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The Her-story of Cleopatra

Updated: Jul 26, 2022

Throughout history, stories of women rising to heights of greatness are far and few in between. So much so that many people can rattle off a handful of prominent women from ancient history to the last two centuries but would be hard-pressed to name ten presidents of the United States. One of the names that most people should have on their list of “Notable Women of History” is Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen who went toe-to-toe with the Roman Empire and almost won.

“Cleopatra” John William Waterhouse, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Born Cleopatra VII Philopater, she was one of five children born to Ptolemy XII. Her family was part of the Ptolemaic Dynasty which was established by companions of Alexander the Great. Contrary to popular belief, Cleopatra was not an indigenous Egyptian; she was of Macedonian descent, as was much of the ruling class of Egypt at that time. By all accounts, she was highly educated, was the first Ptolemy to learn the native Egyptian language, and was reputed to be comfortably fluent in seven additional languages. As a side note, it’s intriguing to think in the 275 years that the Ptolemaic dynasty lasted Cleopatra was one of the only rulers who took the effort to learn the language of the people she ruled.

Cleopatra and her siblings would be the last generation of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. It didn’t help their chances of survival that the political climate at the time was punctuated with extensive unrest, civil war, and brutality. In the span of nine years, Cleopatra was exiled, reestablished as a co-ruler, fell from power and was exiled again, and then ascended yet again, in what seemed like an endless roller coaster of victory and defeat. By the end of the decade, three of her siblings had died from execution, accident, and/or assassination. Oh, and her sole surviving sister, Arsinoë, was exiled for trying to overthrow her. Cleopatra was also down three husbands at this point: formally both of her younger brothers and informally Cesar. Her last relationship, with Marc Antony, ended disastrously and was fraught with missteps, betrayals, and a spectacularly dogged third wheel called Gaius Octavius.

Throughout her time as a ruler, Cleopatra’s dream was to create an independent, unified Egyptian Empire by reclaiming ancient territories that had been lost and bringing together the surrounding kingdoms of northern Africa under Ptolemaic rule. An ambitious goal for anyone, especially when it meant defying the largest empire in the known world, as a woman. And though she did not succeed, she remained a thorn in the side of the Roman empire for years before her downfall.

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, in “Cleopatra” (1963).

Cleopatra was a cunning orator, a master of public relations, and, unbeknownst to most, an avid toxicologist. In fact, her love of toxins and poisons was so enthusiastic that Marc Antony was reputed to refuse to eat or drink anything served by her without seeing her sample it first. It’s a side of Cleopatra that, like many others, clashes with the narrative of a pitiably star-crossed queen with a pretty face and an intense libido.

Cleopatra’s modern-day legacy hinges more on her sex appeal and cosmetics than on anything else. Legend says that she took daily milk (or buttermilk, depending on the source) and honey baths regularly to maintain her beauty and that her skincare routine was, in a word, extreme. There is an irony in that legacy. Namely that the exaggerated reports of her beauty were actually part of a Roman smear campaign, aimed at painting her as some sort of political succubus. After all, how else would this woman be able to achieve such spectacular political feats without the aid of a pretty face? Or so most Romans thought. Historians widely agree (and surviving depictions of her support) that Cleopatra was fairly homely, and that it was her wit that won over friends and foes alike.

Sailko, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. A bust popularly called “The Berlin Cleopatra” is widely held to be an accurate depiction of Cleopatra.

Our flagship product line, The Jewel of the Nile, pays homage to four female rulers from ancient Egypt, including Cleopatra (which you can find HERE). With a nod to the legend of her milk baths, the highlight ingredients chosen are ones that were widely available and widely used at the time of Cleopatra’s reign (either medicinally or culinarily), as well as ones that would enhance the skin benefits derived from the use of goat milk and honey. (Note from Mack: We decided to leave out the toxins and poisons. Figured they would be bad for business.) Happily, we don’t have to import our highlight ingredients all the way from Egypt- in fact, most of them are sourced very close to home!

  • Althaea officinalis – Marshmallow : The Ferals (Bucks County, PA)

  • Avena sativa – Oats : Morganics Family Farm (Hillsborough Township, NJ)

  • Calendula officinalis – Calendula : The Ferals (Bucks County, PA)

  • Goat Milk : Shellbark Hollow Farm (Honey Brook, PA)

  • Mel – Honey : Swarmbustin’ Honey (West Grove, PA)

  • Matricaria chamomilla – Chamomile : The Ferals (Bucks County, PA)

  • Urtica dioica – Stinging Nettle : Wild harvested, The Ferals (Bucks County, PA)

Formulated for sensitive skin types, our Cleopatra products prove that you can have it all! Fun skin preparations that are gentle on your skin!

There is one particularly lovely ingredient that is not on-theme for an Egyptian product, but is undoubtedly one of our favorites- sunflower seed oil! Much like Cleopatra, sunflowers exist in a wondrous state of misinformation, shrouding their strengths, and highlighting their beauty. Be sure to stop by on Wednesday to meet the glorious sunflower!

Do you have a favorite fun fact about Cleopatra? Let us know in the comments!

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