I get asked this question quite a bit and there isn’t an easy answer. There have been countless prominent people throughout history. So why is Cleopatra famous even 2,000+ years after her death while other people of greater or equal political prominence remain obscure? In many ways, Cleopatra was the world’s first celebrity. Thousands of years before her, the Egyptian pharaohs were regarded more as gods than men. This in itself would have made them extremely eminent. But Egypt was fairly closed off to the outside world at the time. There was very little access to the royal family by Egyptians, not to mention foreigners. The rulers of more distant lands, such as China and India, were even more separated from the western world.
On the other hand, Cleopatra ruled from a relatively new capital, Alexandria. The city bridged the gap between east and west. It was the first of its kind, with visitors from across the known world. Architectural wonders were built to satisfy the eyes as well as the mind. Foreigners were welcome to trade and study in the city. Tourism soared. This created an ideal breeding ground for worldwide gossip. Bring an exceptionally smart and beautiful woman into the mix and you’ve got yourself a celebrity.
A young queen smuggling herself into her own palace inside a carpet is exactly the kind of news people loved to talk about. Her affair with Julius Caesar created a scandalous sexual tabloid very similar to those we see today. Within weeks, everyone was talking about the pair. Stories became more and more imaginative with each retelling until Cleopatra became more of a myth than a woman. She remained in the spotlight for the rest of her life and the gossip followed.
Even after the exaggerated stories died away, Cleopatra survived through paintings, theater, literature, and most recently cinema. She can be seen in everything from board games to slot machines. The allure of a mysterious eastern queen is hard to shake off. But even those who learn about the woman behind the myth discover something captivating. It’s difficult to read Cleopatra’s life story and not be inspired by it. She overcame problems of every sort: familial, political, financial, marital. Born into an unpopular debt-ridden incestuous family, it appears she was destined for failure. Despite the odds against her, she managed to find success in each area of her life. And although her greatest battle was lost, she continued to do everything (even die) on her own terms. She isn’t remembered as someone who succeeded in everything, but she certainly tried.
Header Image: Cleopatra LEGO minifigure. Post Images: Cleopatra computer game by Impressions Games, 2010 Cleopatra Barbie doll