Cleopatra's Influence on Culture, Literature and Art for Centuries

Cleopatra VII was the last pharaoh of Egypt and one of the most famous women in history. She ruled Egypt from 51 to 30 BC and had romantic and political alliances with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. She was also a patron of arts, sciences and culture, and a master of diplomacy and strategy. Her life and legacy have inspired countless works of literature, art and media throughout the centuries.

Cleopatra in Western Literature

Cleopatra's story was first recorded by ancient Roman historians, such as Plutarch, who portrayed her as a seductive and cunning woman who used her charms to manipulate powerful Roman men. This image of Cleopatra as a femme fatale was later adopted and embellished by many Western writers, such as Geoffrey Chaucer, Dante Alighieri, William Shakespeare, John Dryden and George Bernard Shaw. Some of these writers also added elements of tragedy, romance and heroism to Cleopatra's character, making her a complex and fascinating figure.

One of the most influential literary works about Cleopatra is Shakespeare's play Antony and Cleopatra, written in 1606-07. Shakespeare based his play on Plutarch's Parallel Lives, but he also gave Cleopatra more depth and dignity than the Roman source. Shakespeare's Cleopatra is a passionate, witty, proud and charismatic queen who loves Antony deeply but also defies him when necessary. She is also a tragic heroine who chooses to die by her own hand rather than be captured by Octavian, the future emperor Augustus.

Shakespeare's play has inspired many other works of literature, such as John Dryden's All for Love (1677), George Bernard Shaw's Caesar and Cleopatra (1898), Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile (1937) and Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad (2005). Cleopatra has also been the subject of many novels, poems, essays and biographies, such as Cleopatra: A Life (2010) by Stacy Schiff.

Cleopatra in Western Art

Cleopatra's image has also been depicted in various forms of visual art, such as paintings, sculptures, mosaics and coins. Some of these artworks are based on ancient sources, such as coins minted by Cleopatra herself or busts made during her lifetime. Others are based on later interpretations or imaginations of her appearance and personality.

One of the most famous paintings of Cleopatra is The Death of Cleopatra (1649-50) by Guido Reni, which shows the queen lying on a couch with a snake biting her breast. This painting reflects the popular legend that Cleopatra committed suicide by allowing an asp to bite her. Another famous painting is Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Condemned Prisoners (1887) by Alexandre Cabanel, which shows the queen experimenting with different ways of killing herself before choosing the snake.

Cleopatra has also been portrayed as a glamorous and exotic beauty in many artworks, such as Cleopatra (1890-1900) by Eugenio Lombardi, which shows the queen wearing a jeweled headdress and a revealing dress. Another example is Cleopatra (1917) by Theda Bara, which is a poster for a silent film starring the actress as the queen. These artworks reflect the influence of Orientalism, a cultural movement that exoticized and eroticized the East.

Cleopatra has also been depicted as a powerful and intelligent ruler in some artworks, such as Cleopatra's Arrival in Cilicia (1821) by William Etty, which shows the queen arriving on a magnificent ship to meet Antony. Another example is Cleopatra Dissolving the Pearl (1630) by Claude Vignon, which shows the queen dissolving a pearl in vinegar to impress Antony with her wealth. These artworks reflect the admiration for Cleopatra's political skills and cultural achievements.

Cleopatra in Muslim Scholarship

Cleopatra's influence was not limited to Western culture. She was also respected and studied by Muslim scholars who wrote about her after the Arab conquest of Egypt in the 7th century AD. These scholars viewed Cleopatra as a scholar and a scientist herself, who was well-versed in philosophy, medicine, astronomy and alchemy. They also praised her for her generosity, piety and justice.

One of the most prominent Muslim scholars who wrote about Cleopatra was al-Mas'udi (died 956), who devoted a chapter of his book The Meadows of Gold to her biography. He described her as "the most learned woman of her time" who "excelled in every branch of knowledge". He also mentioned some of her scientific experiments and inventions, such as distilling sea water into fresh water and making artificial pearls.

Another Muslim scholar who wrote about Cleopatra was Ibn Abi Usaybi'ah (died 1270), who included her in his book The History of Physicians. He praised her for her medical knowledge and skills, especially in treating snake bites. He also mentioned some of her medical discoveries and remedies, such as using honey to heal wounds and using opium to induce sleep.

Cleopatra's influence on Muslim scholarship was not only positive. Some scholars also criticized her for her immoral behavior and involvement in wars. For example, al-Tabari (died 923) blamed her for causing the civil war between Caesar and Pompey and for seducing Antony away from his duty. He also accused her of poisoning her brother Ptolemy XIV and conspiring against Octavian.

What are some legends and myths about Cleopatra?

There are many legends and myths about Cleopatra that have been created or exaggerated by ancient and modern writers, artists and filmmakers. Some of these legends and myths are:

  • Cleopatra was a great beauty who seduced Caesar and Antony with her charm and wit. However, there is no reliable evidence that Cleopatra was exceptionally beautiful or that she used her sexuality as a weapon. Her coin portraits show a woman with a strong and distinctive face, not a classical beauty. Her attraction may have been more due to her intelligence, charisma and wealth than her appearance.

  • Cleopatra killed herself by letting an asp, a venomous snake, bite her breast. This is the most popular version of Cleopatra's death, but it may not be true. There are different accounts of how she died, some of which say she used poison or a dagger instead of a snake. The snake story may have been invented by the Romans to make her death more dramatic and symbolic.

  • Cleopatra was buried with Antony in a secret tomb somewhere in Egypt. This is a romantic legend that has inspired many searches for Cleopatra's tomb, but there is no proof that it exists. The location of Cleopatra's tomb is unknown, and it may have been destroyed or looted by the Romans or later invaders. Some archaeologists believe that she may have been buried in a temple near Alexandria, but this has not been confirmed.

  • Cleopatra was a black African woman who represented the ancient Egyptian culture. This is a modern myth that has been promoted by some African American scholars and activists who claim Cleopatra as their ancestor and heroine. However, Cleopatra was not black or Egyptian, but Greek. She belonged to the Ptolemaic dynasty, which was founded by a Macedonian general who ruled Egypt after Alexander the Great's death. She spoke Greek and followed Greek customs and religion. She did learn Egyptian and adopted some Egyptian titles and symbols, but this was mainly for political reasons.