Alexander the Great established Greek rule in Egypt and founded the city that still bears his name today, Alexandria. After Alexander’s death in 323 B.C., his close friend and army general Ptolemy I ruled Egypt.
Ptolemy sought to create a learning center in Alexandria that would outdo any others in the ancient world. He tried with great success to acquire a copy of every text that existed. Some of these texts were supposedly stolen from ships docked at Alexandria. However they were acquired, each text was cataloged and placed in the library of Alexandria. Though no official number of texts exists, the library likely contained 100,000 scrolls or more. The number of texts made the library of Alexandria the largest of the ancient world. All of Homer’s works were kept there in addition to the works of ancient playwrights.
Next door to the library was the museum, which meant temple to the muses who were Greek goddesses of the arts and sciences. The greatest scholars in the world met there to exchange ideas. Unlike most scholars today, they didn’t worry about how they would make a living because the palace supplied them with money.
The library and its museum was the site of many new discoveries. The sun was fixed at the center of the solar system, geometry was formed, the circumference of the earth was measured for the first time, constellations were mapped, and the brain was recognized as the source of human intelligence (previously intellect was thought to come from the heart). Unfortunately the library was destroyed, probably by fire, and many sources from the ancient world were lost forever.
When the Greeks ruled Egypt in the first century B.C., they stressed education for both royal boys and girls. Cleopatra and her sisters received the same education as their brothers in case one of the girls would rule Egypt. Living in the city of Alexandria, home of a great library, Cleopatra had access to the best teachers and great works of literature.
First, young Cleopatra chanted the Greek alphabet. When she successfully learned the alphabet, she traced its letters on a wooden tablet. Teachers then gave her difficult words to read aloud so she would learn syllables. Like children today, Cleopatra knew Aesop’s fables well. Sometimes teachers in the first century B.C. assigned a tale to their students and asked them to retell it aloud. Public speaking skills were highly regarded at the time, and historians have remarked on Cleopatra’s ability to speak well in front of others.
As Cleopatra grew up, she decided that she would also learn to speak and read Egyptian. Amazingly, there is no record of previous Greek rulers of Egypt learning the language of the people they governed. This was probably because Egyptian writing was so complex. Cleopatra, however, did not want to rely on others to interpret what the Egyptians were saying.
Historians state that Cleopatra learned languages easily; one says that she could speak nine of them. Ancient historian Plutarch said that “It was a pleasure merely to hear the sound of her voice, with which, like an instrument of many strings, she could pass from one language to another.” By receiving a good education, Cleopatra communicated easily with other rulers when she became queen of Egypt.