Weird things you didn't know about Cleopatra

She's appeared in dozens of Hollywood films and at least a bazillion books, from biographies to historical novels to science fiction. (Yes, Cleopatra in Space is totally a thing.) Always beautiful, always exotic, always with a bunch of beads in her hair and black eyeliner that makes her look sort of like Captain Jack Sparrow, Cleopatra has attained a kind of immortality that few of her contemporaries ever did — except maybe for Julius Caesar, who attained an especially weird sort of immortality now that he shares a name with an obstetric surgery.

More than 1,500 years before the reign of Elizabeth I of England, Cleopatra proved that women were capable of ruling nations, and that they could do it with intelligence, grace, and sometimes brutality. But much of what we know — and don't know — about the queen of the Nile comes from history that has been fictionalized, refictionalized, and fictionalized some more, so much that the made-up stuff is sometimes better-known than the facts, and the facts themselves are kind of surprising.

Cleopatra wasn't Egyptian

If someone asked you to name an Egyptian from ancient history, it would probably be a toss-up between King Tut and Cleopatra. For many people, these are the two historical figures that embody ancient Egypt — gilded, eye-linered, and walking around their luxurious palaces with their hands at 90-degree angles like in that Bangles song from the '80s. But here's a funny thing: One of those two people was not actually Egyptian.

According to History of Macedonia, Cleopatra was a member of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, which was descended from Alexander the Great's general, a man named Ptolemy I. That means they not only had Greek ancestry, they spoke Greek and followed Greek customs, too. The Ptolemys ruled Egypt for 300 years after the nation was handed over to Ptolemy I following Alexander's death in 323 B.C. 

So how did Egypt wind up in the hands of a bunch of helmet-wearing dudes from another continent? They conquered it, which was what the ancient Greeks often did when they were bored. The good news is the Egyptians were mostly cool with their non-Egyptian pharaoh because they were fed up with the Persians, who were the conquerors that came before the Alexandrian conquerors. (You know your country is kind of messed up when you're happy because the new conquerors are better than the old ones.)

There was some creepy Deliverance stuff in her background

Incest, as it turns out, is not just for nasty Lannister Queens and Deliverance characters. It was practiced to some degree in pretty much every royal family from Europe to the Middle East, but the Egyptians practically turned it into a competitive sport.

In Egyptian mythology, the god Osiris married his sister Isis in order to maintain the purity of the royal bloodline. They were gods, so presumably genetic disorders weren't really a problem for them. Unfortunately for the Egyptian pharaohs, who saw the Egyptian gods as awesome role models, genetic disorders are a problem for mortals, but no one really understood that thousands of years ago.

Anyway when the Ptolemys rose to power they were all, "Hey, incest sounds like a great idea!" So by the time that got down to Cleopatra a few hundred years later, she was a genetic soup of Ptolemys who married Ptolemys who were descended from Ptolemys.

Cleopatra's father was King Ptolemy XII. Not much is known about her mother, but Biography says it was probably her father's sister, or possibly her father's uncle's cousin's mother's sister's niece. In keeping with their very gross noble family tradition, Cleopatra went on to marry not one but both of her younger brothers. Eww.

She was smarter than she was beautiful

Pretty much every modern and semi-modern depiction of Cleopatra tells us she was stunningly beautiful, which frankly does seem sort of incompatible with the whole generations of incest thing, but maybe it was a fluke. Then in February 2007 a coin was unearthed bearing a portrait of Cleopatra, which appears to confirm that the queen was actually rather ordinary-looking. The fact that ancient historians didn't say much about her looks also suggests she was no Elizabeth Taylor, but the more important point is that it really doesn't matter. Life of Antony, written by Plutarch in 75 A.D., made the following observation about Cleopatra: "Her actual beauty … was not so remarkable that none could be compared with her, or that no one could see her without being struck by it, but the contact of her presence … was irresistible. … The character that attended all she said or did was something bewitching."

According to Ancient Origins, Cleopatra wasn't just a shrewd diplomat, she was also a student of mathematics, medicine, alchemy, economics, history, geography, and pretty much every general education subject you probably detested in college (except maybe alchemy, which they mostly don't teach anymore). She also spoke nine languages, beating anyone who's ever run the White House. (The last multilingual president was Franklin Roosevelt, who was elected in 1932 and spoke French and German.)

She could actually speak the same language as the people she ruled

Besides Greek, which was the native tongue of the Ptolemaic dynasty, Cleopatra spoke the languages of most neighboring people, including the Arabs, Jews, Parthians, Syrians, Ethiopians, Medes, and the Trogodytae. She was also the only member of the Ptolemaic dynasty who bothered to learn the language of Egypt — until her reign the Ptolemys didn't show any interest in Egyptian culture or religion and mostly just sequestered themselves in the city of Alexandria, which was sort of like the Chinatown of ancient Egypt, except Greeker. The Greek language became Egypt's language of commerce and government, and the Ptolemys occasionally reminded themselves they were in Egypt by taking a pleasure cruise down the Nile, but that was about it.

According to Ancient Origins, Cleopatra could speak the native Coptic and she could also read hieroglyphics. What's more, she had herself depicted as an Egyptian, wearing the traditional dress, and attending traditional Egyptian festivals and ceremonies. She was such a PR pro, in fact, that she was proclaimed a patriot and became a popular leader among the Egyptian people even though she wasn't descended from any true Egyptian pharaohs. Cleopatra, unlike her predecessors, recognized the value of appealing to the cultural identity of the people she ruled, which is quite an evolved idea even for a lot of modern politicians.

She killed three of her siblings, including the two she was married to

Now let's get back to the whole incest thing, since you can never have too much of that. In Egypt it was customary for pharaohs to rule in pairs — every regent needed a co-regent of the opposite gender. According to LiveScience, Cleopatra ruled with her father Ptolemy XII for a short time until his death in 51 B.C. In his will, Ptolemy XII decreed that Cleopatra should marry her 11-year-old brother, which was probably only a ceremonial thing, but either way the two were clearly not fond of each other and the relationship ended with Ptolemy XIII trying to wrest control of the throne, and his sister appealing to Julius Caesar for help reining him in.

Caesar and Cleopatra famously became lovers, and Ptolemy XIII was never happy with Caesar's decision that he should rule with his sister. Eventually Caesar defeated Ptolemy at the Battle of the Nile, and Ptolemy drowned in the river while trying to escape. So Cleopatra was really only partially responsible for that brother's death, but there's more.

Because of the whole "must have a co-regent thing," Cleopatra had to marry her other brother, who later died under "mysterious circumstances." (Cleopatra had him poisoned.) Then she ordered the execution of her sister Arsinoe, who took Ptolemy's side during the family feud and at one point declared herself queen. We can add fratricide to Cleopatra's list of virtues, but who's counting?

Her famous eye makeup was actually supposed to ward off eye infections

There's hardly a depiction of Cleopatra that doesn't include the trademark eye makeup — a black kohl that lined the eyes and sometimes continued down the side of the face to form decorative spirals. According to the New York Times, the kohl was made from four different lead-based materials and was actually meant not as a beauty enhancer but to ward off eye infections. Eye infections were common in ancient Egypt because particles that became airborne when the Nile flooded would get into the eyes and cause inflammation. The lead-based makeup was toxic to the bacteria that caused those infections, so it did have a preventative effect, though that probably didn't balance out very well with the whole lead poisoning thing.

Cleopatra was pretty shrewd, so she might have understood the medicinal properties of the kohl, but most Egyptians thought it was magic. Either way, it seems pretty scary to line your eyes with lead-based metals, but ancient Egyptians also liked to pull the brains out of dead bodies with an iron hook and put their guts in canopic jars, so on a scale of 1 to weird, lead-based eye makeup doesn't even register.

She and Mark Antony had their own drinking club

Cleopatra was smart, shrewd, capable, and also kind of a party animal. But you probably would be too, if you had absolute power and Roman general Mark Antony was your boyfriend.

As it turns out, Cleopatra and Antony (who was Cleopatra's lover after the death of Caesar and after the "totally accidental" deaths of her two brother-husbands) weren't so preoccupied by matters of state that they made no time for fun, just as college fraternities are never so preoccupied by midterms that they make no time for keg parties and passing out in puddles of their own vomit. Cleopatra and Antony even formed their own drinking club, which they named "Inimitable Livers." Of course, the English translation of that name could mean a couple of things. Maybe "unsurpassed love of life" or maybe "unsurpassed damage to the toxin-filtering organ inside all human bodies." (Probably the first one, but the second one is more fun.)

Anyway, according to Food and Wine (and they would know), Inimitable Livers was officially dedicated to Dionysus, the god of wine. Unofficially, it was an excuse to have keg parties and pass out in puddles vomit. The club threw nightly "feasts and wine-binges," and then afterward Antony and Cleopatra would wander around the city in a state of drunken giddiness and play pranks on common Alexandrians. For shame. Modern politicians would never, ever behave like that. 

She owned a perfume factory

We've already established that Cleopatra was interested in alchemy, but she also understood a bit of actual chemistry. She believed in the power of fragrance not just as a cosmetic but also as a tool of persuasion. According to Perfume Power, Cleopatra doused her ship's sails with perfume before sailing to her first rendezvous with Mark Antony to make sure that he smelled her before he saw her. She also owned a perfume factory, which sort of seems like an odd side job for a queen, but if you just can't find the sort of mind-control fragrances you need at the Macy's perfume counter, there's probably some value in just having it done at your own factory.

The ruins of Cleopatra's perfume factory are by the Dead Sea near Ein Gedi, and there is evidence that it also operated as a sort of day spa — some seating remains, which is reminiscent of the chairs you might sit in to have your nails done or if you, too, wanted to be doused with mind-control fragrances. Cleopatra even had her perfume recipes recorded in a book called Gynaeciarum Libri, which has unfortunately been lost, perhaps perishing in the fire at the Library of Alexandria.

Cleopatra once spent the modern equivalent of $20 million on a cocktail

It's kind of obnoxious when the uber-rich sail past impoverished fishing villages in their $100 million yachts, but at least no one has ever sunk one on purpose just because they can. (Let's hope.) Cleopatra, on the other hand, was not at all fussed about throwing her money away (or more accurately, dissolving it) to prove a point.

According to legend, Cleopatra once bet Mark Antony that she could blow 10 million sesterces on a single meal — that's roughly the equivalent of $10 million to $20 million in today's money. She then requested a modest meal, and afterward had her servants bring her a cup of vinegar. Then, according to NBC, she took off one of her earrings, removed the pearl, dropped it in the vinegar, and watched it dissolve. Then she drank the cup of vinegar, thus proving that she would do just about anything to win a bet.

Pliny the Elder said the pearl was "the largest in the whole of history," and a "remarkable and truly unique work of nature," but who knows how much they paid him to write that. Modern historians were more skeptical of the science until someone finally tested the theory with actual vinegar and an actual pearl. The test confirmed that vinegar does, in fact, dissolve the calcium carbonate in a pearl, but it would have likely taken longer than a day for the entire pearl to disappear. But still plausible, in a sinking-your-own-yacht kind of a way.

She convinced Egypt she was the reincarnation of the goddess Isis

Most ancient rulers saw themselves as divine, even godlike. Some of today's rulers do, too, so we shouldn't judge too harshly. For Cleopatra, the whole ruler-as-divine thing was part ego, part public relations genius.

According to scholar Elizabeth A. McCabe, Cleopatra called herself "the new Isis," telling her subjects she was the embodiment of Isis on Earth, or the reincarnation of the goddess. Not to be left out, Mark Antony also claimed to be the embodiment of Osiris on Earth. Remember the whole Isis marries her brother Osiris thing? There you go.

Now, that's not to say that Cleopatra was very dedicated to the whole Isis thing. Prior to that she was known to play whichever goddess happened to suit her. When she sailed to that first meeting with Mark Antony on her perfumed barge, she was dressed as the goddess Venus and was waited on by young boys dressed as Cupids and maids dressed as sea nymphs. Antony was enamored, but those were different times. Imagine if the person you met on showed up for your first date on a perfumed barge dressed as a Greek deity. You'd probably hastily finish your cocktail and sneak out the bathroom window.

She might not have died from a snake bite

One of Cleopatra's most enduring legends has to do not with her life but with her death. According to the story, when Cleopatra learned her forces had been defeated by Octavian, who would become the first emperor of Rome, she calmly wrote a suicide note, handed it over to a guard, and then killed herself by holding a venomous snake to her breast.

Because historians like to debate things, no one really definitively accepts this account of Cleopatra's death. Sure, it's kind of a cool way to go, but there are some problems with it. For a start, the story indicates that it only took a few minutes for her to die, but the venom of that particular kind of Egyptian snake actually takes a few hours to work, and is even occasionally survivable.

According to the Smithsonian, most historians do agree Cleopatra's death was a suicide, but the method isn't clear. It's possible she simply drank a vial of poison, but that story just isn't as dramatic, which is probably why today most people still think it was a snake.

She was the last Egyptian pharaoh

The whole fratricide thing excluded, Cleopatra had mostly good intentions for the nation she ruled. According to ThoughtCo, she wanted Egypt to remain an independent state, and most of what she did (except maybe the drinking club and the thing with the pearl) was to that end. Unfortunately her dreams of a free Egypt died with her — after her suicide in the summer of 30 B.C., Octavian seized control of Egypt and made it a province of Rome, ending the era of the Egyptian pharaohs.

It was a while before Cleopatra was remembered fondly by anyone but her own people — the Romans undertook what could only be called a smear campaign, painting her as a harlot who seduced her way to power and practiced witchcraft in order to bring powerful men under her control. Even a couple hundred years later, poets were remembering her as "the shame of Egypt" and "the bane of Rome," which probably suited the male-dominated Roman leadership just fine.

Try not to feel too bad for her, though. Cleopatra reigned for more than 20 years and had great success as a leader, enjoyed a life of luxury, and died on her own terms. Plus, she had that whole drinking club thing to help her pass the time. Things could have been a lot worse.