I’ve invited a very special guest today, who offers a story of a gutsy woman we’re all familiar with, but probably don’t know much about. A special welcome to our guest today, Kris Elise.
Kristen Elise, Ph.D. is a drug discovery biologist and long-time resident ofSan Diego, California. She lives with her husband, stepson, and three canine children. Please visit her websites at http://www.kristenelisephd.com and www.murderlab.com. The Vesuvius Isotope is available in both print and e-book formats at Kris’ websites and at https://www.amazon.com/author/kristenelisephd
When her Nobel laureate husband is murdered, biologist Katrina Stone can no longer ignore the secrecy that increasingly pervaded his behavior in recent weeks. Her search for answers leads to a two-thousand-year-old medical mystery and the esoteric life of one of history’s most enigmatic women. Following the trail forged by her late husband, Katrina must separate truth from legend as she chases medicine from ancient Italy and Egypt to a clandestine modern-day war. Her quest will reveal a legacy of greed and murder and resurrect an ancient plague, introducing it into the twenty-first century.
The Gutsy Woman Who Won the East
In the context of a modern-day thriller, The Vesuvius Isotope explores the enigmatic life of Cleopatra VII. Two thousand years after her mysterious death, Cleopatra remains one of the most universally fascinating women in history. She is also one of the most widely misunderstood. Here we discuss some non-fictional insights into how this gutsy woman really won the east.
First of All, She Was Not the Hottie You Might Imagine
When we think of Cleopatra, we envision Elizabeth Taylor. This year, a new Cleopatra movie is set to emerge starring Angelina Jolie. But the real Cleopatra was as ugly as homemade soup. Here is what Cleopatra’s contemporaries and early historians had to say about Cleopatra’s beauty – or rather, the lack thereof:
The Romans pitied, not so much her, as Antony himself, and more particularly those who had seen Cleopatra, whom they could report to have no way the advantage of Octavia either in youth or beauty.
-Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans Plutarch (ca. 46–120 CE)
Of course, Octavia was the wife of Antony, and Cleopatra his mistress. Not surprisingly, Octavia’s brother, Octavian, was even less captivated:
He is either heedless or mad—for, indeed, I have heard and believed that he has been bewitched by that accursed woman.
Octavian, on Antony and Cleopatra
-Roman History Cassius Dio (ca. 150–235 CE)
Last, but certainly not least, there is the empirical evidence. Attached is an image of a coin that was minted by Cleopatra in her lifetime. A far cry from Angelina and Elizabeth, wouldn’t you say? Indeed, Cleopatra dressed as a man from time to time, and it is likely that she deliberately depicted herself as masculine, rather than feminine, in order to demonstrate her power.
So if it wasn’t her wily, feminine ways that entranced the world’s two most powerful leaders, then what was it? As it turns out, Cleopatra’s political strategy did not lie in hair-twirling and batting eyelashes, but instead in ruthless ambition, extraordinary intelligence and exceptional saavy. Below are a few of the cunning moves that cemented her place in history.
She Killed Her Entire Family
When Cleopatra’s father died, he left the Ptolemaic dynasty to Cleopatra and her brother, Ptolemy XIII, with instructions that they marry and rule jointly. They did this for a brief time.
But Cleopatra was not satisfied with the arrangement, so she raised an army against her brother and husband. This effort initially failed; Ptolemy overthrew Cleopatra’s army and exiled her from Egypt.
This is when she took up with Julius Caesar. It was 48 BC when Cleopatra and Caesar became lovers and joined forces to kill Ptolemy XIII. One year later, Cleopatra had married her even younger brother, Ptolemy XIV, and given birth to Caesar’s son. Shortly thereafter, Ptolemy XIV died of a mysterious illness that was probably poisoning by Cleopatra.
Cleopatra and Caesar also captured her sister Arsinoe and brought her to Rome in chains.
Public pressure from a crowd sympathetic to the young girl stopped them from strangling Arsinoe on the spot, so they instead granted her sanctuary at the temple of Artemis in Ephesus. A few years later, Arsinoe was strangled in the temple – violating the temple sanctuary – on the orders of Cleopatra’s new lover, Mark Anthony.
She Deified Herself
It was not unusual for rulers of the Ptolemaic dynasty to associate themselves with Egyptian gods. Cleopatra wisely selected the persona “The New Isis.” Isis was the goddess of many things, from fertility to magic and medicine. It was thought to be the power of Isis and the live-giving properties of the Nile that granted Cleopatra’s ability to have babies on cue. In the end, she had four – fathered by Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony – and each birth was impeccably timed to meet a political need.
She Was a Chemist, Pharmacologist and Magician
Cleopatra’s choice of the goddess Isis was strategic in areas beyond fertility. She used magic and pharmacology to gain the admiration of her peers. Pliny the Elder records the legend of the pearl, in which Cleopatra dissolved a pearl in vinegar and drank it to impress Mark Anthony. In 2010, this phenomenon was chemically proven possible.
It is also known that she had a fascination with poisons, and even tested them on prisoners to catalogue the properties of each. Her mysterious death, often attributed to a snakebite, was most likely self-administration of her poison of choice.
The legend held that she had committed suicide by enticing a snake – an Egyptian asp – to bite her. But this interpretation has been deemed impossible. It was not only Cleopatra who died a mysterious death that day but two of her female servants as well. Even if the snake could have been enticed to bite all three of them, no asp carries enough venom to kill three full-grown women. And no asp was ever found at the scene.
She Spoke the Language of Her Subjects
Cleopatra’s heritage was Greek, having descended through the Macedonian Ptolemy line. So it is not surprising that the Ptolemy leaders spoke Greek. What is, perhaps, a bit surprising is that they never learned to speak Egyptian. Known for her fluency in as many as nine languages, Cleopatra was the only ruler of the Ptolemaic Dynasty to speak the language of her subjects. How handy this must have been in ruling them.
She May Have Hidden Her Records
Cleopatra was educated alongside her brothers by the best tutors in Alexandria, Egypt – the intellectual center of the world. She was trained from birth to become co-regent of Egypt, alongside the ill-fated Ptolemy XIII. And once she secured the monarchy for herself by killing off her siblings, Cleopatra became the sole proprietor of the legendary Great Library of Alexandria.
Yet, we have never found a single document written in her hand.
So what happened to the writings of Cleopatra, of which many were rumored to have existed? Well, for one thing, the Alexandria library burned down on Cleopatra’s watch – by her lover, Julius Caesar.
But three locations were later found to contain documents that date to Cleopatra’s reign. The first was a daughter library in Alexandria, which contained overspill from the parent library. The second was a site in what is now Fayoum, Egypt, in which documents including petitions to Queen Cleopatra from her subjects have been found in the remains of mummified crocodiles. Additional texts from this site are still being catalogued. The third library was the Villa dei Papiri in ancient Herculaneum, which just happened to be owned by the father-in-law of Julius Caesar. If documents written by Cleopatra existed in the third location, they are still there – the majority of this villa has never been excavated.
Today’s image of Cleopatra as a sexy seductress is entertaining. It gives us a wide assortment of Halloween costumes, ample material for movies and video games, and a use for liquid black eyeliner.
But I think the real Cleopatra was far more interesting.
Thank you Kris. What a fantastic post. I certainly did not know all these facts about Cleopatra. And your book sounds like a super historical mystery. I’ll be sure to read it soon.