Cleopatra, The Last of the Ptolemies
Another name, of course, known to all was the Ptolemaic queen Cleopatra VII, last of the Pharaohs, and the lover of Julius Caesar. If the life of Joan of Arc is saturated with myth, then Cleopatra’s is probably even more so. She was a celebrated beauty who bathed in milk and killed herself with bite of a serpent. Although no authentic, provable image of her exists (except on period coinage and a marble bust of doubtful origin), Cleopatra was described by the Roman historian Cassius Dio as âa woman of surpassing beauty’. And certainly, to have attracted the devotion of both Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony, she must have been quite something.
Who was she, however, and what were her achievements? Well, she was born around 69 BCE, and was the last ruler of the Egyptian Macedonian dynasty – in other words, the last of the Ptolemies. She was eighteen years old and shared the throne with her ten-year-old brother. Needless to say, that was never going to work, and as the older of the two, Cleopatra took practical control of Egypt. Supporters of her brother Ptolemy XIII, however, ousted her and drove her out of Egypt.
It was then that her alliance with Julius Caesar began, and according to the myth, she seduced the great Roman general and persuaded him to support her in a military bid to regain power. Exiled in Syria, she assembled an army, and defeated her brother, reclaiming the throne herself.
She also happened to be an extremely intelligent and inquisitive woman, and uncommonly in her era and society, she studied philosophy, literature, art, music and medicine. She also spoke numerous languages, including Aramaic, Egyptian, Ethiopic, Greek, Hebrew and Latin.
Perhaps her greatest achievement was simply the fact that she was a female Pharaoh of Egypt. Her reign, however, overlapped the rise of Roman power in the southern Mediterranean. Realizing that she could never prevail by force of arms alone, she deployed her natural assets, along with a soaring intellect and great powers of diplomacy, to soften aggressive Roman interest in Egypt. She might have been unpopular in Rome because she was a woman and non-Roman, but she was certainly popular where it counted.
It is also probably inevitable that Cleopatra, who was not Egyptian, but Greek Macedonian, improved the social position of women throughout the classical world. She was, in fact, one of the great queens of her age, and a great personage in an age of great people. She certainly belongs in the top ten.