Happy Valentine’s Day. As a special treat for ourselves on this special day of Black History Month, we’re going to focus on a woman we love and who is our namesake, Cleopatra.
We’re not talking about Elizabeth Taylor, (long story short, Cleopatra wasn’t white), nor Gal Gadot, our favorite wonder woman (we love you too @GalGadot), but rather that icon of world history, that ruler of ancient Egypt, Queen of the Nile, whose boy toys included Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, and undoubtedly, the very same who is one of the best-known and most admired women of all time (that’s not exactly why she is our company’s namesake, but it is because we believe every woman has the potential to become a Cleopatra).
How much do you really know about Cleopatra though? She was born and died before the birth of Jesus, and while she is celebrated in part for her legendary beauty, it was her recognition as a scholar that earned her adoration by Egyptians, Africans, and the Arab world. She spoke as many as a dozen languages and was educated in mathematics, philosophy, oratory and astronomy, and Egyptian sources later described her as a ruler “who elevated the ranks of scholars and enjoyed their company.”
She was Egypt’s last active Pharaoh and even Shakespeare, the greatest bard of all time, was so enamored he wrote one of his greatest tragedies about her. Her family life was…complicated, to say the least, with her oldest sister trying to seize power from her father Ptolemy XII after 300 yrs of family rule (and you get mad because your daughter slams her bedroom door too loudly?). That coup cost her sister’s life.
Cleopatra was only 18 when she became co-regent of Egypt with her brother who was ten at the time after their father died. As was the custom of rulers at the time, she married her younger brother (we said her family life was complicated!) but in a few months dropped his name from official documents and coins only bore her face, lest anyone have any doubt who was ruler.
Cleopatra made allies with Julius Caesar and had a little bon voyage up the Nile with him which resulted in them having a son, who was named Caesarian (btw Caesarian section or C-section is believed to be named after Juilus Caesar, because he was the first, or at least the most famous C-section.) The alliance with Caesar helped her overcome a revolt by her husband brother, who drowned in battle. She may have even had her second brother-husband killed, and probably a sister too (again, complicated family) but this is still debated.
Cleopatra believed herself to be a living goddess, and she often used clever stagecraft to woo potential allies and reinforce her divine status. When summoned to meet this Roman general in Tarsus, she is said to have arrived on a golden barge adorned with purple sails and rowed by oars made of silver. Cleopatra had been made up to look like the goddess Aphrodite, and she sat beneath a gilded canopy while attendants dressed as cupids fanned her and burned sweet-smelling incense. Antony—who considered himself the embodiment of the Greek god Dionysus—was instantly enchanted. This is something we can get behind as opposed to all the sibling incest/death stuff.
So she had this love affair with Caesar and he openly adored her, as clearly evidenced when erected a gilded statue of her in the temple of Venus Genetrix. Cleopatra was forced to flee Rome though after Caesar was stabbed to death in the Roman senate in 44 B.C., but by then she had made her mark on the city. Her exotic hairstyle and pearl jewelry became a fashion trend, and according to the historian Joann Fletcher, “so many Roman women adopted the ‘Cleopatra look’ that their statuary has often been mistaken for Cleopatra herself.”
Cleopatra first began her legendary love affair with the Roman general Mark Antony in 41 B.C. Their relationship had a political component—Cleopatra needed Antony to protect her crown and maintain Egypt’s independence, while Antony needed access to Egypt’s riches and resources—but they were also famously fond of each other’s company. According to ancient sources, they spent the winter of 41-40 B.C. living a life of leisure and excess in Egypt, and even formed their own drinking society known as the “Inimitable Livers.” The group engaged in nightly feasts and wine-binges. Again, we can get behind this.
Cleopatra and Antony famously took their own lives in 30 B.C., after Octavian’s forces pursued them to Alexandria. While Antony is said to have fatally stabbed himself in the stomach, Cleopatra’s method of suicide is less certain. Legend has it that she died by enticing an “asp”—most likely a viper or Egyptian cobra—to bite her arm, but the ancient chronicler Plutarch admits that “what really took place is known to no one.” He says Cleopatra was also known to conceal a deadly poison in one of her hair combs, and the historian Strabo notes that she may have applied a fatal “ointment.”
Still, we’ll celebrate what she has come to mean for potential in women – incredibly smart, politically savvy, a ruler, a lover, confident and sometimes dramatic, and a mother, not just to her son, but her nation.