Royal women in ancient Egyptian history long held roles of importance and influence. Titles bestowed upon them that demonstrated their significant status included King’s Mother, King’s Principal Wife, and King’s Daughter. Queens were also often associated with goddesses like Nekhbet, Wadjyt and Hathor, thus tying them to the divine. However, while women were clearly not without status, two women in ancient Egyptian history, Hatshepsut and Cleopatra, redefined their roles as female rulers in Egyptian society as more than queenship. This change was made possible by the contributions of those who lived before them as seen in the reigns of Nitiqret and Nefrusobk. There were only 4 women known to have held such a position throughout ancient Egypt’s expansive pharaonic history, including Hatshepsut and Cleopatra. Despite a gap of almost 1500 years between them, the reigns of Hatshepsut and Cleopatra display striking similarities in terms of how they established power through religion, familial ties, and portraiture. In this paper, I discuss how Hatshepsut and Cleopatra used similar methods to construct a pharaonic identity for themselves in order to attain their common goal of legitimizing their roles as female kings. It was clearly necessary for them to change the way that they were perceived in order to establish themselves as rulers in accordance with Egyptian traditions. This can be seen specifically in their emphasis on divine lineage, their involvement in religious activities, and their more masculine portraits.
Hatshepsut was crowned pharaoh during the early 15th century BC, which places her well over 1,500 years into Egyptian civilization in the 18th Dynasty of the New Kingdom. She was the daughter of King Thutmose I, and later was married to her half-brother Thutmose II in accordance with royal Egyptian tradition. She reigned as queen and it was not until the unexpected death of Thutmose II that her position of power began to experience change. She had a daughter with Thutmose II, but the heir to the throne, Thutmose III, was born to one of the pharaoh’s secondary wives. Because of this, the esteemed title of King’s Mother was not bestowed upon Hatshepsut. The early death of Thutmose II left his son much too young to rule, at only a few years old, which allowed Hatshepsut to step in as co-regent to rule in his stead until Thutmose III was of age to take over. This kind of rule was not uncommon in ancient Egypt. However, unlike the royal women previously listed, the duration of Hatshepsut’s reign far exceeded any other. Hatshepsut did not step down from her position as ruler when Thutmose III came of age. In the relief from a shrine of Hatshepsut she is crowned king by the god Amun-Ra in the presence of the goddess Hathor, thus communicating that her rule was by divine right and, presumably, permanent (Figure 9). There is writing on the relief in which the god Amun-Ra calls Hatshepsut his daughter, and Hathor is quoted “You have received this beautiful crown from your father… May it place the fear of you in the hearts of the people.” In documenting her divine birth, Hatshepsut cemented her pharaonic right to rule preordained by the gods. Hatshepsut was crowned king and reigned until death, which ended her 20 years on the throne.
Hatshepsut’s reign in the 18th dynasty placed her in a favorable position that allowed her to take on the role of pharaoh, supported by the strategic manipulation of artistic imagery. “[Egyptian] ideology, iconography, and social conventions were well-established. Hatshepsut bolstered her legitimacy by adopting them.” During her reign, there was a shift in how Hatshepsut’s statuary portrayed her physically, as she now embodied the position of kingship. Hatshepsut rewrote her divine birth into her biography to assume what then became a predestined position. After one was crowned king of Egypt and became a god, in Egyptian society it would have been impossible to revoke the position of divinity that it gave.
Likely created in the early years of her rule as pharaoh, the granite statue of Hatshepsut as Female King from Deir el-Bahri from the early 18th Dynasty depicts her as inarguably female (Figure 1). This particular statue has a female physique with Hatshepsut shown wearing a dress and the nemes headdress and uraeus, which were both common pharaonic attributes. This is likely an individualized depiction, created by incorporating her specific facial characteristics. The statue is not particularly elaborate. Feminine characteristics in terms of jewelry, clothing, and overall adornment remain understated. There is an inscription that references Taweret found on the back of the statue, and associating her with the fertility goddess further highlights her identity as a woman. When looking at the Colossal Seated Statue of a Pharaoh from the Middle Kingdom, the overall structure of the two sculptures are similar (Figure 2). Both pharaohs are seated in stiff postures, with hands placed flat on top of their thighs. However, the delicate figure of Hatshepsut is more obvious when compared to the blockier, masculine figure of the Middle Kingdom statue.
Hatshepsut’s evolution of identity is evidenced in various images from the duration of her reign, with different representations even found within the same building complex as in her funerary temple at Deir el-Bahri. She rewrote her history, and ultimately her identity, in order to affirm her position as king. This is visually reinforced, particularly by the statues and imagery found at Deir el-Bahri. During the New Kingdom, royal women were typically portrayed in styles that focused more on sensuality, and feminine features were accentuated. There are very few statues that depict Hatshepsut as a woman, with the majority of imagery depicting her as a masculine pharaoh. However, while she was almost always portrayed physically as male, the inscriptions that were written in reference to Hatshepsut remained grammatically feminine.
“[Hatshepsut] never attempted to obscure her female essence; her inscriptions consistently employ the feminine gender, maintaining the tension between male and female elements evident in almost all her representations.”
From most of her reign, statues and artwork of Hatshepsut were masculine depictions and taking on the roles expected of a pharaoh. The Colossal Kneeling Statue of King Hatshepsut from Deir el-Bahri, Thebes, made of red granite, exhibits this with Hatshepsut fulfilling her religious duty as an Egyptian ruler (Figure 4). She is wearing the false beard and nemes headdress of a pharaoh while in a position of offering, holding two jars in her hands. The inscription reads that she is “offering Maat to Amun.” Maintaining maat, or order, was the principal task of the Egyptian king. “The authority of the king sprang from the belief that he governed in accordance with maat.”
Cleopatra VII was the last in a line of foreign Greeks rulers in Egypt under the Ptolemaic Dynasty. The Ptolemies were Macedonians who ruled Egypt for three centuries up until the fall of Egyptian civilization to Rome at the end of Cleopatra VII’s reign. Under the Ptolemies, Egypt experienced a significant influx of Greek immigrants, which resulted in a merging and adaptation of the two cultures. The Ptolemies established connections with Egyptian clergy, and Cleopatra became involved with Egyptian religious traditions as well. Cleopatra VII was the daughter of Ptolemy XII, but her maternal ancestry is unknown. Upon ruling Egypt, the Ptolemies adopted the royal Egyptian tradition of sibling-marriages, which was not practiced in Macedonian culture. In this way, Cleopatra was linked to her much younger brother, Ptolemy XIII, although the actuality of their marriage is not documented. Unlike her Ptolemaic predecessors, Cleopatra was believed to have spoken Egyptian, a skill that likely allowed her to be better accepted as ruler by the people.
The Ptolemies also continued ancient Egyptian traditions and religious practices to better gain acceptance from a people whose lives centered around religion, as well as to legitimize their rule. Ptolemy XII was known as the “New Dionysus” and therefore Cleopatra was seen as a goddess through the king’s divine right. However, Ptolemy XII was neither a strong nor successful ruler and Cleopatra inherited Egypt’s poor economy from his reign. The ceremony for the Buchis bull, held 51 BC, was likely the first occasion that the Egyptians witnessed their newly ascended female pharaoh who journeyed along the Nile with the bull. The Buchis Stela was created to memorialize the appointment of a new Buchis bull, and records that Cleopatra was not only present but also participated in the ceremony (Figure 5).
According to Ptolemy XII’s wishes upon his death, Cleopatra was expected to co-rule with Ptolemy XIII, although it proved to be an ill-fated match. After her young brother’s supporters gained the political upper hand, she was forced to flee in 49 AD. Cleopatra then met and gained the support of the Roman ruler, Julius Caesar, where she successfully procured an alliance that mainly benefitted her. Caesar used his position of authority to place Cleopatra back on the throne alongside Ptolemy XIII. Caesar and Cleopatra later had a child named Caesarion, who she used to anchor herself to the Roman Empire. After Caesar’s assassination, Cleopatra was placed in a difficult position because his successor, Octavian Augustus, became a formidable adversary. Mark Antony was a military leader of the Roman Empire who was placed in charge of Caesar’s territory in the east and Cleopatra’s final ally. Through their alliance and likely also Cleopatra’s ambition, the Ptolemaic Empire experienced growth under Antony and Cleopatra.
Coins were often used as propaganda due to the ability of mass distribution to the regions under one’s rule. A silver denarius with Cleopatra VII and Mark Antony depicted on opposite sides of the coin depicts them both with similar-looking profiles (Figure 6). While they are not identical depictions of the two figures, Cleopatra’s face is stern and masculine. Her features are harshly defined. This contrasts with the beauty that Cleopatra VII was infamous for. Without context, upon first appearance she looks like a man, with the exception of her hair tied back by a cloth headband. However, this form of representation was not an uncommon practice as there is similar royal portraiture on the seal impression with busts of Ptolemy XII and Cleopatra V (Figure 7).
The damaged marble portrait of Cleopatra VII is a simple and feminine representation of the Ptolemaic ruler (Figure 8). Her hair is pulled back into a bun and she is wearing “the royal diadem of the broad type favored by late Hellenistic rulers.” It is dated from 50-30 BC, however, we do not know exactly in what point of her reign it was created. The portrait is in the same style as Roman busts also from the 1st century BC, so it was likely made during Cleopatra’s Roman alliances with Caesar or Antony. The end of Cleopatra’s reign brought about the end of Egyptian civilization at the hands of Rome.
Hatshepsut and Cleopatra understood the Egyptian and societal culture that they lived in, and utilized similar methods to become powerful rulers. Both had to establish their ability to rule through utilizing their connections to male rulers, along with the unspoken contingency of co-ruling with a male, regardless of their individual capabilities.
Hatshepsut originally ruled for the male heir although, even then, she was seen as simply a co-regent while doing all of the work. In order to step forward as a pharaoh, Hatshepsut had to emphasize her parentage and claim that she was the one always intended to rule since her birth. The relief from a shrine of Hatshepsut where Hatshepsut is crowned as king by the god Amun-Ra in the presence of the goddess Hathor is important as Hatshepsut was further emphasizing the claim that she obtained the position of kingship through her father, Thutmose I, differing from the title and role of a queen obtained from marriage to Thutmose II (Figure 9). This disconnects Hatshepsut from Thutmose III as the source of her power. She is not simply displayed as co-regent but the primary king and the initial, predestined heir to the throne. Cleopatra was tied to rule alongside her younger brother, and then to place more weight on her role, she directly connected herself to her father’s divinity. She was only 18 at the beginning of her co-reign, and Ptolemy XIII was not yet a teenager. Even Julius Caesar and Mark Antony were needed for Cleopatra to remain in her position, although this also highlights the strategic capabilities she possessed. Cleopatra’s connection as daughter of the “New Dionysus” made her a goddess through paternal association. This stabilized her involvement in the religious activities of the Egyptians. These paternal connections were necessary for Hatshepsut and Cleopatra to legitimize their places on the throne since, to the Egyptians, kings were divine beings.
Hatshepsut and Cleopatra utilized the strong influence Egyptian religion had in society.
According to the Greek historian Herodotus, the Egyptians were well-known for being a fervently religious people. Egyptian civilization was deeply intertwined with religion, and the ruler would have been required to serve as the people’s connection to the gods. The Red Granite Colossal kneeling statue of King Hatshepsut from Deir el-Bahri shows Hatshepsut enacting the religious duties that the pharaoh would have been responsible for (Figure 3). Serving a similar purpose, the Buchis Stela documents that the ceremony Cleopatra participated in held great religious significance to the Egyptians (Figure 4). This public appearance of Cleopatra as pharaoh demonstrated her commitment to the religious duties that accompanied the position.
Hatshepsut and Cleopatra chose to forego femininity and individual characteristics in some imagery to manipulate their depictions to effectively convey themselves as powerful rulers. They adopted masculine features in order to appear as authoritative figures, and the particular works I chose depict the two female rulers opposite of prominent men. Through this visual arrangement, Hatshepsut and Cleopatra are placed on equal political ground as their male counterparts. This is seen on the walls of Hatshepsut’s temple at Deir el-Bahri, where Hatshepsut and Thutmose III are depicted as kings in the main sanctuary of Amun (Figure 3). Through the intentional use of placement and iconography, Hatshepsut is established as the primary ruler between the two. The Silver Denarius with Cleopatra VII and Mark Antony depicted on opposite sides of the coin is another example of manipulating one’s identity through association (Figure 6). These artworks show Hatshepsut and Cleopatra adopting more masculine, and in the case of Cleopatra even foreign, characteristics in order to associate themselves with their male counterparts.
After death, their successors attempted to remove Hatshepsut and Cleopatra from history. Cleopatra faced opposition from Octavian, even after her death, resulting in the destruction and alteration of art that referenced her. However, this was not an uncommon practice with successors as there is evidence of this during Thutmose III’s reign following Hatshepsut. While this was not an act exclusive to Hatshepsut or Cleopatra or even necessarily related to their gender, it is important to make note of historically. As a result, some of the physical evidence of their reigns left to us is limited, especially imagery regarding Hatshepsut.
Ancient Egyptian traditions held strong, surviving throughout millennia. The expected standards of a ruler were exemplified through similarities between the reigns of Hatshepsut and Cleopatra, as they altered their appearance in imagery to effectively perform the duties of a pharaoh. As female kings, it was necessary to distinguish their political roles and status in society from that of a queen, which was particularly evident through the manipulation of imagery. Both women emphasized their connections to powerful men, which meant paternal ties as well as through their co-rulers. By using this attachment, solidifying religious ties, and opting for more masculine depictions, they established themselves as legitimate rulers of Egypt. The pictorial imagery and statues that came from the reigns of Hatshepsut and Cleopatra show the multiple ways depictions were used to anchor them as rightful rulers within a traditionally male position of power. They held their ground as pharaohs and proved to be capable, while Hatshepsut took the throne during a time of stability in the 18th Dynasty, and Cleopatra inherited more unfavorable conditions from the Ptolemies. Although their identities evolved dramatically in order to visually affirm themselves in a way that would have been understood by the Egyptian people, the methods they each used were strikingly similar, especially given that over a millennium separated their rules.