Cleopatra’s Emeralds at Field Museum

It has been said that Cleopatra VII, queen of Egypt from 51 BCE until her death in 30 BCE, was the world’s most beautiful woman. Could her emerald jewelry have helped her win this title?

The history of emerald begins in Egypt, where it has been mined since around 2000 BCE. That’s long before Cleopatra’s time, but the original emerald mines have been named for her.

Cleopatra’s reputation dates from her association with Julius Caesar, who became ruler of the Roman Empire in 48 BCE. He traveled to Egypt to collect a debt owed him by Cleopatra’s father and wound up staying in Alexandria. It is said that Cleopatra bore Caesar’s child.

Four years later, Caesar was assassinated, and the Roman Empire was split between Marc Antony and Augustus Octavian. Antony got Egypt—and Queen Cleopatra.

But Rome became disenchanted with Antony, especially after several military blunders, and blamed the dangerous foreign mistress for his problems. Augustus Octavian declared war on Cleopatra and Antony, and, after winning a decisive sea battle off Actium in 31 BCE, began to close in on Alexandria, their final refuge. Rather than surrender, Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide.

To see the jewelry that drove Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, and Augustus Octavian to Alexandria, you need travel only as far as Chicago. The city’s Field Museum will present “Cleopatra of Egypt: From History to Myth” from Oct. 20 through March 3, 2002. The exhibit comprises 350 objects, including sculpture, coins, metalwork, jewelry, ancient frescos, and mosaics. For information, contact the Field Museum at (312) 922-9410.