The Greek queen of the Nile
Cleopatra VII, born in 70-69 BC, was the daughter of Ptolemy XII and Cleopatra V Tryphaena. Believed to be siblings, Cleopatra’s parents were the descendants of Ptolemy I Soter, a general of Alexander the Great and the eventual founder of the Egyptian Ptolemaic line. Cleopatra’s heritage can thus be traced to the Macedonian Greece, where the Ptolemaic dynasty emerged. Her name, Cleopatra, was famously translated to ‘honor of the father’ in ancient Greek.
The Ptolemys ruled Egypt for roughly three centuries before Cleopatra was defeated and Egypt became a Roman province. During the Ptolemaic period, the entire ruling family of Egypt was Greek, as was most of the upper class.
Alexandria, the capital from which Cleopatra ruled, would’ve looked more like a Greek than an Egyptian city and Greek was the mother tongue of all Ptolemaic rulers, including Cleopatra (in fact, she was the first and only Ptolemaic monarch to ever even bother learning the native Egyptian language). Greeks and Egyptians in Ptolemaic Egypt were somewhat separate from one another (though this separation would’ve been stronger early on in the Ptolemaic period and probably not quite as pronounced during Cleopatra’s times). They spoke different languages, had different cultures (there was some overlap, of course, and the rulers did try and bridge some of the cultural gaps, for example by combining the ancient Greek and ancient Egyptian religions into one) and were even subject to different laws (Greek women, for example, had far fewer rights than Egyptian women who had traditionally always been relatively independent compared to women in Greece or Rome).
Cleopatra is often portrayed as an elegant temptress in art and film, but there’s evidence that she wasn’t as physically striking as you might think. Ancient Egyptian coins adorned with her face reveal that she likely had a strong jawline and a hooked nose. It’s believed that Cleopatra worked hard to control how she was perceived by the public, and her image on Egyptian coins was a way to appear more masculine in order to emphasize her power and right to rule.
Additionally, historian Plutarch wrote that her looks were “not altogether incomparable.” However, he did say that her intellect, wit, charm, and “sweetness in the tones of her voice” made her irresistible to everyone. Impressively, Cleopatra spoke as many as a dozen languages and was educated in mathematics, philosophy, oratory, and astronomy.
Many native Egyptians thought of the Ptolemies as foreigners and there was even a rebellion at one point that sought to oust them and put a native Egyptian back on the throne (it failed).