According to some sources, Cleopatra committed suicide on this day in 30 BC [On this day: August 30]. Other sources say it was August 12th and still others claim that it was on the last day in August.
The situation was serious. The armies of Mark Antony and Cleopatra has just deserted to Octavian and Antony had committed suicide. Cleopatra was a prisoner in Alexandria. She had no hope of escaping Octavian.
Legend has it that she died after being bitten by an asp but it wasn't the modern asp, Vipera aspis, since that snake is only found in Europe. It's likely that the Romans used the word "asp" to describe all poisonous snakes. If it's true that Cleopatra used a snake to commit suicide then it was most likely the Egyptian cobra Naja haje that did the deed [Cleopatra’s Asp].
Corba venom contains a number of toxins and enzymes. For the biochemist, it's most famous for the presence of phospholipase A2, an enzyme that cleaves glycerophospholipids, the main components of cell membranes. This leads to disruption and death of cells, especially red blood cells and lymphocytes in the blood stream. A picture of cobra venom phospholipase A2 bound to a lipid molecule (left) can be found in most biochemistry textbooks.
Hyaluronidase is an enzyme found in many snake venoms. It degrades hyaluronic acid, a complex carbohydrate of the sort found in many glycoproteins. Hyaluronic acid is an important component of cartilage where it forms a central strand for attachment of proteoglycan molecules. The breakdown of cartilage lining the blood vessels leads to massive hemorhaging. The combination of phospholipase A2 and hyaluronidase could eventually lead to death but it probably wasn't the immediate cause of death for Cleopatra. As it turns out, there are other things in the cobra venom that are even more lethal.
These other components of cobra venom include various cobra venom factors that interfere with the complement pathway leading to an extreme over-stimulation similar to that seen in septic shock. The venom also includes a number of neurotoxins that gain access to the central nervous system when blood vessels break down. The combination of all these proteins can cause death within minutes of receiving a cobra bite. However, many people survive cobra bites suggesting that the Cleopatra story may not be true.
I am looking at a marble bust of an ancient woman. Her profile looks like the “before” picture at a plastic surgeon’s office prior to a nose job, lip fillers and chin implant. Nothing strikingly attractive about her, yet this is Cleopatra, oft assumed to be the most beautiful woman the world has ever known.
Her beauty is a historical, if not accurate, theme. Shakespeare wrote of her in “Antony and Cleopatra,” “For her own person/it beggar’d all description: she did lie in her pavilion-cloth of gold, of tissue-O’er/picturing that Venus where we see/The fancy outwork of nature.”
Paintings of her likeness created in the 18th century depict her as a luscious blond with a curling mane and blue eyes (rather impossible given her Macedonian genes). Elizabeth Taylor played her and Angelina Jolie is slated to in an upcoming film as well. The Queen of Egypt represents beauty du jour.
There is nothing specifically documented about her physical allure in Roman writings and artistic depictions of her are rather masculine and homely. Plutarch, the Greek historian, wrote that Cleopatra’s beauty was not “the sort that would astound those that saw her.”
How did we, then, even come to assume she was this gorgeous creature floating the Nile on nothing but her golden looks?
I understand canning Jolie and throwing a wig on John Cleese would leave a weird taste in moviegoer’s popcorn coated mouths, but does Cleopatra need to be “beautiful” for us to believe she was not only a powerful ruler but also captivated the hearts of the powerful Julius Caesar and Mark Antony?
While poets who knew her did not mention her physical beauty (or lack thereof), they did give high accolades for her wit, intelligence and melodic voice. It was her character, her actual beauty, that captivated her kingdom. She didn’t need to rely on her physical appearance because she had so much more to offer.
Are you seeing the lesson here, ladies? Here is a woman who was a troll and had enough je ne sais quoi to seduce the world for over 2,000 years. She captivates us not because of her face, there are plenty of forgotten pretty faces, but because even in the first century she was a modern woman. She was powerful, brilliant, charming, charismatic, witty and by all accounts, not shy about her sexuality. Yet for all of her competence as a ruler, Cleopatra identified herself most with Isis, the goddess of life and magic — a goddess revered for her utter femininity.
No matter your generation or how much you spend on perfecting your façade, you need to reconnect with your inner Cleopatra. It is cliché, but looks do fade (or at least become buried under a maze of wrinkles and sun damage). It is cruel, but it is nature.
Who are you going to be when you are Age X? The person that says, “I used to look so good in a bikini before I had three kids…I used to…I used to…hey, where did everyone go?”
Or are you the Cleopatra of your circle, the one at the top of every party invite list, the one people fight to sit next to at dinner, the one people come to for advice because you are so wise — not because you have smooth thighs and pouty lips?
We all know stunning women that become as vapid and unappealing as stale Chinese food because all of their focus is on the external. On the contrary, haven’t you ever fallen in love with someone who wasn’t “your type” but once you got to know them became the person you couldn’t imagine a breath without?
Make your goal for the rest of the summer to boost up your Cleopatrian beauty. Put less focus on what you see in the mirror. Don’t cement over the inner radiance that comes from being delightful, clever and confident. I have been (trying!) to wean myself off of slathering on make-up before leaving the house, which makes me feel incredibly vulnerable and insecure; I have yet to take off my sunglasses when I don’t have mascara on. But it’s a step.
Instead of watching whatever crap is stored on your DVR, do something relevant. Buy a book featured on the NYT best-seller list, go see a lecture at a local school, study art at a gallery. Get in touch your feminine mystique: Take a belly dancing class, walk through a labyrinth, get a henna tattoo all over your tummy, the center of your life-wielding force.
When we sacrifice the powerful beauty we hold in our wit, charm and brains for surface beauty, we pull away from what it means to be a real woman. And to that, Cleopatra was indeed one of the most beautiful women the world has ever known. So are you.
(Maggie Knowles is a columnist for The Portland Daily Sun. Her column appears Wednesdays. See her blog at http://sexynaptime.blogspot.com.)
AUGUST SPECIAL! Buy one adult admission to Cleopatra: The Exhibition at the Cincinnati Museum Center and get two free child admissions! Offer not available for online ticket purchases. To reserve your timed entry for your family, call today (513) 287-7001. Offer ends August 31, 2011