Famed for beating the men at their own game, Cleopatra has always had a place in our consciousness. From the Shakespearean play to that Hollywood picture, to bars of luxury soap, her image conveys a sense of beauty, wealth, womanhood, and power. But how much money was behind that beautiful diplomatic façade? Compared to today’s billionaires, is Cleopatra considered super wealthy or just stinking rich? And how do the other pharaohs fare on today’s rich list?
Cleopatra was one of history’s best loved and well known figures, famed for using her beauty, intellect, and wit to make political advantage. In Arabic circles, however, she is known more as a scholar than a lover and a fighter, and 400 years after her death, a statue of Cleopatra was erected at the religious center of Philae (phi-lee) with sub-Saharan pilgrims traveling north to Egypt to pay homage. Some historians say that she was beautiful, while others claim that she was rather plain. Some say she was war hungry others say scholarly, but one fact all historians do agree on – Cleopatra was totally rich.
Born in 69 BC, Cleopatra was part of the Macedonian dynasty that ruled Egypt. from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC to Cleopatra’s death and Roman conquest in 30 BC. She forged political alliances and was said to have been extremely charming and able to adapt her personality to whomever she was entertaining. Her life has been dramatized by William Shakespeare and subject to a feature film starring Elizabeth Taylor. Modern everyday products named after her legacy include a popular soap brand, a perfume line, make-up, ladies tights, and women’s boots.
The Egyptian economy during Cleopatra’s reign was rudely healthy, and by today’s standards, she herself was fabulously wealthy. The industries flourishing in Egypt at the time included glass, wheat, linen, oils, papyrus, and unguents – and these were all essentially royal monopolies that Cleopatra would have benefited directly from. Plus all her subjects paid taxes to the crown on every namable salable item, so indirectly she benefited from all commerce outside of the royal monopoly. From this, we can calculate that Cleopatra pocketed roughly half of all Egypt’s produce and her annual cash revenue was to the tune of 12,500 silver talents. The average wage of a priest in Cleopatra’s day was by comparison 15 talents a year. The most lavish of funerals would have cost a single talent. By today’s standards, Cleopatra was a billionaire on a Bill Gates level. On one contemporary Rich List, Cleopatra is positioned at number 22, a few points behind John D. Rockefeller but ahead of Napoleon and J.P. Morgan. The same list valued her at a net worth of 95 billion, which is about the same as Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk combined. On Money Magazine’s historic list of the world’s richest women, Cleopatra sits one place above Catherine the Great at number 7.
Cleopatra wasn’t Egypt’s first female pharaoh; before her came Hatshepsut who took a stake of gold mines with an output of about 2 billion dollars in today’s money and controlling one of the largest empires in the ancient world, and taking control of vast stores of copper, gold, and precious stones. Female pharaoh Hatshepsut is historically the 9th richest woman in the world, two places behind Cleopatra, in Money Magazine’s list.
The rich and famous of ancient Egypt lived in decadent times of high fashion, parties, wine, and sex, and when the party was finally over, just before they died, the truly rich had to make arrangements to get themselves mummified (immortality was a commodity for the truly rich) and the tombs are teaming in information about these pharaohs. When King Tut’s tomb was opened in November 1922 the priceless gold therein simply stunned explorers and looters alike. The contents of the tomb were insured for 680 million dollars before going on display in Switzerland in 2004. Although King Tutankhamun was a relatively unknown and unimportant boy king, the discovery of the tomb did beg the question – What treasures must be contained within the tombs of the more celebrated pharaohs?
Possibly the richest of the pharaohs was Amenhotep III who led Egypt during the height of the golden age and has the distinction of having the most surviving statues and monuments of any of the Pharaohs. Crowned as a child, Amenhotep lived in a time of great prosperity and artistic splendor when Egypt became the richest and most powerful nation in the world. So rich in fact that it was envied by the likes of Babylonia, Assyria and Mitani, and Amenhotep’s letters show that he was not above sending gold to surrounding kings to avoid conflict. Amenhotep reinforced his position with a massive building program with monuments dedicated to the Egyptian gods, particularly Ra, the sun god, whose body is the shape of a man, and whose head is that of a falcon or hawk.
The most greatly admired is Ramses II who was the greatest of the pharaohs and most celebrated due to his military mind and cunning. Ramses was interestingly born outside of the royal line but his family’s servitude to the royal family won him access to the throne where he became admired as a great warrior. Ramses lived to 96 years of age, had over 200 wives and concubines, 60 daughters and 90 sons, and his name is inscribed on virtually every Egyptian ancient site. Ramses even built his own city with military compounds and pleasure palaces called House of Ramses and his influence and wealth was so great that when he eventually died in 1213 BC, the people of Egypt burst into panic as it was commonly believed that the day Ramses died, the world would end. And if that isn’t rich, what is?
So, Does Cleopatra and the other Pharaoh’s wealth surprise you? Let us know in the comments! !