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The new Netflix documentary series Queen Cleopatra has already courted controversy over its decision to portray the famous queen as a Black woman, but the producers of the series say they are more concerned with exploring Cleopatra’s story “as a queen, strategist, [and] ruler of formidable intellect.”
Cleopatra ruled Egypt from 51 BCE until 30 BCE, when she took her own life following defeat by her Roman rival Octavian. Too often portrayed as a sultry seductress or tragic heroine, she was in fact an incredibly intelligent leader who excelled at politics, diplomacy, communications, and building strategic allegiances with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, among others.
Here are eight attributes of the legendary queen of Egypt that made her such a powerful and effective ruler.
She was well-educated and intelligent
Cleopatra was a “remarkably educated person,” particularly considering that women in her time period were not usually afforded the same educational opportunities as men, according to Cleopatra: A Biography by Duane W. Roller. “She was said to take an almost sensuous pleasure in learning and scholarship,” Roller wrote.
She was knowledgeable about a wide range of topics, including economics, law, military strategy, and linguistics. By contrast, her brother Ptolemy XIII, with whom she jointly ruled Egypt from 51 to 47 BCE, was believed to have had little education, according to Roller.
She was an excellent communicator
Cleopatra was an extremely strong communicator, believed to have been fluent in at least nine languages, and was one of the few Ptolemaic leaders to learn and use the native Egyptian language, according to The Reign of Cleopatra by Stanley M. Burstein. This allowed her to speak directly to the diverse populations under her rule.
In addition to her subjects, Cleopatra excelled at communicating with neighboring heads of state and other political allies. For example, her communication with Herod the Great—despite her own personal dislike of the king of Judea—resulted in trade routes and mercantile arrangements between the two leaders, according to Roller.
She had a ruthless side
Cleopatra was not afraid to get her hands dirty, and in fact she had several of her own siblings killed to secure her power. She engaged in a civil war with her brother Ptolemy XIII for the control of the crown and ultimately combined forces with Julius Caesar to claim victory during the Battle of the Nile. Ptolemy XIII died shortly after in 47 BCE.
Cleopatra arranged for Mark Antony to execute her half-sister Arsinoe IV for her role in a siege against Cleopatra’s forces, according to the book Cleopatra by Michael Grant. She is also widely believed to have poisoned her 15-year-old brother Ptolemy XIV so that her son, Caesarion, could replace him as pharaoh, according to the Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece.
She had public relations skills
While clearly capable of brutality when necessary, Cleopatra was equally known for her charisma. In fact, Shannon Bowen, a professor at the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina, argues Cleopatra was a master of what today would be considered public relations.
Cleopatra garnered appreciation from her subjects by holding public forums, providing information about agriculture and commerce, and hosting events with performers, animals, and free food for spectators. “She had a way of making people feel at ease and was able to win over even the most skeptical of individuals with her wit and charm,” Bowen wrote. “This made her an effective leader, as she was able to inspire loyalty and respect from those around her.”
She formed important strategic alliances
Throughout her reign, Cleopatra formed partnerships with powerful allies to position herself and her kingdom for maximum advantage. Perhaps her most famous such alliance was with Julius Caesar, with whom she had both a political allegiance and romantic affair, which gave her the military strength she needed to dethrone her brother and seize the Egyptian crown.
Following Caesar’s assassination in 44 BCE, Cleopatra married his successor and key ally, Mark Antony, who formed part of the three-man Second Triumvirate that ruled Rome. Both benefited from this relationship, with Antony receiving financial and military support from Cleopatra, who in turn sought Antony’s help in expanding Egypt’s eastern border.
She was a risk-taker
Cleopatra didn’t hesitate to make bold moves or calculated risks for the benefit of her power or her kingdom. One famous example was approaching Caesar on the island of Antirhodos to propose an alliance, despite losing her civil war against Ptolemy XIII at the time. Films about Cleopatra, from the 1934 movie starring Claudette Colbert to the better-known 1963 biopic starring Elizabeth Taylor, depict her being secretly smuggled to Caesar inside a rolled up carpet. That story is largely a myth, but nevertheless, Cleopatra’s willingness to make those overtures to Caesar speaks to her calculating and risk-taking nature.
She was charming, if not beautiful
Although Cleopatra is often portrayed as stunningly beautiful, historians say that wasn’t necessarily the case. Greek biographer Plutarch wrote “for her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her.” Likewise, The National Inquirer infamously reported in a 2000 article that Cleopatra had a “big schnozz.”
But while Cleopatra might not have been the seductive temptress the way we’ve seen in the movies, even Plutarch noted she had an “irresistible charm” as well as a sweet voice, persuasive nature, and stimulating presence. The New York Times described her as unafraid to show her age or blemishes, noting coins with her image did not attempt to conceal her wrinkles.
She was skilled at naval tactics
Cleopatra was the first queen of Greek descent to be a skilled naval commander since Artemisia of Halicarnassus more than four centuries earlier, according to Roller. Cleopatra commanded a formidable fleet, which she personally brought to Greece to assist Mark Antony in his conflict with Caesar’s assassin Cassius, according to Burstein.
Octavian, the future Roman emperor, did manage to defeat the naval fleet of Cleopatra and Antony during the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE. Based on this, Cleopatra has sometimes been called a poor naval commander, but historian Barry Strauss argued that is undeserved, noting she was able to save much of the fleet despite being outnumbered and coping with poor weather.
Watch Queen Cleopatra on Netflix
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