cleopatra could spend ten million sesterces (for reference, a loaf of bread probably cost about half a sestertius) on a single dinner? The story - which is probably just a story - goes like this: Cleopatra and Antony were messing around one night and she playfully bet him she could spend the astronomical amount on a meal. He couldn't fathom any food that would cost so much and agreed to the bet. The joke was on him when the second course - a cup of vinegar - was brought out. Cleo proceeded to remove one of her pearl earrings, drop it into the cup of vinegar to dissolve and then drink the whole concoction. We think it's just a story because vinegar is typically not strong enough to dissolve a pearl unless the pearl was pre-crushed.

4. She wasn't Egyptian. Cleopatra was a Macedonian Greek - in fact, her father was a direct descendant of Ptolemy I Soter, Alexander the Great's famed general. She was the first person in her family to speak fluent Egyptian"¦ just one of nine languages she mastered.

5. Exactly how rich was Cleopatra? She makes Bill Gates look like a pauper. She had so much money, riches and assets that when Rome conquered Egypt in 30 B.C., her fortune was enough for Rome to be able to decrease the interest rate from 12 to four percent.

6. She ascended to the throne at the ripe old age of 17.

7. Many modern-day depictions show a glamorous woman with a dark head of smooth, straight hair with bangs.

The only thing that's right about this is that she likely had dark hair. The rest of it is pure Hollywood.

Cleopatra wore a wig of long, tight curls - no bangs. The only reason the other image has become so popular is that when the 1934 movie


was made, star Claudette Colbert had a signature hairstyle that included bangs. Her hairstyle may have influenced Elizabeth Taylor's in the later movie.

8. Speaking of that movie, the real Cleopatra certainly would have approved of Elizabeth Taylor's wardrobe for the 1963 epic. The budget for her 65 costumes was nearly $200,000, an unheard of amount for the time. One dress was even made from 24-carat gold cloth - fit for a queen, wouldn't you say?

9. Was she really bitten by an asp? Maybe. Maybe not. And maybe it was two asps. Strabo, a Greek historian who was alive when the Queen of the Nile did herself in, suggests that it may have been a toxic ointment, not an asp bite. Other accounts written within 10 years of her death say it was a pair of asps that bit her. No matter which way she went, one thing is almost for certain: she didn't kill herself because she was so heartbroken over the death of Antony. That's a lovely story, but their "love affair" has been much embellished over the centuries. The real reason she killed herself is likely related to the fall of Egypt to Rome and the fact that she was told she would be paraded through the streets of Rome in humiliation. Add that to the fact that she lost an unimaginable amount of wealth and you can see that Antony was probably just a small part of her decision to kill herself, if he even factored in at all. Oh, and one other myth: it's doubtful that the asps bit her on the breast. Prior to Shakespeare's romanticization of the event, all accounts reported that she was bitten on the arm.

10. We don't really know where Cleopatra is today. Legend has it that she was buried with Mark Antony somewhere in Egypt, and we really only know that because Plutarch told us so - if he was wrong, then we're way off. There's some evidence to suggest she had a tomb built for herself in Alexandria and that it now sits at the bottom of the ocean floor with the rest of the ancient city, but recent excavations have found some artifacts that may mean the couple is entombed at the
Taposiris Magna temple in Abusir, Egypt.