When you think of Cleopatra, you probably think beautiful, seductive, irresistible. In truth, one of the most famous women rulers was probably none of these. What she was, was a skilled administrator, an amazing diplomat, and a ball of charisma.
So let’s dissect the legend, and the facts about Cleopatra.
Most people know the basics: she ruled Egypt, slept with Julius Caesar, slept with Marc Antony, rebelled against Rome and when that failed, killed herself by hugging a snake. But if that’s all you know, you know nothing Jon Snow.
To start with, Cleopatra wasn’t Egyptian. Her ancestors were descended from the Macedonian Greeks. When Alexander the Great ruled the world one of his generals was named Ptolemy Lagides. When Alexander died, his generals divided his empire up like pieces of a giant pizza, with Ptolemy getting the slice that included Egypt. The Ptolemy dynasty ruled Egypt for nearly over 250 years when Cleopatra came to power.
Cleopatra wasn’t the first Cleopatra to rule, either. You could almost look at the name as a title. Women regents in the Ptolemaic dynasty were all either named Cleopatra, Berenice or Arsinoe.
She was politically savvy. In the past, the Ptolemies refused to speak Egyptian. Only their ancestral Greek. (We have them to thank for the Rosetta Stone ).
Cleopatra made more of an effort to connect with her Egyptian subjects. She learned to speak Egyptian, and styled herself as Isis reborn. In a way, she was the people’s princess thousands of years before princess Diana. She wrenched a wobbly dynasty on the decline back into prominence.
According to Stacy Schiff, author of “Cleopatra: A Life” She built an army, and later a fleet, suppressed insurrection, controlled currency, and alleviated famine. At least one imminent Roman general vouched for her grasp of military affairs.
In Cleopatra’s time (the transition from Roman Republic to Roman Empire) even strong nations were devoured by Rome. That’s how one made a name for oneself, by conquering land. And in a patriarchal society like Rome, a woman ruler would have seemed weak. Not to mention that her younger brother-husband wanted her dead.
Egypt was on shaky ground with Julius Caesar. Through Cleopatra’s father, they’d had an alliance with Caesar’s onetime friend turned rival Pompey. So when Pompey fled Rome, he ran to Egypt, where Cleopatra’s brother had him killed. And while Caesar and Pompey were rivals, Caesar didn’t want him dead. So Caesar went to Egypt to sort things out.
He arrived during a three-way civil war between Cleopatra, her brother and her sister. In a kill-two-birds-with-one-stone move, Cleopatra made “friends” with the new leader of the Roman world, and with his backing, put herself on the throne (she fought her own battles against her siblings). She even convinced Caesar not to annex Rome, but to leave it as a client state in her hands.
An alliance with Marc Antony also made political sense. After all, Antony was Caesar’s protégée. The duo were also said to have cared for one another, and had three children together. But no amount of political savvy could help when Antony and Octavian’s relationship splintered. She hitched herself to Antony’s star, and when his star fell, hers did as well.
History is written by the winners. Thus, the image we have of Cleopatra today is one shaped by Rome. So it’s unsurprising that it’s wrong. When the Roman’s wondered how she could have gotten two powerful men to do her bidding, they imagined that she “enslaved” them with love potions, feminine wiles, and beauty.
Cleopatra was dangerous and threatening, concluded Roman writers. Therefore, she must be sexually alluring.
So was Cleopatra ugly? Egyptian coins minted in Cleopatra’s image are the closest thing that we have to an accurate depiction of her. These show a hook-nosed, masculine woman with an Adam’s apple.
Yet, art is subjective. Look on the walls of Egyptian temples, and you will see stylized paintings of pharaohs and Gods “walking like an Egyptian.” It’s doubtful that any Egyptian stood like that in real life.
In the case of the Cleopatra coins, some of the queen’s features may have been exaggerated to make her look more masculine. A bit like how sculpture of Nefertiti is portrayed wearing a masculine beard to show that she has taken on the masculine traits of kingship. Or even how millennia later, Queen Elizabeth the first would say that she has the frail body of a woman, but the heart of a king.
Add to that, what we consider attractive changes. In Roman times, a prominent nose signified strength of character and power.
The famous Greek Philosopher Plutarch described Cleopatra in a biography of Marc Antony written about 100 years after her death. In it he says that her beauty was not exceptional, but she was well spoken-with a sweet voice and a charming way of conversing.
So in other words, Cleopatra was no great beauty, but not ugly either. And she more than made up for it in charisma and intellect.