On this day in 30 BCE the much-mythologized Cleopatra VII, Queen of Egypt, committed suicide following a series of military defeats during the Final War of the Roman Republic; these culminated with the Battle of Actium, following which her lover Mark Antony was also defeated by Octavian, who then invaded Egypt and became the first Roman Emperor for his trouble. Mark Antony beat her to the grave by a scant eleven days. Cleopatra took the extreme measure she did rather than being paraded through Rome in chains, which was the favoured means of pre-execution humiliation at the time; her fellow queen Boadicea did much the same thing, only without the same high-quality PR her Egyptian counterpart had.
It seems like ever since the moment she died, the greatest writers of their day (and the series of hacks who wrote the Bible besides) have fallen all over themselves describing her beauty, reign, and death; in fact, Cleopatra is one of a handful of historical figures for whom a pop culture cottage industry has been created.
Chief among her artistic champions is William Shakespeare, who fiddled with the facts so well he could have had a great career writing biopics in Hollywood; for instance, he's the one who first said that she died by pressing an asp to her breast. Prior to 1609's Antony and Cleopatra most chroniclers agree that the snake bit her on the arm. A close second - in terms of theatrical cachet, at least - is Caesar and Cleopatra, by George Bernard Shaw; like Shakespeare, Shaw's work was later adapted for the movies.
In addition to plays, numerous movies, operas, novels, poems, and paintings* have all extolled Cleopatra's supposedly extraordinary beauty; fittingly, she's also been portrayed in movies by some of the most beautiful actresses who've ever lived - women such as Theda Bara, Claudette Colbert, Vivien Leigh, Rhonda Fleming, Elizabeth Taylor, and Amanda Barrie - any of whom could have (and a number of whom actually did) cause great men to lose their minds over them. She was even played by both Ginger Grant and Lovey Howell in a single episode of the first season of Gilligan's Island, entitled Angel of the Island. Despite this, no contemporary descriptions of her appearance exist.
Still, living as she did at a time when few women exerted power, it's no wonder that we're still talking about her; accuracy aside, cultural depictions of Cleopatra have always been made to suit the political timbre of the times rather than from some slavish devotion to historical fact, and likely will be for a long time to come.
*Including the one shown above, by Reginald Arthur, painted in 1892.
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