Who was Cleopatra VII? - A Guide for Primary Schools
Updated: Jun 20
Egyptian Pharaoh Cleopatra the 7th has been made famous through many Hollywood movies. But who was she really?
Hang on, is that Roman numerals for Cleopatra the 7th?!
Funnily enough, yes! The most famous Cleopatra, the one everyone knows of today, was actually the 7th in a line of Cleopatras. Cleo's mum was, probably, Cleopatra VI (6th) Tryphaena.
What does Cleopatra mean?
It means, roughly: 'glory of the father'. Clearly, Cleo's Dad (Ptolemy XII Auletes) was rather proud of his daughter.
Ohhh, you know a lot! Ok, how's this for a tricky question... how do you write Cleopatra in hieroglyphs?
Was she really as beautiful as everyone says?
When we think of Cleopatra today, we tend to imagine the image of Cleo seen in various films.
Here's Elizabeth Taylor as Cleo in the 1963 film 'Cleopatra':
Elizabeth Taylor is certainly beautiful but did the real Cleopatra look like this? Here's some coins from the era that might help us figure that out:
But perhaps the most useful relic to depict Cleopatra's appearance is this sculpture, made during her visit to Rome in 46 - 44BC:
What is beauty? The idea of beauty changes frequently throughout history. Would the inhabitants of Ancient Rome or Egypt have found Ariana Grande or Taylor Swift beautiful? Possibly not. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Either way, Cleopatra was thought of as intelligent and charming with a lovely voice. Roman Historian Cassius Dio wrote that she had, ‘a most delicious voice and a knowledge of how to make herself agreeable to everyone.” Whilst Greek Historian Plutarch said, "there was sweetness also in the tones of her voice; and her tongue, like an instrument of many strings, she could readily turn to whatever language she pleased."
Clearly, Cleopatra made quite the impression with everyone she met!
So, what did Cleopatra do?
She became the final Pharaoh of Egypt in 51 BC. She was exiled from her kingdom by her brother/husband (it's a long story, please don't ask me to explain) Ptolemy XIII (the 13th). Determined to reclaim her throne, Cleo teamed up with Julius Caesar and eventually overthrew her "broband". What happened to Ptolemy? He fell off his boat trying to escape and was drowned. Or eaten by a crocodile. Depends on how gory you like your history really.
Did Cleopatra really die from a snake bite?
The official answer is, maybe. After Julius Caesar's death, there was a power vacuum in Rome. Now, by this I don't mean that an evil giant Dyson hoover was rampaging through the city, sucking up everything in its path. I mean, with Caesar dead, lots of other people wanted to take over as leader. Cleo and her husband Marc Antony definitely wanted to be Rome's top dogs but were eventually defeated in battle by Caesar's ward, Octavian.
Antony committed suicide by stabbing himself in the stomach. Cleopatra's attempts to set fire to herself were foiled, however, and she was captured by Octavian. Later, after much shenanigans, Cleopatra killed herself with some sort of 'poison'.
People disagree about what sort of poison this was. Some claim Cleo was bitten by a snake, such as an asp or cobra. Others that she injected the poison or applied it with an ointment. No snake was found with her body, but two tiny puncture wounds were found on her arm. How do you think Cleo died? Be sure to have a look at the theories and the supporting evidence, then let us know over on Facebook or Twitter.
Bonus fact time! Did You know:
Cleopatra was not actually Egyptian, she was of Greek descent.
Want to learn even more about Cleopatra? Then you'll definitely want Imagining History to bring their 'Ancient Egypt: A Time Travel Tour' Interactive workshop to your school.
Our Award-Winning sessions combine role-play, storytelling, demonstrations and drama and performance to bring history to life for your students.