Encyclopedia Womannica

Leaders: Cleopatra

Episode Summary

Cleopatra (69 BCE-30 BCE) was a legendary Egyptian ruler.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, and Grace Lynch. Special thanks to Shira Atkins and Edie Allard.

This week of Encyclopedia Womannica is brought to you by HelloFresh. Go to hellofresh.com/encyclopedia10, and use code encyclopedia10 during HelloFresh’s New Year’s sale for 10 free meals including free shipping.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

Our leader today is likely a name you know. But you may not know that she was an extremely talented political and military leader, diplomat, naval commander, and linguist. Let’s talk about Cleopatra. 

Cleopatra was born in 69 BCE. Her father was Ptolemy XII, Pharaoh of Egypt. Ptolemy and Cleopatra were part of a Macedonean dynasty that began with Alexander the Great’s general Ptolemy. 

Cleopatra was Macedonean and probably had very little Egyptian blood. While her native language was Koine Greek, she was the only ruler of her dynasty to also learn the Egyptian language -- the language of her subjects.

The death of Cleopatra’s father in 51 BCE launched her into joint rule with her brother, Ptolemy XIII. But Cleopatra wanted to be the sole ruler of Egypt. She fled to Syria, raised an army, and returned in 48 BCE to challenge her brother at the country’s border.

A promising new figure in Roman politics took notice of the Egyptian family feud -- Julius Caesar. Cleopatra knew she needed his help to defeat her brother, and Caesar sought repayment for debts taken on by Cleopatra’s father. So, the two teamed up as both lovers and political partners. After spending the winter together in Alexandria, Caesar sent Roman troops to dethrone Ptolemy XIII, who ran away and drowned in the Nile. 

Cleopatra took control of the throne. By custom, she was now married to her next brother, Ptolemy XIV, but Cleopatra maintained the majority of control over the country. In 47 BCE, she gave birth to Ptolemy Caesar, also known as Caesarion, or “little Caesar.” Whether Caesarion was actually Julius Caesar’s son is unclear.

Cleopatra visited Caesar in Rome with her new son, and was in the city in 44 BCE when Caesar was murdered. With her strongest ally dead, Cleopatra returned to Alexandria. Many historians believe she had Ptolemy XIV killed in order to secure her son’s future place on the throne.

Though Cleopatra’s means to secure power were cutthroat, she was generally a well-liked leader. During her rule, she oversaw construction of several temples to Egyptian and Greek gods, as well as a synagogue for Jewish people in the country. During a devastating drought and famine, she opened the royal granaries to her starving subjects. She also economically stabilized the country.

Cleopatra liked to maintain an extravagant, mystical image. She personally identified with the goddesses Isis and Aphrodite.

After Caesar’s death, Mark Antony took control of Rome’s eastern territories. Cleopatra made a particularly grand entrance for their first meeting, sailing up the Cydnus River on a barge loaded with gifts, dressed in the robes of Isis. Mark Antony was enchanted by her, despite the fact he already had a wife. The new pair threw lavish parties and often dressed up as gods together.

At that time, Octavian -- also known as Augustus Caesar, Julius Caesar’s adopted son and appointed heir -- was consolidating power. He was Mark Antony’s former ally, but he soon denounced Mark Antony for being under the “thrall” of a foreign queen. Around 31BCE, the Roman Senate ousted Mark Antony from his consulate and declared war against Cleopatra. 

Octavian sent a fleet of ships to attack Mark Antony and Cleopatra’s forces, and the couple faced a devastating defeat. They fled to Egypt, and temporarily split up as Mark Antony went to fight in another battle. While he was away, he received the mistaken news that Cleopatra had died. Devastated, he committed suicide. 

When Cleopara found out about his death in 30BCE, she also committed suicide, partially to avoid capture by Octavian. The two were buried together.

After Cleopatra’s death, the Roman Empire annexed Egypt. This marked the official end of the nearly 300-year Hellenistic period.

Much of our modern view of Cleopatra is still tainted by Roman propaganda that depicted her as a cunning harlot. In reality, Cleopatra was a complex and capable leader.

Join us tomorrow to learn about another legendary, powerful woman!

This week of Encyclopedia Womannica is sponsored by HelloFresh. Whether you’re the leader of a nation or a leader of your household, it can be really hard to find the time to shop, prep, and cook the kinds of meals you want to eat. HelloFresh makes it easy. I get all the ingredients necessary for delicious, easy to make meals delivered right to my door. Recipes take about 30 minutes and they even have 20 minute quick recipe options. I save time and have flexibility. You can change delivery days and food preferences easily, so I don’t have to worry about missing a shipment if I’m traveling. HelloFresh now starts at just $5.66 per serving. Go to hellofresh.com/encyclopedia10, that’s hellofresh.com/Encyclopedia 1-0 and use code encyclopedia10 during HelloFresh’s New Year’s sale for 10 free meals including free shipping.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator!

Talk to you tomorrow!