While “Cleopatra” may not always have been entirely loyal to history, Elisabeth Taylor was at least loyal to her character. Just as Cleopatra took two A-List lovers (Julius Caesar and Mark Antony) so too did Taylor—Eddie Fisher and Richard Burton. Fittingly, both Cleopatra and Elisabeth Taylor would ultimately prove the ruin of both men’s family lives. But perhaps the most striking parallel is how successfully Elisabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were able to emulate the superstar couple that Cleopatra had cultivated, firstly with Julius Caesar and later with Mark Antony.
One of the movie’s most famous scenes—that in which Cleopatra is carried into Alexandria’s palace to meet Caesar hidden in a rug—is historically attested, though one imagines that in reality she was carried with rather less grace and ease than in the film. The reason for her concealment is that their meeting was illicit. In late 47 BC, the young Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII (Cleopatra’s brother) had just been brought back to the court of Alexandria, where Caesar had set up residence. Still, in exile, Cleopatra knew that a meeting between the two wouldn’t be allowed so had to smuggle herself into the palace by subterfuge.
Needless to say, her ploy worked. Ptolemy withdrew from the court, gathered his forces and besieged the royal palace, trapping Caesar and Cleopatra inside for six months. The two grew very close during this time, so much so that Cleopatra became pregnant with their child, Caesarion, who was born in June the next year. Caesar and Cleopatra then went on to have an extravagant, and very public, love affair, traveling through Egypt and feasting together until daybreak. Cleopatra then accompanied Caesar to Rome, where she was treated with general hostility. Then the Ides of March 44 BC came around and she and her son were forced to flee.
Her subsequent 10-year relationship with Mark Antony is also pretty accurate. They had three children together and she even convinced him to divorce his Roman wife Octavia, causing huge political rifts owing to the fact that Octavia was the sister of Octavian (who would later go on to become the first emperor, Augustus). Octavian eventually defeated both of them at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC. Antony committed suicide, stabbing himself with his gladius, and Cleopatra poisoned herself with a snake, bringing an end to the Ptolemaic dynasty and providing inspiration for a later tragic Shakespearean plotline.