One of the most iconic female rulers in history, Cleopatra has made a name for herself by using her charm, wit, and cunning and rose to become the last active leader of the Ptolemaic Kingdom. She became known throughout history as a seductress who captured the hearts of two of the most powerful members of the Roman Empire, Julius Caesar, and Mark Anthony.
Together with her brother, she was named as the successor of the Ptolemaic Kingdom in her teenage years, but she seized full control later on, leading its army and naval force. Among her many talents, Cleopatra was a linguist, which was an ideal skill to have for diplomatic purposes. She left behind her a legacy that will remain as the topic of debate of many historians because her identity, motives, and method of seizing power have been put to question time and again.
Writings about Cleopatra have portrayed her as a ruthless and cunning leader who used seduction and sex appeal to manipulate Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony. Her beauty has also been both overstated and understated, with some people claiming she had the face of a goddess, while others dismissed this, indicating she was, in fact, plain-looking. However, her beauty is attributed to more than just her physical appearance. She was well-educated, and she could readily speak any language she pleased. She spoke with charm, and she was eloquent enough to be persuasive (Plutarch, 1957). Alexandria has one of the oldest, grandest libraries in the world, and Cleopatra made full use of her access to literary works and top-notch instructors. She studied diplomacy, philosophy, and medicine, among other things.
It is worth noting that this was a time when women, despite being born into a royal family such as Cleopatra, still only mostly work in the shadows of men. Their achievements are often discredited or dismissed. This was quite possibly one of the reasons that drove Cleopatra to move against the men who dismiss her authority just because she was a woman.
In a world ruled mostly by men, Cleopatra rose to the ranks. After her father, Ptolemy XII passed away in 51 BC, she served as a co-ruler with her brother, Ptolemy XIII. Since she was 10 years older than her brother, she took the lead; however, Ptolemy had a lot of other men in court on his side. These people felt threatened by Cleopatra’s ambition and drive to seize the power for herself. They all conspired to dethrone her until she was forced to flee to Syria, only to come back with an army in hopes of claiming the throne once more. Cleopatra showed resilience in the face of her adversaries who were among the most influential people in Alexandria.
This was a crucial time for the already declining Ptolemaic Kingdom. With Roman forces approaching, Cleopatra could have simply walked away, unscathed by the effects of war and conflict. It showed a great deal about her character and painted a clearer picture of her when she decided to return to Alexandria. Complacency was not her strong suit. She always sought to be on top of everything – putting her education to good use.
One of the things that stood out is Cleopatra’s ego. She remained convinced that she could do a better job at leading their kingdom than her brother ever could. It’s no surprise that she can easily be seen as a woman who was too ambitious for her own good. She was willing to do whatever it took – even if it meant going against her own brother – in order to reach her goals. This is saying a lot, since the Ptolemies thrived on making sure their bloodlines were “unspoiled” by an outsider’s. It is still uncertain whether Cleopatra married her brother when they ruled together, but such is the length that their family would go to in order to make sure the throne stays within the family only and that it is protected from foreign invasion or being passed on to another bloodline. She thought very highly of herself, and she was determined to keep her royal position so she could bring back the glory days of the first Ptolemies and, if possible, retrieve some of the territories that they’ve lost, which had included southern Syria and Palestine.
On several occasions, Cleopatra also showed vanity and narcissistic tendencies. Despite being of questionable Egyptian ethnicity, Cleopatra regarded herself as the new coming of the goddess Isis (Tyldesley, 2018). It is said that when she pleaded her case with Caesar during the civil war, she relied on her appearance to try to sway him. She appeared to be grieving yet never even shed a tear, so as to maintain her attractiveness (Lucanus & Joyce 1993) Even after her death, her vanity still found its way into popular culture, but in the form of a false – or uncertain, at the very least – image. No one knows for sure what she looked like. Even the busts made to look like her do not give justice to how physically attractive other historians claimed her to be. However, because of her ability to sway several men – powerful men, in fact – a notion had been established that she possessed a beauty that could only be portrayed onscreen by the likes of Elizabeth Taylor, Vivien Leigh, Sophia Lauren, and Theda Bara, to name a few. All of these actors were considered outstandingly beautiful by popular standards, something that wasn’t certain of the Ptolemaic pharaoh. This goes to show how much Cleopatra’s other valuable qualities were outshone by her perceived physical appearance. It also shows how much society was led to believe that the only way to attract a man and influence people was through superficial beauty. Consequently, this influenced the standard of beauty that people have to this day. A beautiful, seductive woman will often be shown as someone who has dark eye makeup and an imposing aura.
Her wily and cunning ways have also kept her reign and her kingdom alive. When she fled to Syria and came back with an army to take the throne back from her brother, Ptolemy, Julius Caesar intervened and attempted to reunite the two of them. Instead of going with Julius Caesar’s plans, Cleopatra went behind Ptolemy’s back and snuck into Julius Caesar’s chambers by being smuggled in a bedroll (Plutarch, 1957). This impressed Caesar and as history puts it, began the affair that caught Ptolemy off-guard. During this time, the Roman empire was already wary of her. To make matters worse for the Romans, Cleopatra sired a child commonly called Caesarion, and claimed that he was the son of Julius Caesar. This was a bold tactic and once again showed how Cleopatra made full use of her femininity to get ahead.
Another great example was her seduction of Mark Antony. She had carefully calculated her chances with his peers, Caius Caesar and Gnaeus. She knew that these two men had known her as a child and would probably still perceive her as one. It is highly possible that she wanted to be treated as a woman, an equal, and someone worthy of respect when it came to making diplomatic decisions concerning her kingdom. She wouldn’t have been able to achieve this by allying with either Caius or Gnaeus, so she went instead for Mark Antony, who had only met her as an adult, a woman in her prime. To Cleopatra, only Mark Antony would see her intellect and regard her as an equal.
As Mark Antony continued on with his duties to spread the reach of the Roman Empire in the east, Cleopatra was brought to questioning for not sending troops to his aid. She then claimed that she did send the troops but they were unable to reach the battlefield in time. The Roman Empire continued to grow suspicious of Mark Antony’s then dwindling allegiance and loyalty, and they put the blame on Cleopatra. Whether or not Cleopatra deserved this scorn is irrelevant compared to the fact that, comparable to Helen of Troy, she had so much impact in the ongoing war. She was loved, feared, and respected by people, depending on which side they were on. There even came a time when the Romans have wondered if Cleopatra would go down in history as a ruler of the world, despite being a woman and not of Roman descent, and the idea seemed absurd that they did everything in their power to make sure it never happened. Under their noses, Cleopatra’s reach grew from when she was still a teenager. She was called many names, one of which was the “Shame of Egypt” (Lucanus & Joyce 1993). It could be drawn from this that the Roman Empire was so threatened by the idea of having a woman leader, despite the facade they’ve kept that men and women were treated equally. Women were given power, but in hindsight, they weren’t allowed to have power over a man – or even an entire empire.
When Octavian, more commonly known as Augustus Caesar, turned his attention to Alexandria to bring Cleopatra and Mark Antony to justice. He had been in an ongoing feud with Mark Antony and his hatred of him was bred out of personal attacks and smear campaigns. After all, Mark Antony left his wife Octavia – Octavion’s sister – for Cleopatra. Mark Antony and Cleopatra have ruled side by side for eleven years, but their pride refused to let them be captured alive. After Mark Antony’s defeat in battle, he retreated back to Egypt and took his life with his own sword. Left alone with no shred of hope remaining, Cleopatra took control of her own fate and committed suicide when she found out that Octavian had already entered Egypt and was coming for her.
Cleopatra valued her power and pride enough to take matters into her own hands. Rather than be captured and humiliated in public by Octavian, she chose death. Whether it is out of love for Mark Antony or not, no one knows. Cleopatra chose to stay in control and decided to spare her dignity from being crushed. It appears to be her final act of defiance against the usurpers and the patriarchy.
History has not been fair to Cleopatra. To begin with, Octavian made sure that it was written in his favor, securing the notion that he was the rightful ruler. He went so far as to write an autobiography, with Cleopatra’s role in his conquests diminished into only her affairs with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony (Tyldesley). She was made out to be the foreigner who was immoral and promiscuous. The autobiography completely discredited her merits – her intellect and diplomatic abilities, among other things. Through centuries, her political mettle was invalidated. Even today, Cleopatra is more popularly known in the modern world as a sex symbol, rather than a political figure.
The story of Cleopatra, tragic as it may be, has proven how women were always treated as footnotes in a male-dominated history. She was seen as a harlot, who seduced two of Rome’s finest for her own gains. It is unfortunate that a powerful woman such as Cleopatra could easily be discredited by the patriarchal society, and it still rings true to this day. Historical evidence has shown that women in politics, arts, literature, and science were less recognized than their male counterparts. Additionally, a lot of emphasis was placed on her sexual provocativeness, as compared to her other redeeming qualities. Whereas throughout history, men were applauded for their womanizing ways. The tale of Cleopatra has been interpreted in several ways. As Shakespeare said, “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety”. It is, for all intents and purposes, a cautionary tale of a woman who tried to get ahead in a man’s world.