Thursday, May 16, 2013

Female Financial Firsts 5: Cleopatra's Coins

Statue of Cleopatra at the Royal Ontario Museum

While Roman rights offered great opportunity for financial freedom, it was a non-Roman who captures the next claim to a Female Financial First.

Historian William Monter in his excellent The Rise of Female Kings of Europe, 1300-1800, claims that before the year 1300 there were approximately two dozen women sovereigns of important monarchies around the world.[i]  Unfortunately, thanks to the ravages of time, the extant documentary records are incomplete. Yet what has survived is incontrovertible because it is metal.

"This hard evidence is first and foremost numismatic. For over two thousand years the issuing of coins has been a universally recognized method for both male and female sovereigns to proclaim their official status."[ii] 
Cleopatra's silhouette is the first woman ruler's likeness on a coin

Among these madam monarchs, perhaps the best recognized (and least matronly?) was the woman vilified by the Romans, made famous by Shakespeare, and (much later) immortalized by Elizabeth Taylor[iii]: the monarch known today as Cleopatra (69-30 BC). The great Roman poet Lucan, who was a close, personal friend of the Emperor Nero (at least until Nero ordered him to commit suicide) devoted his entire final tenth chapter of his “History of the Civil Wars” to the story of Caesar and Cleopatra, and the tumultuous times of the previous century.  Her legacy was such that Lucan openly wondered “Whether a woman, not of Roman blood, Should hold the world in awe.”[iv]

While Cleopatra’s story may not justify subsequent centuries’ fascination, she did contribute a financial first. More properly addressed as Cleopatra VII, she was “the first woman ruler to put both her image and titles on numerous coins struck both in Egypt and in several parts of the Eastern Mediterranean”.[v]

Hailed a “great beauty” by contemporaries[vi], Cleopatra was also an energetic ruler. Ascending to the throne at the age of 18, she somehow managed to bear children from two of the most powerful Roman generals of her time: Mark Antony and Julius Caesar. Love and politics rarely mix well and these matches proved fatal for Cleopatra, who met a difficult and untimely end (suicide at the age of 39).

Cleopatra was the last in a line of ruling Pharaohs. As such her story slips easily into European history (even though, by geography, she belongs equally to Africa and perhaps even to Asia). Still, if we look beyond our Mediterranean littoral, strong documentary evidence exists of women involved in financial firsts well before the last of the Pharaohs. It is to the East that we will turn next.


[i] William Monter, The Rise of Female Kings of Europe, 1300-1800, claims (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), p.2. Wikipedia has an excellent excerpt on this subject: “Women had a high status in ancient Egypt and enjoyed the legal right to own, inherit, or will property. A woman becoming pharaoh was rare, however; only SobekneferuNeferneferuatenCleopatra VII and possibly Khentkaus I and Nitocris[18] preceded her in known records as ruling solely in their own name. The existence of this last ruler is disputed and is likely a mis-translation of a male king. Twosret, a female king and the last pharaoh of the nineteenth dynasty, may have been the only woman to succeed her among the indigenous rulers. In Egyptian history, there was no word for a "queen regnant" as in contemporary history, "king" being the Ancient Egyptian title regardless of gender, and by the time of her reign, pharaoh had become the name for the ruler. Hatshepsut is not unique, however, in taking the title of king. Sobekneferu, ruling six dynasties prior to Hatshepsut, also did so when she ruled Egypt. Hatshepsut had been well trained in her duties as the daughter of the pharaoh. During her father's reign she held the powerful office of God's Wife. She had taken a strong role as queen to her husband and was well experienced in the administration of her kingdom by the time she became pharaoh. There is no indication of challenges to her leadership and, until her death, her co-regent remained in a secondary role, quite amicably heading her powerful army—which would have given him the power necessary to overthrow a usurper of his rightful place, if that had been the case.
[ii] William Monter, The Rise of Female Kings of Europe, 1300-1800, claims (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), p.2
[iii] See a description of Elizabeth Taylor’s career defining role as Cleopatra here
[iv] See the online English translation of Book X of Lucan’s “History of the Civil Wars” here:   (quote from lines 79-80). Accessed May 16, 2013
[v] William Monter, The Rise of Female Kings of Europe, 1300-1800, claims (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), p.6
[vi] There is great debate about how Cleopatra looked. By contemporaries she was hailed as a great beauty. The poet Lucan, who theoretically was able to consult contemporary records, wrote (about 61 AD – 100 years after her death) that Cleopatra was “so fair haired that Caesar said he had never seen hair so red in the Rhine country [i.e., Germany]”. Joann Fletcher, Cleopatra the Great: The Woman Behind the Legend, (New York: Harper Collins, 2008), p.106. A more recent examination of this pressing issue can be found here;

Copyright 2013 by David Baeckelandt. All rights reserved. No reproduction in any form or format permitted without my express, written permission. Sorry! 

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