by Leslie Morgan Steiner
When you hear the name Cleopatra, what first comes to mind?
For me, here’s what bubbles up:
* Evil Egyptian Queen
* My childhood friend’s miniature greyhound Cleo
* Elizabeth Taylor with too much eye makeup in the 1963 movie
Fortunately, Pulitzer-prize winning author Stacy Schiff decided to set the record straight about Cleopatra in her fabulous new book Cleopatra: A Life .
In truth, Cleopatra was the richest, most powerful woman in the history of the world. Her fortune has been estimated at $95.8 billion in today’s dollars – think Oprah meets Queen Elizabeth meets Angelina Jolie, all raised to the 10th power. She lived a century before Christ’s birth, in Alexandria and Rome. She was born into the lavish, ambitious Ptolemic family, which had ruled the Mediterranean for over 200 years. She was the last Egyptian queen – although she was Greek, not Egyptian. She apparently only had two sexual partners in her life – who happened to be two of the most impressive, cunning leaders in history: Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. She had children by both, including her first child, Caesarion, who later co-ruled with his mother. Cleopatra’s brilliant mind and immense financial resources helped both Caesar and Mark Antony conquer new lands. Final fact: with a hooked nose and tiny stature, Cleopatra accomplished all this without the traditional feminine weapon of beauty.
So the real Cleopatra is pretty darn interesting. Nice to know such a powerful woman ruled the civilized world long before anyone had heard of Gloria Steinem. What’s most interesting is why so few people know the facts behind Cleopatra.
* Instead of being praised as a dynamic strategist, experienced in war and peacetime management, she was called a schemer.
* Instead of virile, she was called wanton and promiscuous.
* Instead of a wealthy leader who used her resources to accomplish strategic goals, she was accused of being extravagant and wasteful, a woman who relied on underhanded feminine wiles to get her way.
Cleopatra’s appearance, nature and accomplishments have been buried by historians, starting with Cicero and continuing through impressive and powerful male writers including Pliny, Appian and Shakespeare. Roman and Christian cultures, dominant in Cleopatra’s wake, denigrated women. Not surprisingly their stories about Cleopatra dismiss and distort her power, accomplishments and triumphs, and instead highlight her “evil” ways.
Cleopatra definitely had her dark side. She murdered all her siblings, two brothers and a sister. She intentionally seduced Caesar and Mark Antony for political gain. She did spend extravagantly, once traveling 700 miles and filling a banquet hall knee-deep with rose petals at the cost of six physician’s annual salaries, all to impress a man. (It worked.)
However, most pharaohs commonly resorted to Machiavellian tactics, including murder of family members who harbored ambitions to one’s throne. In fact, male rulers who employ the same rogue policies are frequently praised for their valor and political expediency. Cleopatra’s only true vice was being a woman.
Rather than a scheming harlot, Cleopatra is a heroine of history, in many ways an inspiration to any ambitious woman.
One final, fitting tidbit about Cleopatra: Angelina Jolie – another brilliant iconoclast and/or evil seductress depending upon history’s view -- is rumored to be playing the queen in the upcoming movie based on Schiff’s biography.