If the Romans had their way, Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt would be remembered as a depraved, power-hungry woman. His lavish tastes and promiscuous attractions corrupted the highest echelons of Roman leadership.
Cleopatra first teamed up with the Roman dictator Gaius Julius Caesar, who helped her return from exile and ascend to the throne. After Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC. AD, Marcus Antonius (aka Marc Antony) became one of the three rulers of the Roman Republic and Cleopatra’s next ally and lover.
The Romans weren’t ready for a powerful woman, and biographers and historians have smeared her legacy. They didn’t notice that Cleopatra was a serious scholar. She spoke at least seven languages and was interested in science and medicine. She researched, conducted experiments (albeit cruel and unethical), and wrote about her findings. At his time, she was an expert in gynecology, pharmacology and aesthetics.
Cleopatra supported advances in science and medicine. She also contributed to the Great Library of Alexandria, which was ultimately destroyed after Cleopatra’s death during the Roman occupation.
Texts in Arabic note his legacy as a scientist and scholar. Here are three documented examples of Cleopatra’s scientific prowess.
1. Cleopatra experimented with chemistry
Using his knowledge of chemistryCleopatra wins a famous bet against Marc Antoine.
According to to the legend, Cleopatra and Marc Antony were enjoying a feast when she bet she could spend 10 million sesterces on a single banquet. The next day, she organized a beautiful banquet that Marc Antoine would have appreciated. He also doubted that she had reached the agreed price.
For the second course, Cleopatra arranged for a servant to place a vial of vinegar in front of her. As Marc Antoine watched, she took off one of her priceless pearl earrings and dropped it into the city. After the pearl dissolved, she drank the vinegar, consuming over 10 million sesterces in one sitting. Roman Senator Lucius Plancus declared her the winner of the bet.
Although some scholars say vinegar is not acidic enough to dissolve a pearl, others support the calcium carbonate of a pearl would indeed react with acetic acid. And this 5% acetic acid solution would take three minutes to fully react with powdered calcium carbonate. The cocktail, however, would probably taste like fish which was not pleasant.
2. Cleopatra played with poisons
Cleopatra expected Roman forces to destroy her dynasty and tested which poisons would offer her the quickest and least painful death. She used condemned prisoners to experiment with deadly concoctions.
Using dyes, which were mixtures of plant extracts dissolved in alcohol, Cleopatra noted how long it took the prisoner to die and what side effects resulted. Some prisoners had convulsions or nausea, and she wanted to find the perfect poison that would allow her to die quickly and peacefully.
She then experimented with poisonous snakes. His own death was attributed to cobra venom, but researchers disagree. At the time of his death, the Roman occupiers kept Cleopatra under house arrest and they intended to keep her alive. The Romans considered it valuable for maintaining order in Egypt, and it is unlikely that they allowed a servant to bring an angry cobra into his room.
Some historians say Cleopatra probably bit herself to create a wound and then applied cobra venom topically. Others say she probably drank a deadly mixture of hemlock and opium. Most agree that we will never really know. The first account of his death did not come until decades later.
3. Cleopatra created remedies
Although Cleopatra spent a lot of time researching the easiest way to die, she also experimented with cures for various ailments. His invention to cure baldness was made with equal parts burnt mice, rags, and horse teeth. She combined these components with bear fat, deer marrow and reed bark. Shen then mixed the final ingredient, honey, to create an ointment to rub into the affected area until hair started to grow.
Scholars have also attributed books on toxicology and cosmetics to Cleopatra. Egyptians were known to cover their eyes with black makeup. Scientists now understand the make-up contained low doses of lead, which supported the activation of nitric oxide. It helped fight bacterial eye infections.
Cleopatra too formula skin lightening recipes as well as ointments to help heal bruises. She could also have concocted a painkiller which she eventually used in the last moments of her life. Although researchers aren’t sure exactly how her life ended, some believe it’s possible she self-administered a painkiller to relieve his final suffering.