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date: 17 January 2019


Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase & Fable
Susie Dent

Cleopatra (Greek Kleopatros, ‘born of a famous father’) 

Queen of Egypt (69–30 bc), as joint ruler with, and wife of, her brother Ptolemy Dionysius. In 48 she was driven from the throne, but was reinstated in 47 by Julius Caesar, by whom she had a son. In 41Mark Antony fell under her spell and abandoned his wife Octavia. When he was defeated at Actium by Octavian, he committed suicide, and Cleopatra is said to have killed herself in turn by the bite of an asp on her breast in order to avoid being captured by Octavian.

Cleopatra and her pearl

It is said that Cleopatra gave a banquet for Antony at Alexandria, the cost of which aroused his astonishment. When Antony expressed his surprise she took a pearl eardrop and dissolved it in her drink in order to impress him even more.

A similar story is told about Sir Thomas Gresham when Queen Elizabeth I visited the royal exchange. He is said to have drunk her health in a cup of wine in which a precious stone worth £15,000 had been crushed.

  • Here fifteen thousand pounds at one clap goes
  • Instead of sugar; Gresham drinks the pearl
  • Unto his queen and mistress.

Cleopatra’s Needle

The obelisk so called, now on the Thames Embankment, was brought from Alexandria in 1878, where it and its fellow (now in central park, New York) had been moved from Heliopolis by Augustus c.14 bc. It has no connection with Cleopatra other than having been in her capital, Alexandria, and was originally set up by Thothmes IIIc.1500 bc.

Cleopatra’s nose

Blaise Pascal wrote: Le nez de Cléopâtre: s’il eût été plus court, toute la face de la terre aurait changé, ‘Had the nose of Cleopatra been shorter, the whole face of the earth would have changed’ (Pensées, ii, 162 (1670)). The allusion is to the momentous consequences that resulted from her conquest, through her charm and beauty, of both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.