Cleopatra’s image is mostly associated with dramatic eye makeup, shoulder-length dark hair and an elaborate golden crown, all adorning a face that could conquer powerful men. This image of Cleopatra has been deeply ingrained in our brains through popular culture.

Nivedita Karki

This semester, I took a mini course in classical civilization titled CLCIV 125 — Cleopatra. What prompted me to take this class was the fact that Cleopatra was a pharaoh of Egypt and ruled an entire kingdom, but the only concept that I’d been brought up to associate with her name was immeasurable beauty. Her name ignited the image of a person whose face could mesmerize anyone.

I consider myself a feminist. I’ve been writing my column for The Michigan Daily in my pursuit to attract female students to technology and entrepreneurship, and to call on the University to recognize the gender imbalance currently in place in computer science, my intended major. Thus, the perception of Cleopatra was one that perpetuated one of the ideas that I’ve been fighting all this time; the idea that in order to be powerful, to do anything of mass significance, a woman has to be beautiful. The idea that in order to be remembered in the pages of history, a woman’s appearance had to be able to charm and attract.

There’s one important similarity that I’ve noticed between the history of technology and the history associated with Cleopatra, what we know has come through ages of documentation made by a single, like-minded majority: men. Specifically, Caucasian, European men. For women in technology, this has meant that their names have faded from the rich history of computer science (did you know the first ever computer programmer was a female?), and for Cleopatra this meant that the focus shifted from her work as a pharaoh to her relationships and her physical appearance.

Among the texts I read in my class, several cite Greek-male historian Plutarch’s work word-for-word. The problem is Plutarch associated Cleopatra’s political moves almost entirely with her looks. When mentioning Cleopatra alongside powerful Roman men such as Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, he uses the words “captivated,” “succumbing,” “brilliant beauty” and “evil … love.”

Plutarch’s work not only seemed to have influenced literary work, but also TV shows and movies including HBO’s “Rome” and “Cleopatra” starring Elizabeth Taylor. With the limited information available about her, this makes you question if we could ever really know the real Cleopatra. Though there’s no factual evidence for the kind of relationships Cleopatra had with the aforementioned men, Plutarch’s depiction takes away from what Cleopatra did for her kingdom as ruler.

Seeing myself recognize these partialities, these single-gender accounts of history, I realize that I’ve become acutely aware of Cleopatra’s remarkable work as a ruler. A member of the Ptolemaic dynasty — a family of Greek origin that ruled Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great — Cleopatra was the last active pharaoh of Egypt. While being proficient in Greek, she learned how to speak the native Egyptian language and also picked up several other languages. As a result, Cleopatra almost never needed translators when conversing with non-Greeks, making her outreach more profound.

Egyptian kingship culture was almost always influenced not just by the ruler’s administration of the country, but also by the his/her role in religion. Cleopatra was highly aware of this fact, and depicted herself as the New Isis, an Egyptian goddess. Egypt flourished under her rule, and with her adoption of the Egyptian culture, she comes across as a more personable and understanding ruler than any of her ancestors.

As to her relationship with Caesar and Antony, what is important to mention is that though Egyptian culture accepted women rulers, it also required them to be accompanied by a male counterpart. Much like her female predecessors, Cleopatra had to share her throne first with her father and later with her brothers. However, it was Cleopatra’s courage and will to protect her country that came across when she travelled to Rome to form relations with Julius Caesar. Later, after Caesar’s death, she went on to have relations with Mark Antony.

When most think of Cleopatra they associate her image not with administrative power, but with immeasurable beauty and sexual charm. However, one must understand that had it not been for the Egyptian culture of a female ruler requiring a male partner, Cleopatra might have never had to form romantic relationships (if she didn’t want to, that is) with the Romans or Greek men in power. And if that was the case, who knows what kind of a Cleopatra we would’ve all known.

What would Cleopatra be remembered for if our historical accounts of her were documented by a female historian? Would they have highlighted her work more? Been more empathetic? Not contributed to Cleopatra’s hyper-sexualization over two millennia?

And this makes me wonder, had women documented the evolution of the tech and entrepreneurship industries too, would we hear of Grace Hopper as often as we hear of Steve Jobs? How different would things be for me as a girl pursuing computer science in college today? Would the dot-com boom from the late 1990s and the ongoing mobile apps revolution have stemmed from the wide interests of both men and women? Would male participants not have objectified women in Hackathon projects? Or would women and men both have objectified each other?

It’s so strange that it’s hard to imagine such a reality.

Nivedita Karki can be reached at nivkarki@umich.edu.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.