HISTORICAL ACCURACY OF THE MOVIE SCENE OF CLEOPATRA’S ENTRY INTO ROME
Source: 20th Century Fox, 1963 production. Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
If you watched Joseph Mankiewicz’s Cleopatra (1963), there’s a spectacular scene where Cleopatra enters Rome. I really, really love the scene—the pomp, the splendor, the sets, the background music—it’s all made to captivate. Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra is glamorous to watch as well. Did Cleopatra really go to Rome to meet Caesar? Did she enter it with such pomp and splendor? Let’s dig into it.
But how real do we think this could be? It’s wonderful to watch the spectacle on screen, and it’s sometimes easy to believe that it must have been that way in reality. In this post, I examine the scene and poke some holes in it regarding the historical accuracy.
IT IS UNLIKELY CLEOPATRA ENTERED THE ROMAN FORUM AS DEPICTED
Roman law prohibited foreign rulers from entering the forum.
What is more likely: Cleopatra may have been received outside the gates of Rome, and politely whisked away to Caesar’s villa by the Tiber. She probably received a grand welcome, people may have lined up the roads for her carriage, and Caesar may have received her along with some of his Senators. But given the sensitivity of his political situation, it is a stretch to think there was an elaborate pomp and splendor entry. Made for a great scene though!
There is also the logistics and preparation to consider. Cleopatra would have made a long treacherous journey across the seas, or along the Levantine, Turkish and Greek coasts. Egypt was just recovering from the Alexandrian war which lasted over ten months, and had strained an already weakened kingdom (her father had significantly mismanaged the finances). It is unlikely she would have traveled with a giant, expensive tour fleet.
She seems to have put on a brilliant show about four years later, when she met Mark Antony in Tarsus (in modern Turkey), which makes more sense.
CLEOPATRA’S SON WAS POSSIBLY YOUNGER THAN WHAT IS PORTRAYED IN THE SCENE
The boy in the scene looks about 3. He’s sitting comfortably on the high carriage. If we go by ancient accounts, Cleopatra had Caesar’s son maybe just before he left Egypt. She is said to have traveled to Rome about a year later. The scene intends to portray her first arrival (you wouldn’t put on all that show for round 2, and Caesar, in the scene, seems to marvel at his son), and in that case, the boy (Ptolemy Caesar, called Caesarion by Romans) would be a year old or less than two.
What is more likely: She probably had her lady-in-waiting or an attendant hold her baby/toddler. Or maybe she held him herself and presented him to Caesar.
ELIZABETH TAYLOR IS LOVELY BUT OLDER THAN WHAT THE REAL CLEOPATRA WOULD HAVE BEEN DURING HER VISIT TO ROME
Cleopatra was just 21 or 22 when she came to Rome to see Caesar. She was quite young (and not many people know that by the time she came to Rome, she had already ruled Egypt in some capacity for years, concluded a war with her brother, and survived a ten-month Alexandrian war)!
Taylor exudes greater maturity. She was 31 at the time the movie released.
What is more likely: The real Cleopatra probably looked like the image below at the age when she visited Rome:
Source: Berlin Altes Museum Bust, most likely of Cleopatra. Found in Rome, sculpted possibly during her visit to Rome in 46-44 B.C. She wears a Hellenic diadem (symbol of royalty). Image Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons.
COSTUMES, PEOPLE, OTHER DETAILS
Would the Romans have allowed a foreign cavalry in the procession?
Would there be a whole bunch of black-painted(?) slaves be her litter carriers?
Did Caesar bring his wife to welcome Cleopatra, knowing that was not an acceptable behavior even during Roman times?
Was Octavian really by Caesar’s side at this time?
I think the answer to all of the above questions is unlikely.
She also arrives under an arch. No such arch existed in the Roman forum at the time of Cleopatra (or at least no archeological evidence suggests such an arch).
Of course, a movie’s primary intention is to entertain, and I certainly enjoyed the movie and loved this scene, whatever shortcomings it may have.
If you’re interested in a twists-and-turns filled journey with Cleopatra from the point of her Regency to her eventual end:
Alternatively, walk with Spartacus in my new series on the famous Thracian. His world was very different from the famous Queens and Kings.