In honor of celebrating empowering females for Female Superheroes Week and the release of Captain Marvel on March 8th, I believe it’s only fitting to shed light on powerful female historical figures and rulers such as Cleopatra because her life in particular has left a heavy mark on pop culture due to the classic movie starring Elizabeth Taylor. Also, what we have been taught about her (and many other powerful queens in history) has been largely misconstrued to serve the point of a view of the historian or writer who told it.
Cleopatra was the last queen of Egypt and much of what we think we know about her comes from ancient Roman propaganda, as well as ancient Roman historian Plutarch, and William Shakespeare’s play “Cleopatra and Mark Antony.” In the Roman propaganda, she’s presented as a ruthless seductress who manipulated powerful roman generals Julius Caesar and Mark Antony and needed them to kill her siblings and to solidify her reign over Egypt. William Shakespeare’s play portrays Cleopatra’s life superficially, focusing on the luxurious lifestyle she had, and romanticizes the relationship with Mark Antony, to the point where it is believed she commited suicide because “the love of her life died.” This spread the image of Cleopatra as a cruel woman who needed a man in order to legitimize her reign over Egypt when the reality couldn’t be farther from the truth.
(bust of Cleopatra source: ancient.eu)
Cleopatra the VII was of the Ptolemy Dynasty descended from General Ptolemy after the fall of Alexander the Great’s Empire, and became the ruler of Egypt at 18 years old after her father died. However, she had to ceremoniously marry her 12 year old brother because Egyptian law dictated that female rulers needed a male co-regent in order to rule. However, in that co-regency she was the dominant ruler and made all the important decisions. Since Cleopatra was groomed her entire life to become queen, she spoke many languages and was the first pharaoh of her dynasty to speak the Egyptian language of the common people, because, at the time, Greek was the official language of the Egyptian royals. This earned the trust and respect of her kingdom. She was versed in mathematics and philosophy, and a genius in diplomacy and warfare.She also brought out Egypt from an economic depression that was caused by the bad decision of her many predecessors, and amassed great wealth, not for herself but for the Egyptian empire which was ever expanding.Continued to spend money on improving the quality of life for her people. She believed women could hold jobs and deserved equal pay for the same amount of work men did. As well as lead army against the forces of Octavian, Caesar’s adopted son who tried to invade Egypt after Caesar’s death.
Though she did have a relationship with Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony, those relationships where founded on being mutually beneficial, Caesar and Anthony having access to Egypt fortune and riches, and Cleopatra having the backup of their armies if she ever needed them, it was never really proven if she ever loved these men and vice versa.
At the end of her life when she commited suicide most people assume it was because she had lost the man she loved Mark Antony, and that is due to William Shakespeare’s play that portrayed her dying next to Mark Antony after she manipulated a venomous cobra to bite her. That may have been a reason, but the reality is that Cleopatra wasn’t anywhere near Mark Antony when she died. She had been captured as a prisoner by Emperor Octavian, the most likely way she commited suicide was by pricking herself with a hairpin that had been dipped in poison in the room where she was being held captive. As for the main reason she commited suicide was because at that point in her life she had lost her kingdom to the Roman Empire, the emperor had taken all her riches as spoils of war and was planning to parade her through the streets of Rome as a trophy and to spread the message that Egypt had fallen. The humiliation was probably to much for her by that point.
There is much that isn’t known about Cleopatra’s life, but what historians have uncovered so far gives more than enough evidence to support that Cleopatra was truly an inspiring and remarkable woman who should be recognized for the smart leader that she was instead of being defined by the relationships she had with men, and I believe her story, as well as the stories of many other powerful queen in history should be portrayed as such. Just like her story inspires me to continue educating myself and take on more leadership roles it will inspire many other women as well. Especially, at this point in history, where women are more vocal about their experiences than they were before.
Here’s a link to a Ted-Ed video called “History vs Cleopatra”: