Cleopatra (69 – 30 BC)
For nearly 2,000 years Cleopatra’s excesses have been the stuff of legend. Known to the Romans as the fatale monstrum, the fatal inhuman omen, she was paramour first to Julius Caesar (with whom she had a son, Caesarian) and then to Caesar’s contemporary and right-hand man, Mark Antony. But it wasn’t just for her sexual charm that she was world-renowned, but also for her absolute commitment to indulgence. Together with Mark Antony, she founded a society called the Inimitable Livers. We don’t know much about what its membership entailed, only that this live-fast-die-young club consisted both of daily feasting and of spending as much money as humanly possible in doing so.
There is one anecdote in particular—which has recently been proven as scientifically possible—that illustrates the extent of wealth and luxury her life entailed. Pliny the Elder tells us that she bet Mark Antony she could devour a single meal worth 10 million sesterces, which, in modern terms, equates to around $15 million. The meal she had served up was nothing out of the ordinary. But at the end of the feast she had one of her servants bring in a goblet of vinegar. She then dropped a priceless pearl earring into the vinegar, waiting for it to dissolve before drinking the slushy solution back.
It’s important to mention that much of what we know about Cleopatra’s character comes from negative Augustan propaganda. It was Augustus (then called Octavian) who in 32 BC persuaded the Senate to strip Antony of his powers and denounce Cleopatra as a drunken eastern whore, essentially starting the war between the two. And as history is written by the victors, we should remember that it was in the winning Augustus’s interests to blacken his enemies’ posthumous reputations to justify why he had led Rome to fight another civil war.
This is not to say that anecdotes about Cleopatra’s bibulous excesses are untrue. But we shouldn’t fall into the trap of seeing her as a waste of space in terms of a leader. Fiercely intelligent, educated in mathematics, philosophy, and astronomy and a speaker of nearly a dozen languages, we should instead imagine Cleopatra as an able ruler (though ultimately unlucky)who knew how to exploit her power to live a life of luxury.