What made Cleopatra one of the most prominent queens in history?
When one looks at the history of Ptolemaic-era Queen Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator, it becomes evident as why many historians often hailed as one of the greatest pharaohs of Egypt. This means that she ranks up there with names like Ramesses II, Seti I, Hatshepsut, Sobekneferu, and Thutmose III.
Scholars are amazed by the feats that Cleopatra accomplished, bearing in mind that male-dominated terrain of the political environment in the ancient world.
The question that begs to be answered is: How did Cleopatra become such an iconic figure in history, to the extent that she was able to stand out not just for her beauty, but for the manner in which she solidified her power?
READ MORE: Most Famous Female Rulers of Ancient Egypt
Below, World History Edu explores the most salient points that made this female pharaoh one of his history’s most distinguished rulers:
Cleopatra was well-educated and known to be multilingual. This wasn’t just a sign of her aristocratic upbringing but also a testament to her keen intellect. She was the first Ptolemaic ruler to learn the Egyptian language, which endeared her to the native populace.
Unbridled intellect mixed with a heavy dose of ambition
Cleopatra was renowned for her intellect, as attested by historical figures like Greek philosopher and historian Plutarch. Her vast knowledge spanned subjects such as botany, mathematics, philosophy, astronomy, and oratory.
Talking about astronomy, Cleopatra and her scholars at Alexandria are credited with introducing a revolutionary solar-based calendar, diverging from the traditional lunar one. This calendar added an extra day every fourth year, known today as the ‘leap year’.
Furthermore, her linguistic prowess was exceptional; she spoke Koine Greek, her mother tongue, and learned at least eight other languages, including Ethiopian, Latin, Arabic and Hebrew.
Remarkably, among the Ptolemaic pharaohs, she was the sole ruler to master the Egyptian language. This ability enhanced her leadership, allowing direct communication with her troops without needing an intermediary.
Her ability to carry herself as a goddess
Since the time of the first dynastic rulers of the Old Kingdom, it was very much a common trend for Egyptian rulers to deify themselves. The pharaohs usually saw themselves as the physical embodiments of Egyptian deities like Horus, the falcon-headed god of the sky. And upon death, the pharaoh was believed to make his way to the afterlife and rule as Osiris, the Egyptian god of rebirth and vegetation.
Therefore, Cleopatra was certainly not the first Egyptian ruler to identify as a deity. However, what make’s Cleopatra’s case worth mentioning is the manner in which she did it. The Egyptian queen ran a very sophisticated PR program that made her assert a divine authority in ways not seen for a long time.
She constantly reinforced her association with the ancient Egyptian Isis by donning the goddess’s attire during ceremonies and frequently invoked religious prophecies to validate her decisions. She carried herself as the panacea to all of Egypt’s problems. Bear in mind Isis is a revered ancient Egyptian goddess of not just motherhood and children but also healing.
READ MORE: The Myth of Isis and Osiris
Cleopatra also took some bit of notes from the pages of her predecessor, New Kingdom female pharaoh Hatshepsut, by portraying herself in a slightly masculine manner. This tactic was aimed to emphasize her might and even place her above her male counterparts, underscoring her formidable presence as a ruler.
Lovers and Political Allies
The Egyptian pharaoh had notable relationships with two of the most powerful men of her time: Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Both alliances had significant political implications, bolstering her position against adversaries in Egypt and Rome.
For example, Cleopatra successfully aligned with Caesar in 48 BC to dethrone her brother. The two then went on to initiate a passionate, politically-driven relationship. This alliance bore fruit for both, with Cleopatra even giving birth to a son, Ptolemy XV Caesar, commonly known as Caesarion.
Similar to Julius Caesar, renowned Roman general and politician Mark Antony, who was a member of the Second Triumvirate, sought Cleopatra’s alliance. By 40 BC, Cleopatra and Antony had become lovers and collaborators. The pair led a lavish life, notorious for their opulent celebrations and tastes. They tied the knot and had three children. However, their union, both political and romantic, unraveled after their defeat at the Battle of Actium and their subsequent demises.
Astute politician in a male-dominated world
Cleopatra successfully navigated the volatile political environment of her time. She reestablished her rule after being ousted by her younger brother, solidified her power through alliances with Roman leaders, and fought off challenges from the Roman Republic.
In a time when women rulers were rare, Cleopatra managed to wield power and maintain her position in a male-dominated geopolitical landscape. Her ability to rule Egypt as a co-regent and later as a sole ruler is a testament to her resilience and strength.
Sheer will, charisma and ability to adapt
Ancient accounts, including those by Plutarch, suggest that Cleopatra had a compelling presence and a persuasive voice. She was not only a great orator but also possessed a charismatic personality, which she effectively used in diplomacy.
Cleopatra’s life is replete with instances that showcase her willpower, charisma, and adaptability. In one account of the story by Plutarch states that in a bid to gain the support of the Roman general against her brother, Ptolemy XIII, Cleopatra needed to meet Caesar personally in Alexandria. The story goes that she had herself rolled up in a carpet (or linen sack) and delivered to Caesar’s private quarters. This audacious move not only allowed her an audience with the Roman general but also showcased her creativity and resourcefulness.
And even after her humiliating defeat at the hands of Roman general and Caesar’s heir Octavian (later Emperor Augustus) at the Battle of Actium, she is said to have returned to Egypt and began consolidating resources, possibly attempting to make Alexandria impregnable. She even considered relocating her empire to a new location if it meant preserving her legacy and her children’s future.
The above are just some of the reasons why Cleopatra’s life and reign have been the subject of countless artworks, plays, and films, with William Shakespeare‘s “Antony and Cleopatra” being one of the most famous.
The female ruler’s legacy is vast. Beyond her portrayal in arts and media, she is remembered as a symbol of power, allure, and resilience, as well as one of the most influential women rulers in history.
While much of her life remains shrouded in mystery and the lens of legend, there’s no doubt that Cleopatra made a mark in the annals of history, with tales of her reign echoing through millennia.