NOT WHAT YOU THINK
Ever watch a YouTube presentation about the "real" Cleopatra ... or "10 Things You Didn't Know About Cleopatra" ... or "Cleopatra the Murderer"?
Most of those "historical facts" are dead wrong. Even some historians, cashing-in on books or the lecture circuit make comments about Cleopatra that they haven't researched well and are just repeating "common knowledge." You really need to specialize in Ptolemaic history (as opposed to the 3000+ years of "ancient Egypt") to weave through the flak.
I got tired of this, over and over and over. I watch these things looking for new information, especially the serious ones, and I'm continually surprised at the mistakes they make. Why believe ME? For every historical statement, I'll give you a link to the source material. For inscriptions and manuscripts 2000 years old, there's sometimes a bit of wiggle room ... make up your own mind.
Popular Misconceptions About Cleopatra VII
Cleopatra VII was illegitimate.
Her mother is unkown.
Cleopatra VII was the legitimate child of reigning Queen Cleopatra V.
Single source Strabo doesn't exactly say the other children were illegitimate, he just says that Berenike IV was legitimate. Cleopatra VII (born 69 BCE) is referred to in a stone inscription from 68 BCE as one of the children of Ptolemy XII and Cleopatra V. This was first published around 1910. Strabo's vaguery is much more juicy.
Cleopatra VII killed her oldest younger brother Ptolemy XIII.
Ptolemy III probably drowned escaping defeat at the Battle of the Nile.
Cleopatra VII wasn't there. Caesar was batting Ptolemy XIII at the battle of the Nile. Caesar reported him drowning, but he could have survived & assumed a peasant identity for the rest of his life, disappearing from history (not particularly likely for a legitimate king).
Cleopatra VII had her younger sister Arsinoe IV killed in Ephesus
There is no evidence that this occurred.
The single source is Josephus (the historian credited with hating her the most), repeated by Appian. It is a rumor started by Josephus. Cassius Dio reports this same rumor as Cleopatra VII killing both her brothers instead in Ephesus (which was impossible). In the HBO production "Rome", the town crier does a mishmash of Dio & Josephus.
Cleopatra VII married one or both of her younger brothers.
There is no evidence that this occurred. Her only recorded marriage is to Marc Antony.
According to her father's will, Cleopatra VII was supposed to marry Ptolemy XIII but it's likely this did not occur since they fought for power from the start. There's no evidence she married Ptolemy XIV who only appears as pharaoh in 45 BCE. No citation for zero evidence (sorry).
Cleopatra VII ruled Egypt continuously after the death of her father Ptolemy XII paired her with one of her brothers.
Cleopatra ruled with her father, then by herself, then with her brother Ptolemy XIII, then she was exiled, then very briefly with P.XIII, then by herself, then with P.XIV, then by herself, then with P.XV
At first co-regent, Cleopatra VII ruled as Queen with her father Ptolemy XII (no marriage). On his death, she ruled alone sidelining Ptolemy XIII, until he came to power eventually forcing her to exile in Syria. Even though Caesar called her back, she did have to sneak past P.XIII's guards (probably NOT in a carpet). P.XIII drowned about two months later. She ruled alone for about 3 years until P.XIV joined her briefly, then she placed her son with Caesar, P.XV, on the throne with her. No evidence for any marriages with any Ptolemy (some historians ASSUME).
Cleopatra VII cut open pregnant women to examine fetuses.
There is no evidence that this occurred.
Both the Hebrew Mishna and Tosefta contain passages that refer to this, which conflict 100% with each other. An attempt was made to justify a Niddah rule in Leviticus in the 3rd century ACE and Cleopatra VII was a convenient scapegoat.
Cleopatra VII was promiscuous.
There is no evidence for this.
The only men recorded as being intimate with Cleopatra VII are Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. Both of these started as diplomatic liaisons since Egypt couldn't survive without Roman support. However both of those men are reported by multiple sources as promiscuous (Caesar much more so than Antony). Again, no citations for promiscuity that didn't happen. This guy did a fair coverage.
Cleopatra VII inherited a rich empire.
Egypt was bankrupted by her father Ptolemy XII. She inherited a crumbling empire deep in debt to Rome.
Over the course of her ~24 years on the throne, Cleopatra VII restored the Egyptian Empire by clever administration. When Octavian hauled back her treasury to Rome after her death, it depressed the world price of gold.
The instrument of Cleopatra's suicide was a snake (asp).
Her personal physician, probably the one who inspected the body, says "no one knows".
Cleopatra VII died dressed in her finest garments, with no sign of death throes. Her two hand maidens died of poison painlessly: we know this because one was alive when the soldiers burst in, she spoke briefly, then dropped dead. There are two candidates for "asp": Horned Viper, and Egyptian Cobra. A viper bite leaves ulcerated puncture wounds, a swollen limb, and an agonizing death. Cobra wounds don't ulcerate but would leave deep marks and death would be very slow and painful. Throughout recorded history, the phallic perception of a serpent has always been an effective story element.
Charmion and Iras were Cleopatra VII's intimate advisors.
This is not really clear.
Only two historians refer to Charmion and Iras.
"And Caesar said in addition that Antony had been drugged and was not even master of himself, and that the Romans were carrying on war with Mardion the eunuch, and Potheinus, and Iras, and the tire-woman of Cleopatra, and Charmion, by whom the principal affairs of the government were managed."
-- Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Marc Antony, 60:1
The "Caesar" here is Augustus, and he's pretty confused. He's casting about, inventing a reason to declare war on Egypt (instead of a Civil War on Antony, which is actually what's going on). He's basically saying insignificant people are running the country, while Cleopatra drugs Antony. Potheinus has been dead almost 20 years. Casting around, Augustus is just using names he's heard.
"when they opened the doors they found Cleopatra lying dead upon a golden couch, arrayed in royal state. And of her two women, the one called Iras was dying at her feet, while Charmion, already tottering and heavy-handed, was trying to arrange the diadem which encircled the queen's brow. Then somebody said in anger: "A fine deed, this, Charmion!" "It is indeed most fine," she said, "and befitting the descendant of so many kings." Not a word more did she speak, but fell there by the side of the couch."
-- Plutarch, Parallel Lives, Marc Antony, 85:3
Really no telling here, either. It's pretty clear both women were emotionally tied to Cleopatra to die with her. This was not any kind of Greek/Ptolemaic custom. Charmion was adjusting the diadem/crown, which doesn't mean anything: she knew the Queen wanted to look her best.
"But they say she realised this and chose to leave the world of the living while still a queen rather than appear at Rome as a nobody, and so contrived her own death by the agency of one of these creatures [asp]. And they say she called her two most trusted women whose job was to tend to the attire of her body so as to display her beauty, called Naeira and Charmione. Naeira did her hair in a fitting manner and Charmione cut her fingernails and she then ordered the snake to be brought in hidden in some grapes and figs so that, as I have said, it would escape the notice of the guards. She then tried out the snake on these women to see if it could kill swiftly, and after it did she killed herself with the rest"
-- Galen, Theriac to Piso, (as translated in "On Theriac to Piso, p93)
Galen says hair stylist and nail girl. Of course he also says they died first from snake bite, which conflicts with Plutarch. Galen wrote almost 200 years after Plutarch, so it's possible some details are blurred. He hedges his history with "they say", so he's repeating a story. He maintains that Charmion and Iras are more loving, personal beauticians, rather than advisors on a government level.