Who Is the Real Cleopatra?

Ms. Tyldesley is the author of Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt (Basic Books, 2008).

Her people regarded Queen Cleopatra VII (reigned 51-30 BC) as a living goddess, the earthly representation of the divine mother Isis. Three hundred years after her suicide Cleopatra was still worshipped in Egypt. Her portrait circulated on coins for decades, and on temple walls for thousands of years. The history written by the 7th century Coptic Bishop John of Nikiou included a sympathetic account of Cleopatra, wife of Julius Caesar. Muslim scholars drew on this source to develop the legend of Cleopatra the public benefactor, sage and philosopher, author of books on medicine and cosmetics. As an accurate account of Cleopatra’s reign this legend is flawed. But it does confirm that the Egyptian memory of Cleopatra was a positive one, focussed on her public achievements rather than her private life.

Roman historians preserved the memory of a very different Cleopatra. Theirs was a corrupt and corrupting queen: a woman ruled by her heart or her body rather than her head. This heady mixture of decadence, lust and unnatural death - the contrast between the seductive, decaying power of Egypt and the virile, disciplined strength of Rome – has captured the imaginations of generations of western artists and poets. Told and re-told, her tale has developed until Cleopatra has become a semi-mythological figure.

Today we know enough about Cleopatra’s life and times to understand that she was more than a one-dimensional temptress. So why is one of the ancient world’s most powerful women so consistently misinterpreted? The answer is a long story, which starts in Roman literature, passes through Shakespeare’s theatre, and ends in the modern cinema where Cleopatra, like any film star, is required to attract and entertain a paying audience.

The archaeological evidence for Cleopatra’s reign has been severely compromised by the loss of her capital city, Ptolemaic Alexandria, which has either sunk beneath the waters of the Mediterranean Sea or been buried beneath later buildings. Writings, then, form the basis of our understanding of Cleopatra. But her reign has yielded few papyri. We cannot read her version of events and there are no contemporary biographies. The historian who knew her most intimately, Julius Caesar, scarcely references her in his works. Nikolaus of Damascus, tutor to Cleopatra’s children, adds a few more sentences. Plutarch’s Life of Antony provides the most complete account of her life; its author even claims to have read the memoirs of Cleopatra’s physician Olympus. Plutarch makes his methodology clear (Life of Alexander 1. Translated by B. Perrin):

... it is not histories that I am writing, but lives; and in the most illustrious deeds there is not always a manifestation of virtue or vice, nay, a slight thing like a phrase or a jest often makes a greater revelation of character than battles when thousands fall, or the greatest armaments, or sieges of cities. Accordingly, just as painters get the likenesses in their portraits from the face and the expression of the eyes, wherein the character shows itself, but make very little account of the other parts of the body, so I must be permitted to devote myself rather to the signs of the soul in men, and by means of these to portray the life of each, leaving to others the description of their great contests.

But Plutarch, writing at the beginning of the second century AD, cannot be considered an eyewitness, and nor can the alternative Cleopatra “biographer,” Cassius Dio, who wrote his Roman History in the years between AD 200-222.

Roman historians, determined to reinforce the right of the Emperor Augustus (formerly Cleopatra’s enemy Octavian) to rule, diminished the two decades of Cleopatra’s reign into two episodes: her relationships with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Julius Caesar, adoptive father of Augustus, was remembered with respect as a brave and upright man who manipulated an immoral foreign woman for his own ends. Mark Antony, Augustus’s rival for ultimate power, was remembered with pity as a weak man ensnared in the coils of an immoral foreign woman. Meanwhile Cleopatra was remembered as that most frightening of Roman stereotypes, an unnatural female: a woman who deliberately lured decent men away from their chaste Roman wives.

Plutarch served as the inspiration behind William Shakespeare’s plays Julius Caesar (c. 1600) and Antony and Cleopatra (c. 1606). Choosing to place drama above loyalty to his source, Shakespeare allowed his queen to become a heroine ruined by uncontrollable passion. His was by no means the first of the modern Cleopatras, but his interpretation has had the greatest effect on the public imagination.

That modern representations of Cleopatra distort history to reflect the needs and prejudices of their creators is obvious. Medieval artists, for example, depicted Cleopatra as a pale blonde because the pale blonde was the current ideal of beauty. More pernicious, because it reaches a wider audience, is the influence of film, which distorts not only to reflect prejudices, but also to tell a commercially viable story. Twentieth century filmmakers have spoken grandly of historical accuracy and serious drama, before producing a succession of Cleopatras specifically designed to appeal to their audiences. To take the most obvious example: Cleopatra must be conventionally beautiful, because only a conventionally beautiful woman can attract a man. So, as perceptions of beauty change, Cleopatra must also change. Theda Bara’s vamp-Cleopatra quickly became outdated. Claudette Colbert made a smart Cleopatra suitable for a pre-war audience before Elizabeth Taylor, bringing glamour to an austere world, became for many the “real” Cleopatra. Doubtless, the studios will soon present us with an updated Cleopatra – a muscular action woman for the 21st century, perhaps.

Underlying all films lie issues of censorship, political correctness and simple economics. “Historical” films raise particular questions. Just how much accurate history can reasonably be included in a film that has to earn its way at the box office? Is there anything wrong with distorting characters and changing locations in the name of art and entertainment? Those who learn their ancient history solely from Troy (Petersen 2004), Alexander (Stone 2004) and Cleopatra (Mankiewicz 1963) are not necessarily aware of these issues but are heavily affected by them.

The evolutionary path of the Cleopatra myth is obvious: the truth behind the myth is known. So why does the myth persist? It is hard to escape the conclusion that it persists because we want it to. It seems that each generation is given the version of Cleopatra that it is prepared to accept.

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More Comments:

Fahrettin Tahir - 12/11/2008

That is what the lady gets for not concentrating on washing dishes and cooking for her husband.

Robert Lee Gaston - 12/8/2008

Blame it all on Bill Shakespeare and GB Shaw.

History teaches us one great lesson from her life: Don't play with snakes.

If she looked nearly as good as Liz did in her prime the snakes were just a damned shame.

Perhaps the Roman version can be discounted in that they tended to discount women. Just ask Mary M.

However, It looks like a pretty good read. Maybe Santa will bring it to me.

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