Wealthy women are rare to come across in history books, particularly when one discounts fortunes acquired by marriage or inheritance.

Perhaps that’s why Cleopatra is so captivating.

Reasons for this vary from social roles, assigned domestic roles like childrearing and home care to women,  discriminatory primogeniture rules and property laws that fuel constraints.

But things have changed. Today, headlines and top ten lists laudingly showcase women presidents, CEOs, entrepreneurs, entertainers, as trailblazers shattering glass ceilings left and right across industries. But once upon a few millennia,

Cleopatra VII Philopator was born in the year 69 B.C. At eighteen she was the Queen of Egypt. By twenty, the richest woman in the Mediterranean. Net worth: 2.6% of the GDP of the world.

She inherited a kingdom, but one in economic and political decline. Egypt was in debt, rebellious, and hungry, and Rome was expanding nearby. On the eighteen-year-old’s agenda:

  • Regain former overseas lands.
  • Control or expel foreign troops in Egypt.
  • Resolve debt to Rome incurred by her exiled father.
  • Finesse a coalition with whoever happened to be ruling Rome that month.
  • Pacify the riot-prone southern Egyptians.
  • Pacify the assassination-prone Alexandrians.
  • Regulate food supply.
  • Run the justice system and fix a debased currency.

Cleopatra was then and is known today as many things: beautiful, dangerous, sensual, and thirsty for blood and power. Those may or may not all be accurate. What she did prove to be was intelligent and a cunning and skillful leader.

Within three years, she had transformed Egypt’s economy into one of the most closely controlled in history; all assets were owned by the state, which determined and monitored their use:

“No matter who farmed it — Egyptian peasant, Greek settler, temple priest — most land was royal land,” and the greatest industries – wheat, glass, papyrus, linen, oils, and unguents – were royal monopolies. Through taxation, organization, and strategic trade alliances, notably with Rome, Cleopatra built a sophisticated, effective, highly lucrative system.

Her subjects paid taxes and her partners, hefty prices for oil, grain, and other commodities. Cleopatra personally reaped great profits, her annual cash revenue between 12,000 and 15,000 silver talents.

Unimaginable wealth, “the equivalent of all of the hedge fund managers of yesteryear rolled into one.” By today’s standards, her net worth was as high as $95.8 billion.

Her physique was legendary, as were her love affairs with certain Roman emperors and her confrontations with others. But “whore queen” or not, divine beauty or not, murderess, temptress, or victim, Cleopatra should be remembered as a highly educated woman who knew how to speak at least nine languages, quell a rebellion, feed a nation, build a fleet, re-establish an empire, and brilliantly manage money.

Yara Zgheib

Author Yara Zgheib

Yara is a writer, policy researcher and analyst, and lover of culture, travel, nature, art. She is the author of The Girls at 17 Swann Street and blogger behind Aristotle at Afternoon Tea. She has written for The Huffington Post, The Four Seasons Magazine, The Idea List, A Woman’s Paris, and Holiday Magazine.

More posts by Yara Zgheib

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