Cleopatra VII is not only a famous person in history, she is also the icon of a rich and powerful culture. She was usually depicted as a lover of great men, but the truth was different. More important than her love life was her educational pursuits. Cleopatra VII could be called one of the greatest intellectuals of her times.
If someone were to believe that a woman could only achieve such a great position in the ancient world based only on her beauty, they could not be more wrong. Since the beginning of the oldest civilizations, women were able to become independent rulers, but the ones who stayed on the throne the longest, had to learn specific skills to achieve it.
Cleopatra and Caesar (1866). Painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme. (Public Domain)
Since the beginning, the life of Cleopatra was not easy. She was born in 69 BC, as a daughter of pharaoh Ptolemy XII, during a very difficult period in the history of Egypt. Her father was perhaps an intelligent dreamer, but he did not have the skills to be a successful king. Those times in Egypt were already dominated by the Romans, and it seemed that there would be no more great Egyptian rulers. However, Cleopatra changed history.
The powerful reign of Cleopatra
Many short-time female rulers took the throne due to the death of father, husband or brother. However, these women usually ruled for a very short time and frequently faced a tragic end. In the case of Cleopatra, she was elevated to the status of divine goddess, and remained at the level of the pharaohs for many years. Her co-regents, brothers and a son, did not have great power outside Egypt. Cleopatra had taken the responsibility of foreign relations since the beginning of her reign. Moreover, in she came to expand her power to even greater levels.
Most of the knowledge about Cleopatra comes from Roman writers, who followed the expectations of the Emperor and did not write too much about her positive side. She was usually described as a woman who forged her career in the beds of powerful men. In the famous book The Decameron by Italian master of medieval literature Giovanni Boccaccio, she was presented as an allegory of sin. The story of Cleopatra using her eroticism and sexual talents to improve the political situation of Egypt stayed strong over the centuries. However, if it would be true, she would be killed or dethroned faster than she became a lover of Julius Caesar.
Cleopatra is often depicted as a seductress. A drawing by Faulkner of Cleopatra greeting Antony (public domain)
How did it happen that Cleopatra became the last great ruler of Egypt? What was her strength? According to the Plutarch (Life of Antony, XXVII.2-3)"For her beauty, as we are told, was in itself not altogether incomparable, nor such as to strike those who saw her; but converse with her had an irresistible charm, and her presence, combined with the persuasiveness of her discourse and the character which was somehow diffused about her behavior towards others, had something stimulating about it. There was sweetness also in the tones of her voice; and her tongue, like an instrument of many strings, she could readily turn to whatever language she pleased...''.
The bright mind of the Egyptian Queen
Cleopatra, at the beginning of her political career, did not speak Latin. However, it is possible that with time she started to learn it. Cleopatra knew the ancient Egyptian language, she learned how to read hieroglyphs, which was unique to her dynasty. Apart from this, she knew Greek and the languages of the Parthians, Jews, Medes, Trogodyatae, Syrians, Ethiopians and Arabs. With this knowledge, all the books of her world were opened to her. Apart from languages, she studied geography, history, astronomy, international diplomacy, mathematics, alchemy, medicine, zoology, economics and more. She tried to gain all the knowledge of the world.
Ancient Roman sculptures in the Antikensammlung Berlin (CC BY 3.0)
It is known that Cleopatra VII spent a lot of time in a type of ancient laboratory. She wrote at least a few works related to herbs and cosmetology. Unfortunately, all the books by her were lost in the fire of 391 AD, when the great Library of Alexandria was destroyed. Famous physician Galen studied her works and was able to rewrite a few recipes created by her. One of the medicines which he also suggested to his patients was a special cream, which helped men to gain back their hair. Her books also contained beauty tips, but none of them survived. Cleopatra was interested in healing with herbs, due to her linguistic skills she could read papyri, which are now lost. Her impact on the sciences and medicine was well known even during the first centuries of Christianity.
Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Condemned Prisoners by Alexandre Cabanel (1887). (Public Domain)
The testimony of wisdom
When Cleopatra died in 30 BC, she left her greatest legacy in the intellect of her daughter – Cleopatra Selene. This young girl was well prepared for her future life. Her mother gave her lessons and coaching, which provided her with a strong position in the heart of Octavian August. He took care to arrange a good marriage for her, so she became a wife of perhaps the greatest intellectuals between the crown princes of the Mediterranean in the 1st century BC. She got married to the future king Juba II of Mauretania, who allowed his wife to cultivate the memory of her great mother.
The tomb of Juba II and his wife Cleopatra Selene II in Tipaza, Algeria (CC0 1.0)
The wisdom of Cleopatra VII has been forgotten for centuries. However, it seems logical that if she had not been well educated, she would have been killed by the Romans. In a world full of powerful people that were out to see her dead, Cleopatra was able to outsmart them all.
Aleksander Krawczuk, Kleopatra, 1969.
Joyce Tyldesley, Cleopatra. Last Queen of Egypt, 2008.
Joann Fletcher, Cleopatra the Great. The Woman Behind The Legend, 2008.
Was Cleopatra Beautiful?, available at: