Bella Donna: Cleopatra


I thought you might enjoy a trip back in time for this week's Bella Donna. So we're going waaaay back to look at Cleopatra, the queen of Egypt. It's hard to think of another woman whose beauty has left such a lasting impression. Her intense, kohl-lined eyes continue to inspire modern-day designers such as Alexander McQueen, who used a strong Egyptian eye on models for his fall 2007 collection. The jury's out on whether Cleopatra was physically attractive, but an officially commissioned portrait of her (it's the coin in the gallery here) suggests that she wasn't necessarily the Angelina Jolie of her day.

Cleopatra had a short life, but it was a tumultuous one. Trust me, even if you yawn when you think about history, you'll love this stuff—it is filled with all sorts of sordid drama and is too juicy to pass up. As a child, Cleopatra's older sister tried to poison her (but wound up being killed herself). Miss Cleo's reign didn't begin so well: At 18, she was queen... and was also married to her 12-year-old brother, Ptolemy III. Bossy Cleopatra wanted to rule alone, so she started to leave her brother out of official documents and events. Surprise! This didn't go over so well, and Cleopatra was forced into exile. But then her brother made the kind of mistake that only 15-year-old boys can make. To get the whole story, read more

So, some background: The Roman Empire was embroiled in a civil war at the time. Ptolemy, Cleopatra's pimply teenage brother, had taken over as the king of Egypt. Now, he owed some money to Rome, so to please Julius Caesar, he thought, "Hey, I know! I'll have Caesar's opponent Pompey beheaded, and then I'll hand him the head as a gift, and he'll totally think I'm an ally!" (Like I said, only a teenage boy would think of this.) So Ptolemy was all, "Look what I have for you, Caesar! Ta-da! A severed head!"

Bad idea. Caesar flipped out because Pompey was the widower of his late daughter. Personalities before politics, that sort of thing. So Caesar took over Egypt, and when Cleopatra heard about this, she decided that it was time to return. She's said to have returned to the palace rolled up inside a Persian carpet, only to tumble out of it in front of Caesar. He loved it, they became lovers, and Cleopatra gave birth to a son, Caesarion, nine months later. Apparently this warmed Caesar's heart, because he decided that instead of taking Egypt for Rome, he'd acknowledge Cleopatra as the rightful ruler.

Ah, but another love affair was on its way. After Caesar died, Mark Antony summoned Cleopatra to talk about where her loyalty lay. So she shows up in a grand, over-the-top way—think Pimp My Ride, but for ancient times—and impresses him. Cue the love affair. Cue the heirs. Cue yet another war, during which Antony mistakenly heard that Cleopatra had committed suicide. So then he committed suicide. A few days later, Cleopatra heard the news of his death, and then she really did commit suicide. See? Lots of drama.

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