By using her total wit and charm, Cleopatra became known as one of the most revered rulers of Egypt. Hollywood eventually transformed her story into a major film, but how accurate really was it?
The Truth Behind Cleopatra
Although the producers of the 1963 film tried to stay as faithful as possible to the true story behind Cleopatra, there were some storylines that were vamped up a little for Hollywood's sake.
The most surprising and common misconception was that the real Cleopatra was in fact Greek, not Egyptian. The crowned queen's family's origins traced back to the Ptolemaic dynasty, a family of Macedonian Greek origins. In fact, the Ptolemies only spoke Greek and were in power for almost three hundred years!
Cleopatra the Philospher
Although she is often remembered for her exquisite and vibrant features, Cleopatra was much more than just a beautiful face! Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator, or simply just Cleopatra, was extremely educated and spoke around a dozen different languages.
A poet from the 9th century, Al Masoudi, later explained that Cleopatra had written multiple books about medicine and other scientific subjects. Even though Roman literature wrote the Queen of the Ptolemaic Kingdom as a gorgeous temptress, Arabic propaganda described her as a significant ruler that watched over and protected Egypt.
A Powerlful Naval Commander
The Egyptian queen was not only a brilliant political leader and philosopher, but she was also a strategic naval commander dedicated to fighting on behalf of her people. Cleopatra worked alongside Mark Antony to fight against Antony's rival, Octavian.
Octavian commanded the Roman Senate to declare war on Antony in 32 B.C. Together, Antony and Cleopatra together ordered their ships against the Roman navy, and she personally reigned over a few dozen Egyptian warships beside Mark Antony's fleet.
Cleopatra: A Life
Over a decade ago, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Stacy Schiff, released a biography on the Egyptian queen titled Cleopatra: A Life. In the book, Schiff argues that Cleopatra, we've been fed through Hollywood, is not actually who the queen really was.
Instead of portraying Cleopatra as the beautiful gossip queen, who fell victim to the men in her life, Schiff made sure to explain why history should view her as a strong political figure and strategic negotiator thousands of years ago. Schiff explains the complexities of what really happened instead of exaggerating her feminine stronghold.
Looking at the Real Cleopatra
So, according to Schiff, the famous 1963 Joseph L. Manikiewicz-directed film fell short of a few of the main themes and takeaways from the Queen of Egypt herself. Hollywood tends to glorify certain cultural phenomena and figures, but Schiff was certain to set the narrative straight.
Throughout the book, she explains why Cleopatra went down in history as "the snare, the delusion, the seductress," all while explaining how she stood strong as an intelligent philosopher and powerful leader. However, Hollywood seemed to have remembered her story a little bit differently…
Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra
Hollywood adapted her famous story based on the 1957 book The Life and Times of Cleopatra by Carlo Maria Franzero and historical knowledge from Appian, Suetonius, and Plutarch. The one and only Elizabeth Taylor took on the honorable role, and well, there was a whole lot going on BTS we didn't know about.
Production of Cleopatra began in London, but Elizabeth Taylor fell ill after some time due to the cold weather. The team picked up and moved to Rome, but the weather wasn't any better, and she was diagnosed with pneumonia. She refused to keep filming unless heating was installed on set in order to protect her health and all those around her.
There was a whole lot of buzz around the production of this film, especially seeing as though Hollywood superstar Elizabeth Taylor was cast as Cleopatra. However, Jacqui Chan, who played Lotos, reported there was "an awful lot of hanging out" on set, and the paparazzi wouldn't leave them alone.
"Every moment of filming was considered news," Chan told The Guardian. "It was bad for small-part players like me… I dread to think what it must have been like for Burton and Taylor," she added. Richard Burton played Mark Antony, Cleopatra's lover.
Writing and Rewriting
Of course, writing the script for the highly anticipated film would be a challenge, but George Cole said, "The production was in chaos." Cole, who was past as Flavius, recalls the movie director Joseph Mankiewicz, rewriting the script nightly and shooting it several days later, causing a huge mess.
Things weren't just out of sorts with the script either. The movie's makeup artist explained things were rocky for her as well. For example, she plastered a new beard on Cole every day instead of just having a fixed one ready for him because the actors liked to feel their faces move when they talked. However, Flavius was a deaf-mute man!
Complicated Love Affair
With Cleopatra and Mark Antony's relationship being one of the main attractions of the film, things got a little tricky for the cast and crew due to Taylor and Burton's tumultuous relationship. Taylor and Burton got married in real life in 1964 and were married twice in 12 years.
The couple began their love affair on the movie set while they were both married to other people, causing major disruptions. At some point during filming, they could barely stand to be around each other, so the director had to plan alternative shooting schedules based on if the stars were on good terms with each other that day or not.
Working With Burton
Despite their complex relationship, Taylor was still polite and cordial to everyone on set. George Cole said that even though she could be a bit of a diva, she was still "very pleasant with a good sense of humor." However, Burton didn't uphold the same friendly mannerisms on set.
Unlike Taylor, Burton had a different reputation on set. According to Cole, Burton would often complain on set and, in one instance, was "horrible" to a donkey that was on set because it "misbehaved." And as it turned out, Burton wasn't the only unruly cast member.
In addition to Richard Burton cultivating a lousy rep on set, Rex Harrison, too, could have had a better attitude. In an interview with The Guardian, George Cole said he doesn't have the best memories from working on Cleopatra "because of the difficult personalities." Ouch.
According to Cole, Rex Harrison, who played Julius Caesar, was absolutely "horrible." Harrison became known as the cast's bully, and each time would choose a new victim to prey on. Cole later explained that he felt completely disrespected by his castmate.
Turning Two Movies Into One
Despite becoming the biggest box office success of 1963 and making around $58 million, the idea at first was to split the film into two separate movies. The original concept was to have one movie based on Caesar and Cleopatra while the other a sequel featuring Antony and Cleopatra.
However, the studio believed Burton and Taylor's relationship would be a good way to promote the movie, so they combined the two films into one. The strange mash-up film had two different storylines clumped into one, with an intermission in the middle, after being cut down from six hours to three.
Suffering From Overdoses
Things were rocky on set and, at times, went far and beyond what anyone signed up for. Taylor and Burton's relationship was intense, and people were concerned for their well-being when they were together. When filming began, Richard Burton was already known as being quite the drinker, but it was Taylor who people were concerned about.
Eventually, Taylor, too, became a heavy drinker and soon became addicted to pills as well and, unfortunately, suffered from two overdoses while she was filming. On top of all of that, reports stated that the actress was sent to the hospital after being beaten up by her partner.
Pulling in Audiences
The on-set drama between Taylor and Burton very quickly made public news through the tabloids. People were beyond curious and invested in their complicated love affair, which would eventually attract people to the theaters. Cleopatra earned around $484 million in today's terms.
According to one film critic, the film did so well because of Elizabeth Taylor, who "nearly died, won an Oscar, dumped her husband, incited a worldwide scandal, and made Richard Burton a household name. That sells tickets no matter how turgid the movie."
Taylor and Burton's Affair
Burton and Taylor's relationship was the talk of the town! Both actors were married at the time they began their affair, which made it even more scandalous! At the time, Taylor was married to her fourth husband, Eddie Fisher, who eventually learned of the affair when he was on the phone with Burton, who confessed everything.
Per Vanity Fair, Fisher called Taylor, and Burton was the one who picked up the phone. When Fisher asked, "What are you doing in my house?" Burton's responded plain and simple, "What do you think I'm doing? I'm f****** your wife." Burton and Taylor got married for the first time in 1964.
Million Dollar Actress
Taylor knew her worth and was determined to make the world know it as well. "If someone is dumb enough to offer me a million dollars to make a picture, I'm certainly not dumb enough to turn it down," she said in response to her million-dollar payday! She also requested that studios buy her elaborate gifts whenever she headlined films.
Elizabeth Taylor began her career as a child actress in the '40s and soon became one of the most admired stars in Hollywood. For her role as Cleopatra, Taylor made history as the first-ever female actor to be paid $1 million, which was completely unheard of at the time.
A Financial Disaster
Despite Cleopatra being the highest-grossing film of 1963, the studio was still struggling financially. The movie cost around $44 million (around $350 million today) to make and was considered the most expensive to have ever been made at that point. With such a high budget, the studio needed to make more money back to succeed financially.
The expensive production shut down 20th Century Fox temporarily, bringing them near bankruptcy, while more than 2,000 workers lost their jobs. However, a year and a half later, the studio released the now classic film, The Sound of Music, and 20th Century Fox was saved!
Not Allowed in Egypt
Believe it or not, Cleopatra was not filmed in Egypt! According to a paper from 1962, "Elizabeth Taylor has been barred from entering Egypt and, as a result, the film, Cleopatra, was practically completed in Rome except for Egyptian location shots that may have to be finished in some other country."'
But what exactly was the reason behind this? One of Egypt's top officials, who held a significant position in Cairo at the time, explained that Elizabeth Taylor was not permitted to enter Egypt due to political reasons and personal beliefs and affiliations.
Loved by All
So how much of the real Cleopatra did Hollywood get, right? They were on the cusp but, of course, had to exaggerate and change a few things for the cameras. There are tons of myths about the Queen of Egypt, specifically that she was beautiful. However, there isn't much out there that supports this theory!
However, she was described as having a "mellifluous speaking voice" and being inarguably charming! There is not as much evidence that explains that she was as beautiful as people say, but there is plenty that speaks to her undeniably lovable personality and ability to pull people in!
A Dedicated Patriot
Besides being able to speak Greek, the language of the Ptolemaic dynasty, Cleopatra learned she knew how to speak neighboring countries' languages and even the native language of Coptic. As queen, she celebrated all the local traditions, including holidays and clothing.
She was considered widely loved by the Egyptian people, even though she was not originally of Egyptian heritage. Different from those before her, Cleopatra was intelligent enough to know that having a positive relationship with the people she ruled over would be beneficial to her in the grand scheme of things.
Marrying Her Brother
During Cleopatra's reign, it was ordered that pharaohs in Egypt must rule in pair. So, for every ruler, there would have to be a co-ruler of the opposite sex. Historians recorded that the Egyptian queen once ruled with her father, Ptolemy XII, for a bit before he died in 51 B.C.
Following his death, there were some major surprises found in his will. The document stated that she had to marry her younger brother, and apparently, they did not like each other. In fact, her brother called upon Julius Caesar to assist him in taking all the power from his sister-turned-wife.
Don’t Mess With the Queen
However, the joke was on him in the end! Caesar and Cleopatra actually ended up falling in love with one another, and eventually, he drowned at the Battle of the Nile. Following Cleopatra's latest husband's death, she was instructed to marry another one of her brothers.
That marriage did last too long, though, as he passed away due to "mysterious reasons." Historians believed that she might have poisoned him. And lastly, the Egyptian queen had her sister Arsinoe killed after she attempted to overthrow her powerful position.
Clearly, the brilliant Cleopatra was fully aware of what she was doing! When Mark Antony, Cleopatra's Roman lover, took his life after losing his military power, the queen of Egypt was mortified. In response, she decided to take her own life as well.
Some believe that she commanded one of her servants to bring her a poisonous snake, presumably an asp, that she would keep near her and eventually bite her. However, historians don't have much evidence to back this theory up and might have committed suicide with a few drops of poison instead.
Cleopatra's Classic Eye Makeup
Let's talk about the famous eye makeup for a second. There are barely any images or paintings of Cleopatra that don't show off her signature black-liner look. However, historians say her makeup had nothing to do with making her look more beautiful. So what was it?
The captivating eyeliner actually had to do with keeping herself protected from eye infections! At the time, eye infections were extremely common in Egypt due to the polluted Nile River, so the Egyptian queen's makeup, made up of lead-based materials, fought against the bacteria in the water.
The Inimitable Livers Club
Cleopatra took a new lover, Mark Antony, right after Caesar and her two brothers turned husbands suddenly died, and together, they knew how to have a good time. They began their very own drinking club, known as the "Inimitable Livers." The translation could refer to someone's life or an internal organ.
Historians believe that the drinking club was formally dedicated to the god of wine, Dionysus, and informally an excuse to have a good time. Together they hosted many "feasts and wine-binges" where Cleopatra and Antony paraded around drunk and having a good time.
Apparently, the Egyptian queen was fascinated by chemistry and alchemy, so she created her own perfume! Cleopatra adamantly believed in the power of scent and the way she could use it to lure people in. Now that is how an intelligent queen thinks!
The ruins of Cleopatra's perfume factory are now dispersed by the Dead Sea in Israel, with evidence that the perfume factory is now used as some version of a spa. Apparently, she recorded all her perfume recipes in a book titled Gynaeciarum Libri, which unfortunately perished during a fire.
Clearly, the queen of Egypt didn't mind throwing down millions! It only makes sense if you are Cleopatra that you have access to the big bucks. One old legend said that the Egyptian queen once bet Mark Antony that she could spend 10 million sesterces in one single meal.
For reference, $10 million sesterces are equivalent to about $20 million today. Legend has it that she asked one of her servants to bring her a standard meal with a cup of vinegar beside it. She proceeded to take off one of her pearl earrings, drop it in the cup and watch it dissolve.
A Truly Special Work of Nature
Now that's one way to make a point! Cleopatra drank the cup of vinegar in order to show that she would go to any extremes to make a point. It was later reported that the pearl she drank was "the largest in the whole history" and was a "remarkable and truly special work of nature."
On the other hand, modern historians felt skeptical of the story, so they decided to test it themselves. The test proved that vinegar does dissolve the calcium carbonate in a pearl; however, it wouldn't have dissolved right away and instead would take more than 24 hours.
A Reincarnated Goddess
At the time, a lot of rulers viewed themselves as godlike or divine creatures that were reincarnated. Cleopatra herself used to call herself "the new Isis." Isis was known as the goddess of health, fertility, and magic and known as the Queen of the Gods and the Mother of Pharaohs.
According to the scholar Elizabeth A. McCabe, Cleopatra would announce herself as the reincarnated Isis, but apparently, she was known for taking on other goddesses as well, whichever she wanted at the time. Mark Antony, too, claimed to be a god, specifically Osiris, Lord of Death and Rebirth.
The Phenomenal Cleopatra
Cleopatra is remembered for having good intentions for Egypt and for being beloved by all those around her. However, after her death, her hopes for a free Egypt died with her, following her death in 30 B.C. Octavian took over Egypt and turned it into a province of Rome, and that was the end of Egyptian pharaohs.
For some time after death, poets and writers called her "the shame of Egypt," while the Romans viewed her as a harlot who seduced others to get to the top. However, as the years went on, it was clear that during her two decades of reigning, she was one of the most brilliant and humane figures in all of history.