Lessons in Power from History’s Most Influential Women: The Story of Cleopatra

Smart, charming, persuasive and daring, she ruled an empire and captivated two of the most powerful men of her time.

Cleopatra and Caesar by Jean-Leon Gerome

When you think of powerful women, maybe Michelle Obama or Ruth Bader Ginsburg come to mind. Or perhaps you think of the solidarity behind the #MeToo movement and the women who took down Harvey Weinstein. Certainly there have been amazing women throughout time who have exerted power and changed the course of history. This is the story of Cleopatra, one of the most famous women of antiquity. Hers is a tale of power won, lost, regained, and then lost forever as Egypt fell to the Roman Empire. Cleopatra’s story has enthralled listeners for over two millennia and offers us lessons in power that are still relevant to us today.

In her best selling book, Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff, the author dispenses with the notion that Cleopatra was a bombshell seductress and presents evidence that instead she was a highly intelligent, extremely talented strategist and stateswoman. Cleopatra was the last Pharaoh of Egypt. She ruled with absolute power and entertained richly and lavishly.

In contrast to the sex siren images of Cleopatra presented in movies during the twentieth century, portrayed by such beauties as Claudette Colbert, Vivien Leigh, Sophia Loren, and Elizabeth Taylor, in reality Cleopatra was unlikely to have been a great beauty. Another Egyptian Queen, Nefertiti, holds that title.

Cleopatra’s ancestry was Macedonian Greek. We don’t know exactly what Cleopatra looked like. Roman historian Plutarch writes that “her beauty…was in itself not altogether incomparable”. After Cleopatra’s death, the Romans systematically destroyed the images of the late Queen. One of the few images that does remain is found on Egyptian currency from the time of her reign. The image shows her with a hooked nose and a strong profile.

Cleopatra is reported to have been extremely charming and captivating. Roman writers describe Cleopatra as intelligent and charismatic, possessing a seductive voice. Plutarch writes that:

“converse with her had an irresistible charm, her presence combined with the persuasiveness of her discourse and the character that was somehow diffused about her behavior towards others had something stimulating about it” (Life of Antony XXV11.2–3).

It is her charm and persuasiveness that changed the course of history.

Cleopatra VII was born about 69 BC and was part of the Ptolemaic dynasty. Her father was Ptolemy XII Auletes and her mother was Cleopatra V, Ptolemy’s half sister. In Egypt as in Rome, oratory was highly valued. Cleopatra would have received a well-rounded education that involved studies in philosophy, rhetoric and oratory. She developed into a skilled public speaker. It is said she may have been able to speak a dozen languages. Prior pharaohs in Cleopatra’s line disdained the Egyptian language, and refused to speak it. Cleopatra understood the strategic benefits of being able to speak the language of the people and learned Egyptian. A fluency in Egyptian also allowed Cleopatra to align herself with the goddess Isis and to claim semi-deity status.

At age 14 Cleopatra was assigned as joint regent and deputy of her father, Ptolemy XII Auletes. Following Auletes death in 51 BC, Cleopatra, eighteen at the time, ascended the throne with her ten-year-old brother Ptolemy XIII, to whom she was wed. Cleopatra sought to take sole control of the throne but was met with powerful resistance, especially on the part of Ptolemy’s advisers. She was driven out of Egypt. In the desert she raised a mercenary army from the Arabian tribes west of Pelusium with the intent of regaining her power.

The arrival of Julius Caesar in Egypt in 48 BC offered Cleopatra another avenue by which she might seize power. She arranged to have herself smuggled behind enemy lines and into the palace where Caesar was staying. Cleopatra may have been hidden inside a sack, although legend has it that she was rolled up in a carpet that was unrolled before Julius Caesar. While it is possible that she was unrolled from her carpet and dazzled Caesar in her royal garb, it seems unlikely that after emerging from her banishment in the desert, being transported down the Nile and smuggled into the palace, that she did not look as stunning as movies might have us believe. It is likely that she employed her intelligence, charm, and persuasive oratory to plead her case before Caesar.

Retrato de Julio Cesar

Initially Caesar sought to reconcile the warring siblings so that they could again jointly rule. Soon though, Caesar succumbed to Cleopatra’s will and sided with her to regain control of the Egyptian throne. After a six-month war between Ptolemy XIII’s troops and Caesar’s Roman Army, Ptolemy XIII was killed. Caesar returned Cleopatra to her throne, installing her with another younger brother, Ptolemy XIV as her co-regent. This was according to Egyptian law that required that Cleopatra have a consort in order to rule.

When they met, Cleopatra was 21 years old and Caesar was 52. They quickly became lovers and nine months after their meeting, Cleopatra gave birth to Caesar’s son whom she named Ptolemy Caesar. He soon became known as Caesarion, meaning little Caesar.

Shortly before his son’s birth, Caesar had returned to Rome. Cleopatra, Ptolemy XIV and Caesarion visited Caesar in Rome. The relationship between Cleopatra and Caesar was considered scandalous as Caesar was already married. Caesar established Cleopatra in his home and openly recognized Caesarion as his son. There were some that were concerned that Caesar planned to marry Cleopatra although there were laws that prohibited this.

Any marriage plans that may have existed came abruptly to a halt. During the time of their visit, Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C. He was murdered outside of the Senate Building in Rome in a conspiracy of his Senators who found his lust for power to be a threat to the republic. Cleopatra’s entourage returned to Rome. Caesar’s will failed to make provisions for Cleopatra or Caesarion. This left Cleopatra in a precarious situation.

Upon their return to Rome, Ptolemy XIV died (allegedly poisoned by his sister). Cleopatra made Caesarion her co-regent at the age of four.

The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema

Mark Antony, one of the triumvirs who ruled Rome following Caesar’s death, sent for Cleopatra in 41 B.C. with the intent of ascertaining her loyalty. Antony hoped that Cleopatra would support his intended war against the Parthians. Cleopatra met and charmed Antony and he chose to spend the winter of 41B.C. — 40 BC with her in Alexandria. In December of 40 B.C. Cleopatra gave birth to twins fathered by Mark Antony — Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene II. Four years later Anthony visited Alexandria again. He married Cleopatra (although he was already married to another woman back in Rome) and took up residence in Alexandria. Cleopatra gave birth to their third child together, Ptolemy Philadelphus.

Cleopatra’s relationships with Caesar and then with Antony were instrumental in securing and maintaining her ruling status as well as providing Roman protection to Egypt. She entertained lavishly and supported Caesar and Antony monetarily and with ships, weapons and troops. Her power grew and in 34 B.C. Cleopatra and Caesarion were crowned co-rulers of Egypt and Cyprus. Alexander Helios was crowned ruler of Armenia, Media, and Parthia. Cleopatra Selene II was crowned ruler of Cyrenaica and Libya. Ptolemy Philadelphus was crowned ruler of Phoenicia, Syria, and Cilicia.

In 33 B.C. Octavian, another of the triumvirs, convinced the Roman Senate to wage war against Egypt. Octavian invaded Egypt in 30 B.C. Antony’s armies deserted him. Defeated by Octavian and believing Cleopatra to be dead, Antony committed suicide by falling on his sword. Upon learning that Cleopatra was indeed alive, Antony was brought to Cleopatra where he died in her arms. Not wishing to be a war trophy for Octavian, Cleopatra then committed suicide herself, allegedly by allowing herself to be bitten by an asp. She died on August 12, 30 BC at the age of 39. Octavian had Caesarion murdered but spared Cleopatra’s three children by Antony.

Bright, charming and persuasive, Cleopatra captured the interest and allegiance of two of the most powerful men in the world at that time. She has been immortalized in art and literature, including Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Whether intentional or not, for Game of Thrones fans, there are even similarities to the young Daenerys Targaryen — A young future queen (a product of incest to keep bloodlines pure) is banished to the desert and raises an army to take power. A great orator, multilingual and speaking the language of the people, she forms strategic alliances to gain and hold power.

What lessons can Cleopatra teach us about power?

  1. Persuasiveness and charm are a powerful combination.
    Roman writers, such as Dio and Plutarch, point to Cleopatra’s appeal emanating from her persuasive discourse and charm. In today’s world of fake news and unsubstantiated truths, educated arguments made by a great orator and linguist would be a welcome contrast. And what about charm? In our online world, maybe charm doesn’t hold the importance that it once had. But in face-to-face sales, charm and charisma have always helped to close the deal. So too in personal relationships. In short, charm makes the ask all that much sweeter.
  2. The powerful can be ruthless.
    Cleopatra was not always charming. Sometimes she was ruthless. She was involved directly or indirectly in the death of her three siblings. Murder marked the Ptolemaic Dynasty, and Cleopatra was no exception.
  3. Your enemies will try to defame you.
    Roman propaganda paints Cleopatra as an evil temptress. Poet Propertius calls her a “whore queen” (Poems, III.11.39) and Horace calls her a “fatal monster” (Odes, I.37.21) . Historian Duane Roller, author of Cleopatra: A Biography, explains that much that was written about Cleopatra was created by her enemies who “saw her as a dangerous threat to the Roman Republic and [built] her up as a horrible woman who led men to their doom.”
  4. Even the powerful can face double standards.
    Though Caesar and Antony were both regarded as womanizers, it is Cleopatra, who was with only two men over the last 18 years of her life, that was branded as a ruinous seductress.
  5. Power is enhanced through strategic alliances.
    While Romans berated her, modern eyes may instead recognize Cleopatra as the capable strategist and stateswoman that she was. Cleopatra teaches us the critical importance of identifying and forming alliances with those who can enhance your power. It is through her alliances that Cleopatra secured protection and brought wealth to her country, as well as enabled her to produce heirs with the potential to serve as successors to her throne.

Cleopatra is truly a woman for the millennia. And while we may live in very different times, her story reminds us that — when it comes to power — the lessons are indeed timeless.

Mary O’Connell is a professional with 25+ years of work experience in public and private companies, for-profits and not-for-profits, global and domestic.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store