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The Cleopatra Complex

In todays society, women are more than just wives and mothers; we go to college, have careers, and volunteer our time to causes near to our hearts. We vote, run governments, and drink cosmopolitans with our girlfriends on a Friday night. Our success is no longer measured by our association with men in our lives. While I in no way would consider myself a feminist, I have always appreciated the freedoms that we sometimes take for granted and have admired strong and ambitious females who are today’s Renaissance women.

This appreciation has turned into a fascination with historical ladies who were ahead of their time, which was partially the reason that I picked up Margaret George’s The Memoirs of Cleopatra. The fictional autobiography by Cleopatra is both lush in detail and wonderfully well-researched, from the food eaten and clothes worn to the military maneuvers and battle outcomes. George shows another side to the infamous Queen, taking us from Cleopatra’s childhood to her death from her own point of view. Yes, it is sympathetic and romanticized, but George somehow breathes life into the characters in a way that made me feel as though I could pass them on the street today. Her Cleopatra is everything that her reputation purports her to be: intelligent, captivating, charismatic, and strategic. Unlike Cleopatra’s contemporaries who resorted to character defamation and reduced her to a barbaric, home-wreaking harlot, George gives cause to Cleopatra’s machinations and paints her relationships with Caesar and Antony in a beautiful and sincere light.

As I read this account of the famed Queen, I was struck by her seemingly opposite mates and the way the relationships were portrayed. It got me thinking about our Renaissance women and how strong females are navigating the world of dating today. Are men afraid of, or perhaps more appropriately phrased, intimidated by intelligent and successful women? Are there still the same stigmas attached to women who take life by the horns and stare competition in the face without asking men what they think? Not that these women (myself included) care nothing at all for a fulfilling relationship with a man or a traditional home life. I count my cousin, a wife, mother, friend, manager at her job, and homemaker, among them. Despite having a college education, ambition in her job, and a fulfilling life with loyal girlfriends, she still wants those things in life that most would call traditional. But, when looking for someone to share the life we have built, are we fighting against ourselves? Do we have a “Cleopatra Complex?”

I can’t tell you how many times I have been in a bar or out with friends, taking to a guy who is taken aback at my education, wondering what it is that still gets at men after all these centuries? While the majority of men do want someone that they can converse with and who is more than a trophy wife, there is still an underlying discomfort with brainy or successful women that manifests itself in small, subconscious ways. It could be in the proverbial question of “well what do you do with a degree like that?” or in the sexualization of a serious career.

“You’re a librarian? That’s hot. What’s the penalty if my book is overdue?” a guy once asked with a wink at a friend’s birthday party.

The other common response to my overpriced degrees and career goals has been competition. After a brief response to the “what do you do” question at another excursion to a bar, I reciprocated my interest by asking the same question. The guy retaliated with an impressive, albeit slightly arrogant, explanation of his career in finance and his entrepreneurial success in a recent venture.

Which is where I come back to Cleopatra. Her two relationships, as portrayed in the book, put men who are partners of strong women into two camps: the competition and the follower. I realize this might be an oversimplification, but essentially, this is how I saw both Caesar and Antony, respectively.

Kleopatra VII, Altes Museum, Berlin

Kleopatra VII, Berliner Museumsinsel

Caesar was the guy at the bar with his future Fortune 500 company. While the book displays a loving and passionate romance in which both parties respected each other, it is ultimately a struggle of wills between the independent Egyptian Queen and the Roman hero, whether it be over showing grand strategy plans in war, exerting power over his and her image, or giving lavish gifts to one another.

The competition isn’t necessarily bad though. Until now, I’ve sounded quite pessimistic. Yet, there isn’t any rule saying that because men feel discomfort or intimidation by intelligent women, they automatically do not respect or have regard for them. In fact, Caesar is quite impressed with Cleopatra’s wisdom for her twenty something years and mastery of close to a dozen languages. He has a relationship with her in which they challenge each other.

Then we come to Antony, who is quite different from Caesar. He unfortunately comes off just how Augustus made him out to be in his mud-slinging campaigns; bewitched by Cleopatra, overly fond of wine, and frivolous. In other words, Antony is a frat boy stuck in a grown man’s body. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Antony and Cleopatra love story and he is a likable character, who I grew to almost feel sorry for, because he transformed into what I called the “follower.” By the time Cleopatra finally seduces Antony, she has evolved into a widow, a mother, a fully independent ruler making choices for her country, and an experienced lover. Antony too is impressed with her opulence, charm, and sexual aptitude, but unlike Caesar, I do not think he was a born ruler. He surely is a born leader and general, but Cleopatra wants too much for him and manipulates him subtly into becoming her royal consort, conquerer, and Augustus’s competitor.

By trying to make Antony into the same kind of ambitious person she is, she breaks one of the universal rules of dating, true even today: you CAN NOT change a man. You can’t change anyone, really, to suit your lifestyle, interests, or goals. We end up feeling like we can’t live up to our partner’s expectations and are inadequate as a comparison to the person we are told to be.

There was a moment of introspection in which Cleopatra, overlooking her troops, reveals that her plans, though condoned upon by Antony, are her own invention, with Antony understanding but not participating in her decision making: “The first of the vision Antony and I had for our empire- or, rather, that I had and that Antony understood.”

Antony is manipulated by Cleopatra’s, though her actions are well-meant and ultimately born out of self-preservation for both her country and family (including her husband, whom she does care for). But, maybe this manipulation is what men are afraid of. Antony ends up drinking and roaming around festivities as a result of stress from his position. Propaganda from Augustus even alludes to the emasculation of Antony in the wake of Cleopatra’s influence.

In response to these gender-centric accusations, both historic and in prose here, George manages to affirm the masculinity of both of her male protagonists. Both Caesar and Antony, despite Cleopatra’s wit, personality, and her own sensuality, of course can drive her wild in bed and sweep her off her feet in fits of passion. Despite any failings they may have in competition with or living up to Cleopatra, they still maintain control of her with their prowess in the sack. It is the “hot librarian” stigma all over again. Despite, or maybe because of the intelligent or successful woman, men hang onto one surefire way to demean, satisfy, enrage, or impress their lionesses.

As much as it might be frustrating to think that after all of the pavement laid by women before us, navigating the world of dating with a Masters degree and some moxie is still a rocky, rough ride. But, with my optimistic closing words, I’d like to assure myself that my hard work isn’t all in vain. I’d rather wait for a Caesar that will respect my mind and let us push each other to be the best versions of ourselves, because as L’Oréal says, “I’m worth it.”


For a (somewhat) contemporary description of Cleopatra and amusing anecdotal biography of Marc Antony, see: Plutarch. Plutarch’s Lives. with an English Translation by. Bernadotte Perrin. Cambridge, MA. Harvard University Press. London. William Heinemann Ltd. 1920. 9.

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