Cleopatra: few names evoke more of a sense of exotic history and tragedy. She is legendary for her beauty, as well as her skill at manipulating rulers. While Roman portrayals of her depict a woman eager for power and not particular about how she achieved it, less biased histories reveal a woman with unusual skill in navigating an extremely difficult political environment. One of her least known successes was her attempt to pull Egypt back from the brink of economic disaster.
As most people known, Cleopatra and her family were Macedonian, not Egyptian. While most of her family choose to speak only Greek, Cleopatra acquired an astonishing number of languages, and was known for rarely needing an interpreter when receiving foreign visitors. Her father died when she was 18; in order to ascend to the throne, she was forced to marry her 12-year-old brother, Ptolemy XIII. In spite of this, Cleopatra attempted to rule alone. Ptolemy tried to have her killed, but she escaped to Syria before returning later with a mercenary army to retake her country. At the same time, civil war was waging in Rome, and Pompey came to Egypt seeking safety. Ptolemy thought he saw a chance to ingratiate himself with Rome, and had Pompey killed, presenting Caesar with his severed head. Caesar was disgusted at the dishonorable killing of a Roman. Cleopatra had snuck herself into Caesar’s camp just prior to this, and impressed with her courage and intelligence, sided with her. Ptolemy was killed in the ensuing battle, and Cleopatra’s seat on the throne was secured.
However, while Egypt was a rich land that provided Rome with most of its grain, it was not an untroubled country. In fact, the economy was on the verge of collapse. Cleopatra ordered that the silver content of the Egyptian drachm be reduced to match that of the Roman denarius; this not only made more silver available, but also simplified trade with Rome, and offered a show of solidarity.
Despite many years of successful rule, Cleopatra and her lovers eventually drew the ire of Rome. Julius Caesar was murdered, and Mark Antony took his own life after defeat by Octavian. After failing to create an alliance with Octavian and refusing to be paraded through the streets of Rome as a prisoner, Cleopatra had a venomous asp brought to her and died of its bite.
Cleopatra has been remembered more as a seductive beauty than a great ruler, but contemporary and other sources indicate otherwise. Plutarch wrote of her, “her actual beauty, it is said, was not in itself so remarkable that none could be compared with her. But the contact of her presence, if you lived with her, was irresistible; the attraction of her person, joining with the charm of her conversation, and the character that attended all she said or did, was something bewitching. It was a pleasure merely to hear the sound of her voice.”
Once again, coins come to the rescue. Coins remain one of the best ways to examine ancient history, due to their ubiquity and durability. This denarius shows the busts of both Cleopatra and Mark Antony. Cleopatra appears to have a prominent nose and thin lips, far from the legendary beauty. Over her portrait, the Latin reads “Cleopatra Reginae regum filiorumque regum,” or “For Cleopatra, Queen of kings and of the children of kings.” The coin was minted by Mark Antony’s mint to commemorate his victory in Armenia.
Cleopatra may not be remembered for her portrait on Mark Antony’s denarius, or for her command of the Egyptian economy, but they are as much a part of her legacy as the Hollywood-style stories of doomed love.