Cleopatra the Alchemist – 3rd Century – Alexandria, Egypt

Ancient Egypt, Egypt



We do not know this woman’s real name, as ‘Cleopatra’ is assumed to be a pseudonym for a woman alchemist and philosopher who authored a number of alchemical texts.

She lived in Egypt and is associated with the same school of alchemy as Maria Prophetissima. Like Maria, Cleopatra’s work was concerned mostly with transforming substances through the processes of distillation and sublimation.

Three texts on alchemy are attributed to Cleopatra:

  • Εκ των Κλεοπατρας περι μετρων και σταθμων. (On Weights and Measures)
  • Κλεοπατρης χρυσοποια (Chrysopeoeia of Cleopatra)
  • Διαλογος φιλοσοφων και κλεοπατρας (A Dialogue of Cleopatra and the Philosophers)

The most famous of these texts is the Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra which is a sheet of papyrus illustrated with symbols for gold making, assumed to be drawn by Cleopatra herself.

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The drawings include an ouroboros (a snake eating itself), an ancient symbol which represents eternity. The text describes the ouroboros as follows:

“One is the Serpent which has its poison according to two compositions, and One is All and through it is All, and by it is All, and if you have not All, All is Nothing.”

There is also a diagram of a dibikos, (an alchemical tool for distillation) and several images of stars and crescents.


Not to be confused with Cleopatra VII, the last pharaoh of Egypt.


Hypatia’s Heritage. A History of Women in Science from Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century – Margaret Alic

Women in Science: Antiquity Through the Nineteenth Century – Marilyn Bailey Ogilvie

On Wikipedia:


Game of Thrones: Rebel Queens

TV and Film

HBO’s adaption of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire has been met with enormous critical acclaim, scooping up numerous awards and winning an intensely dedicated fan base. Fans of the show love the complex story lines, impressive character and world building and of course the rampant sex and violence.

Another reason to love the show is the wealth of strong and interesting roles for women. From the monstrous queen regent Cersei to wilding warrior maiden Ygritte, Game of Thrones showcases a diverse range of women navigating a feudal landscape.

Martin has made no secret about the fact that many of the plots and key figures were inspired by real historical events – particularly the Roman Empire and medieval Europe. The show has been compared to the English wars of the roses, the Hundred Years’ war and the crusades – but how do the women on the series compare to real rebel women?


Note: These comparisons are based on the characters as presented in the TV series Game of Thrones and may differ from the book series A Song of Ice and Fire.

First up – the Queens of Game of Thrones:

Cersei Lannister-Baratheon vs. Margaret of Anjou and Elizabeth Woodville

One of the simplest and most prevalent comparisons, Cersei Lannister typifies the circumstances of many medieval queens. Used as a political pawn, her marriage to Robert Baratheon before the beginning of the series formed an alliance which effectively ended a civil war. When her husband dies, she devotes herself tirelessly to ensuring that her sons maintain the monarchy – and that she remains the power behind the iron throne.

Margaret of Anjou – Passionate, proud, strong willed

Royal 15 E VI  f. 2v  Presentation scene

Margaret of Anjou (source)

Margaret of Anjou was a key player in the wars of the roses and figurehead for the Lancastrian faction. French born, she was married to King Henry VI of England and often ruled in his place due to his mental illness. Contemporaries described her as ‘passionate and proud and strong-willed’ – which was fortunate, because her husband was not.

It is also worth mentioning that Margaret of Anjou’s son, Edward of Lancaster, was described as being particularly cruel and bloodthirsty, talking of ‘nothing but cutting off heads and making war, as if he had everything in his hands or was the god of battle…’ – when he was only thirteen years old…

Elizabeth Woodville – The White Queen

Elizabeth Woodville was a famous beauty who married king Edward IV when he was fresh from his victory over the Lancastrian faction. The Woodville family became hugely influential within the royal court thanks to a number of tactical marriages and Elizabeth had a total of ten children with Edward – impressive, considering that he (like Baratheon) was not well known for his fidelity.


Elizabeth Woodville (source)

When Edward IV died, Elizabeth’s son was a child, but she did not have anywhere near as much power as Cersei. Her two eldest boys by Edward IV (known as the princes in the tower) were reportedly murdered by their Uncle to prevent them ever succeeding to the throne, and the wars of the Roses raged on.

Elizabeth did contribute to ending the feud – she and Margaret Beaufort conspired to have their children (Elizabeth York and Henry Tudor, respectively) marry, effectively uniting the two houses for good.

Daenerys Targaryen vs. Cleopatra, Zenobia and Mavia

Fan favourite Daenerys’ plotline is one of the most fantastical on the show. Living in exile (initially with her elder brother) she is the last in the line of previously reigning monarchs. The Targaryen family have a history of intermarriage and madness, but Dany seems to have escaped the family curse and (after her brother is executed) really comes into her own.

She makes a few politically shrewd alliances with some very influential men who only serve to increase her own power. Along the way to reclaim the iron throne Daenerys conquers various city states, gathering support.

Cleopatra – The Last Pharaoh


Lilli Langtree as Cleopatra (source)

Cleopatra VII is one of the most obvious influences when it comes to Daenarys – particularly when comparing their family backgrounds. The Ptolemies of ancient Egypt were notorious for ‘keeping it in the family’ and intermarrying to protect the throne. This tactic was as frequently disastrous for them as it was for the Taraegryens.

Like Dany, Cleopatra also lived in exile in the desert for some time, until she was placed back on the throne by Julius Caesar (here there is some parallel with Jorah Mormont). Cleopatra had more autonomy than Daenerys earlier in her life and had not only both of her brothers killed, but her sister too. Not content to rule Egypt alone, Cleopatra attempted to expand her political reach by connecting herself with two prominent Romans – first Julius Caesar, then Marc Antony.

Fans can only hope that Daenarys does not meet the same tragic end as Cleopatra – but of course the queen of the Nile didn’t have dragons.

Zenobia – Enemy of Rome

Zenobia, like Daenarys, began her political life as a client queen, considered harmless by


Queen Zenobia’s last look upon Palmyra by Herbert Schmalz (source)

the Roman Empire. When she began to exhibit more aggressive traits, expanding her borders and moving in on Egypt, Rome was distracted by its own internal problems (much like the civil war in Westeros) and did not act until it was almost too late.

Zenobia ruled Egypt for four years before Rome gathered the strength to take it back, and the warrior queen was taken back to Italy in chains – what happened to her next is unknown, so there is still some hope for Daenerys.

Mavia – The Warrior Queen

Another desert dwelling rebel queen was Mavia, a skilled warrior who ruled over a confederation of Arab tribes who were particularly skilled at combat on horseback (not unlike the Dothraki). Mavia also managed to capture Egypt from the Romans – and achieved what Zenobia and Cleopatra could not.

This queen’s forces were so powerful and defeated the Roman army so many times that in the end the emperor was forced to sign a treaty in her favour.

Margaery Tyrell-Baratheon vs. Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn

Margaery’s plotline also exemplifies the trajectory of many medieval queens. First betrothed to Renly Baratheon, she is shown as being politically astute when she must quickly reassess her allegiances after his death. Margery swiftly switches sides, using her family’s wealth as leverage.

Her second choice, Joffrey, also dies within hours of their wedding ceremony. Not to be deterred, Margaery simply remarries Joffrey’s younger, milder mannered brother, Tommen. Clever, cunning and a good match for mother-in-law from hell Cersei, Margaery


Catherine of Aragon (source)

is regularly shown using her beauty and sexuality to get what she wants.

Catherine of Aragon – The Spanish Princess

Catherine of Aragon also had a rocky start to married life. The Spanish princess travelled to England to marry heir to the throne Arthur. After a brief honeymoon period, the teenage prince suddenly died. In an attempt to protect the alliance their marriage provided, Catherine was then married to Arthur’s younger brother, Henry VIII.

As with Margaery and Tommen, Catherine and Henry had an age difference of six years. Early in the marriage Henry was described as being infatuated with his queen and she was well liked by the English people. However, it was not to last…

Anne Boleyn – Mistress to Queen

Which brings us to Anne Boleyn; ironically Catherine of Aragon’s greatest enemy also


Anne Boleyn (source)

bears a resemblance to Margaery. A woman who famously used sex and sensuality to win the favour of the king, Anne was also a highly intelligent woman who kept her eyes on the prize.

Balancing a flirtatious and fun exterior with her world class education and cunning, Anne Boleyn is often perceived as cold-hearted in her pursuit of the throne – which of course was eventually her downfall.

Next: Game of Thrones – Warrior Women. How do Arya, Brienne and Ygritte match up to their historical counterparts?

Cleopatra VII – 69 BCE – 30 BCE – Alexandria, Egypt

Ancient Egypt


Kleopatra VII Philopator, known commonly as ‘Cleopatra’, is perhaps the most well-known woman so far in this project, and one of the most famous figures in history.

Though she was not the first woman to rule Egypt (see Merneith, Sobekneferu, Hatshepsut, Nefertiti and Tausret), she was the last active pharaoh (only very briefly survived by her son) of Egypt as an independent country.

Cleopatra’s reputation precedes her. Thanks to hundreds of paintings, plays, operas, novels and films, the story of the ‘Queen of the Nile’ continues to be shared worldwide. She is remembered by turns as a great beauty, a seductress, a tragic lover, a passionate ruler and a cold, calculated femme fatale.

* * * * *

Born in 69 BCE, Cleopatra was a Ptolemy; a Macedonian Greek family who had ruled Egypt for three hundred years and could trace their lineage back to Ptolemy Soter, General to Alexander the Great. (See other Ptolemies in this project: Arsinoë II, Bilistiche, Arsinoë III, Cleopatra II).

The Ptolemaic dynasty was marked by corruption and power struggles. Before she was even fourteen years old, Cleopatra had seen both of her elder sisters, Cleopatra VI and Berenice overthrow their father – both were killed; one executed, one found dead in suspicious circumstances.


Ptolemaic princess, thought to be Cleopatra VII

Now the eldest living daughter, the teenage Cleopatra was elevated to co-regent beside her father.

Her father, Ptolemy XII Auletes died when she was eighteen. As was tradition, Cleopatra married her younger brother, ten year old Ptolemy XIII, with whom she became joint ruler. It was clear that this arrangement was not a happy one. To assert her authority over her brother Cleopatra withdrew Ptolemy’s name from official documents and issued coins which showed only her face.

This sole reign caused uproar among certain factions in the royal court, and in 48 BCE Cleopatra was chased out of Egypt along with her younger sister, Arsinoë.

Cleopatra was not without supporters. An intelligent young woman with a

Cleopatra VII as the goddess Isis

Cleopatra VII as the goddess Isis

political mind, she was the first Ptolemy ruler who bothered to learn the Egyptian language. (In fact, including her mother-tongue, Greek, Cleopatra spoke nine languages fluently, making her very popular with foreign diplomats as she rarely needed an interpreter). She also fully embraced the religion of Egypt like no Ptolemy before her, presenting herself as a reincarnation of the goddess Isis.

During Cleopatra’s exile, her thirteen year old brother-husband made a very powerful enemy. Julius Caesar had been at civil war with his General and co-ruler Pompey. When Pompey fled to Alexandria to seek sanctuary, the young pharaoh had him beheaded as he watched from a throne in the Alexandrian harbor.

Hoping that the execution would win him favor with Rome, Ptolemy cheerfully presented Caesar with the head of his enemy when the dictator arrived in Alexandria two days later. Caesar was furious. Though they had been political rivals, Pompey was a Roman consul and the widower of Caesar’s only legitimate daughter, Julia. Caesar seized the Egyptian capital and imposed himself as arbiter between the rival claims of Ptolemy and Cleopatra.

At this point, Cleopatra famously had herself smuggled back into Alexandria – many stories describe her being rolled up in a carpet and carried to Julius Caesar’s bedroom by her servants. However she arrived, the twenty one year old queen quickly managed to charm the Roman ruler and the two became lovers.

Nine months later, Cleopatra gave birth to her first child, a boy she named Caesarion (little Caesar) and Julius Caesar sent his army after Ptolemy. Ptolemy XIII drowned in the Nile and Cleopatra was married to her other brother, Ptolemy XIV with whom she became co-ruler.

Cleopatra VII presenting her son Caesarion at the Temple of Dendera

Cleopatra VII presenting her son Caesarion at the Temple of Dendera

The young queen travelled to Rome to visit Caesar with their son in the summer of 46 BCE. There she was invited to stay in one of Caesar’s luxury country houses, causing scandal as he was already married to Calpurnia Pisonis. The dictator had a golden statue of Cleopatra as Isis built and displayed in the Forum Julium, but he refused to acknowledge Caesarion as his heir, preferring instead his grandnephew Octavian.

Cleopatra was forced to return to Egypt with her family when Julius Caesar was assassinated in March 44 and Rome erupted in civil war. Soon after, Ptolemy XIV died – some say poisoned – and Cleopatra made Caesarion her co-regent and successor.

Three years later, Marc Antony arrived in Egypt.

Antony and Cleopatra by Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Antony and Cleopatra by Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Marc Antony had come to ask Cleopatra for Egypt’s allegiance as he prepared to fight the Parthians. She promised this and more as the two greatest political figures of their time came together and fell in love.

The queen had the Roman solider enthralled – she took him on an exotic pleasure cruise down the Nile, held lavish banquets and showed off her immense wealth.

In time, Cleopatra gave birth to Marc Antony’s twins – Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene. In return, Antony had Cleopatra’s younger sister and last remaining rival Arsinoë killed.

Four years passed before Antony returned to Alexandria. He had clearly missed Cleopatra because this time he stayed for good. Though he was still married to Octavian’s sister Octavia, he married Cleopatra in an Egyptian ceremony and they had a third child – Ptolemy Philadelphus.

Cleopatra VII and Marc Antony on their coins

Cleopatra VII and Marc Antony on their coins

When Antony conquered Armenia in 34 BCE, Cleopatra and Caesarion were crowned co-rulers of both Egypt and Cyrprus, and the other children were made rulers of Armenia, Media, Parthia, Curenaica, Libya, Phoenicia, Syria and Cicilia. Cleopatra became ‘Queen of Kings’ and Caesarion was declared a god king.

The people of Rome were not pleased. It looked as through Cleopatra and Antony were planning war, and Octavian decided to strike first. The battle of Actium took place in 31 BCE between the Roman and Egyptian naval forces. Egypt fell when Marc Antony’s armies defected and joined Octavian.

The details of what happened next are not clear, and differ depend on who is telling the story. We do know that both Marc Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide rather than face their defeat. Marc Antony probably fell on his sword, while Cleopatra famously allowed herself to be bitten by an asp (cobra).

The Death of Cleopatra by Reginald Arthur

The Death of Cleopatra by Reginald Arthur


Caesarion was proclaimed pharaoh by the Egyptians, but quickly killed by Octavian. The victorious Emperor returned to Rome triumphant with the three remaining children of Cleopatra and Marc Antony in chains.

Cleopatra’s death marked not only the end of the Ptolemaic dynasty, but the end of all Egyptian pharaohs. After her reign, Egypt became a province of the Roman Empire.

Cleopatra’s daughter, Cleopatra Selene, lived a long life and married Juba of Namidia, bringing a large dowry provided by Augustus. She and Juba went on to rule Mauretania. Their first son was named Ptolemy.

In fiction:

To this day, Cleopatra remains a popular figure in Western culture…

Sarah Bernhardt as Cleopatra, 1891

Sarah Bernhardt as Cleopatra, 1891

Lillie Langtry as Cleopatta 1891

Lillie Langtry as Cleopatra 1891

Gertrude Elliot Forbes-Robertson as Cleopatra, 1906

Gertrude Elliot Forbes-Robertson as Cleopatra, 1906

Theda Bara as Cleopatra 1912

Theda Bara as Cleopatra 1912

Helen Gardner as Cleopatra 1912

Helen Gardner as Cleopatra 1912

Russian dancer Mme Lubowska as Cleopatra, 1915

Russian dancer Mme Lubowska as Cleopatra, 1915

Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra 1934

Claudette Colbert as Cleopatra 1934

Vivienne Leigh as Cleopatra in 'Caesar and Cleopatra' 1945

Vivienne Leigh as Cleopatra in ‘Caesar and Cleopatra’ 1945

Sophia Loren as Cleopatra 1953

Sophia Loren as Cleopatra 1953

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, 1963

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra, 1963

A full list of depictions of Cleopatra VII on film can be found here.


Chronicle of the Queens of Egypt: From Early Dynastic Times to the Death of Cleopatra –Joyce Tyldesley

The Reign of Cleopatra Stanley Mayer Burstein

Cleopatra: A Life Stacy Schiff

Image credits:

Click here for the image credits for this post.

Cleopatra II – c.185 – 116 BCE – Alexandria, Ptolemaic Egypt

Ancient Egypt


The Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt was defined by infighting and incest as every member of the family battled fiercely for power and sole rule of the country.

Cleopatra II (not to be confused with Cleopatra VII) is a prime example of this turbulent era as a queen (and briefly sole ruler) who married two of her brothers, saw her daughter marry her Uncle and survived the murders of several of her children.


The young princess was married to her elder brother Ptolemy VI when she was 10. They had their first child together, Ptolemy Eupator when she was 19. He was followed by three sisters and a brother; Cleopatra Thea, Cleopatra III, Berenice and Ptolemy.

Cleopatra, her brother-husband and her second brother, Ptolemy Euergetes Physkon (Potbelly) ruled jointly together for seven years, until younger brother Potbelly deposed his siblings temporarily.

Ptolemy Eupator and his wife did regain power, but once Eupator died, Cleopatra wasted no time in remarrying immediately – this time to Potbelly.

By this time, Cleopatra II was 39, and while she did have a son with Potbelly – Ptolemy Memphites – the Pharaoh began to look elsewhere and married Cleopatra’s daughter, Cleopatra III, three years later.

Ptolemy family tree

The two Cleopatra’s and Potbelly attempted to share power for a little while – but this was not a happy family. In 131 BCE Cleopatra II led a rebellion against her husband-brother and her daughter, driving them out of Egypt.

In retaliation, Potbelly murdered both his stepson and his son by Cleopatra, had them dismembered and sent the parts to Cleopatra as a birthday present.

Cleopatra II’s rule lasted only three years, from 130 BCE to 127 BCE when she was forced to flee to Syria, to join her other daughter, Cleopatra Thea, and her son-in-law Demetrius II Nicator.

A public reconciliation of Cleopatra and Ptolemy VIII was declared in 124 BC. After this she ruled jointly with her brother and daughter until 116 BC when ‘Potbelly’ died, leaving the kingdom to Cleopatra III. Cleopatra II herself died shortly after.

Other Ptolemy women in this project are: Arsinoë IIArsinoë III, Bilistiche


Ptolemy VIII Euergetes was popularly known as “Physkōn“, meaning sausage, potbelly or bladder, due to his obesity.

In Fiction:

Played by Elizabeth Shepherd in the 1983 BBC drama ‘The Cleopatras’ (on youtube).


The House of Ptolemy E. R. Bevan

Encyclopedia of Women in the Ancient World Joyce E. Salisbury

On Wikipedia:

Image Credits:

Wall relief Kom Ombo15” by I, Rémih.

Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons

Ptolemy family tree – by myself