What You Don't Know About Kleopatra
Separating the Facts from the Fiction

by Karen Essex

Unlike the femme-fatale image to which she is commonly relegated, Kleopatra was a beloved ruler, businesswoman, stateswoman, negotiator, diplomat and warrior queen.

Kleopatra didn't have one drop of Egyptian blood. She was pure Macedonian Greek, a direct descendant of Alexander the Great. Her family ruled Egypt from 323 BC until her death in 30 BC.

Far from the conniving temptress of myth, Kleopatra was loved by the Egyptian people-unusual for a member of her dynasty. Literally worshipped as the human incarnation of the goddess Isis, Pharaoh and Savior were among her many titles.

Kleopatra became queen of Egypt at eighteen years of age, and was one of two or three women in Egypt's six thousand year history to govern without a male relative.

Caesar and Antony, respectively the two most powerful men in the world, made political and sexual alliances with Kleopatra not because she was an enchantress, but because she was the richest woman in the world and queen of a strategically located nation. She had the resources to build them a large and adept navy, and she was the only ruler in the ancient world who could finance their grandiose plans of out-distancing the achievements of Alexander the Great.

Kleopatra was not promiscuous. She had no known lovers besides Julius Caesar and Antony. She was very loyal to those two men, bearing their children to ensure ties with Rome.

Kleopatra spoke at least nine languages fluently-Arabic, Syrian, Troglodyte, Ethiopian, Hebrew, among them-and was the first and only of her dynasty to learn the Egyptian tongue.

Kleopatra was conversant in the arts and sciences. Under her rule, Alexandria flourished as the scholarly center of the world; she invited the most brilliant and innovative mathematicians, philosophers, and poets of the day to study, research and teach. She amazed the court at Rome with her intelligence and erudition (not with her parades like in the movies) when she visited Caesar in that city.

Like many of her ancestresses, Kleopatra was a warrior queen. According to the historian Florus, she was "free from all womanly fear." An excellent horsewoman, in 36 BC, she and Antony left Alexandria for his grand war-the war to end all wars-with Parthia. Only when she found out that she was pregnant did she turn around. Nonetheless, she used the opportunity to visit her neighboring kingdoms where she checked on her sources of revenues and renewed diplomatic alliances.

Kleopatra didn't particularly want to rule the world, as her detractors said, but to save it from the barbarism of Roman dominion. The preservation of Greek culture, Greek thought and the Greek way of life was very important to her. She aligned herself with Rome's two most powerful men to save her beloved East-its history, its magic, its sumptuousness, its beauty-from conquest by the uncivilized, graceless West.

Kleopatra was a real businesswoman. Graeco-Roman Egypt was a giant bureaucracy, but Kleopatra ran it like a business. The fertile land of the Nile yielded enough grain to feed Rome, and Kleopatra bartered this and other assets with the superpower. She was known as the dealmaker of the East, extracting revenue from the resources of all her neighbors in exchange for her support. She took advantage of the European craze for all things Egyptian, overseeing an impressive government- run export business.

Kleopatra was not Antony's downfall, but his partner and greatest ally. She committed the treasure of her ancestors and the resources of her nation to his causes. She never betrayed Antony, though Octavian asked her to do so in exchange for her own life. She encouraged Antony when he despaired, and took over all military strategy when he lost hope. When he died by his own hand in her arms she lacerated her body in her grief.

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