The Greek Queen of Egypt

The Greek Queen of Egypt

On 12 August in 30 BC, the Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra VII Philopater killed herself, quite dramatically, with the bite of an asp.

A classical interpretation of Cleopatra’s suicide, seemingly involving her dancing provocatively around with the deadly snake, a sensual enchantress until the very end.

With this act, Cleopatra’s fame would be solidified for more than two thousand years, while the names of those who vilified her silently dropped out of history and into the dust of the forgotten.  

Books would be written, plays would be staged, movies would be filmed – always invoking the most beautiful women of the time.  After all, a woman who managed to claw out the rule of a decadently prosperous nation in antiquity, seduce Julius Caesar, and then seduce one of the most sybaritic Roman generals of all time in the form of Marc Antony – such a woman must have been unparalleled in her beauty!

A bust of Cleopatra VII Philopater, before the days of face blend apps.

Objectively, though, Cleopatra was not.  Which, quite frankly, should be all the reason needed to discourage the rampant manipulation of photos on Instagram.  Obviously ideal physical beauty pales in attraction to someone who speaks Egyptian. 

An example of a signature that can make a person Instagram famous.

But what Cleopatra was, was powerful.  She was educated, self-assured, and ruthless.  And this didn’t just appear like a gift from Ra in a random daughter of the Egyptian royal house.  

Cleopatra was a member, ostensibly the last member (but not really) of the Ptolemy Dynasty.  A descendent of Alexander the Great’s (likely) half-brother and best friend Ptolemy, her dynasty has seized power from the Persian Empire that had previously controlled Egypt to install a Macedonian-Greek ruling class.  

In nearly 300 years, Cleopatra was the first Ptolemy ruler to actually speak Egyptian.  Smart, assertive ruling women were no stranger to the Macedonian-Greeks; not only did women frequently figure prominently amongst the Ptolemies, but they were also strongly represented in the Macedonia of Philip II and Alexander the Great.  

Even Cleopatra’s proclivity for snakes had a Macedonian precedent; Olympias, Alexander the Great’s mother, was a follower of a snake cult and was known to sleep with serpents. 

Cleopatra well deserves the attention she has received for the last two thousand years, it would take nearly that long for another female leader to appear with such considerable magnetism, skills, and strength of personality in leadership.  But she did not appear in a historical vacuum – her legacy is directly due to the legacy of two rulers who very well may have been the first feminists.

More on the Ptolemaic Dynasty:
Alexander’s Rome

More on Alexander the Great:
Alexander the Great and His Women


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