November 2, 2008 5:27:02 pm
Was Cleopatra only a femme fatale or an ill-fated politician?
Cleopatra has always been a player in other people’s dramas: she can be a coquette, a feminist, a martyr or a villain, a goddess or a fallen woman, even blonde or black. Horace called her the fatale monstrum—the fatal monster. Chaucer made her virtuous. Shakespeare turned her into a romantic heroine. Her nemesis, the Roman Octavian, called her a whore. It is that description—Cleopatra as a vamp, a seductress whose machinations led to the downfall of Julius Caesar and Marc Antony—that dominates the countless depictions in art, literature, theatre, film and history books.
When she died in 30 B.C., she left no writings behind, and much of her city, Alexandria, now lies beneath the Mediterranean. But the shards of evidence the Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley pieces together in her engaging new biography, Cleopatra: The Last Queen of Egypt, reveal why it is so easy to misconstrue her story. Her death marked the end of ancient Egypt and the birth of the Roman Empire. For her, sex really was politics: her two most important political allies, Antony and Caesar, were also her lovers. Her enemies have turned her legend into a cautionary tale about the unfitness and danger of having women as leaders. In the year of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, untangling the legend of Cleopatra has special urgency.
Cleopatra was, of course, more than a mistress; she was a queen—an ambitious and ruthless one. When her brother—who was also her co-ruler—moved against her, she had him killed. With her lover and ally Antony at her side, she was a major player in Rome’s civil war. Soon after Antony’s suicide, following a devastating defeat to Octavian, she killed herself, by the bite of an asp.
The official story—Octavian’s version—says Cleopatra corrupted the innocent Caesar and Antony in order to ruin Rome and advance herself. The archaeological record suggests that Cleopatra was a competent ruler in difficult times, dealing with internal unrest and unstable neighbours. Tyldesley wants to see her as a ruler of Egypt, not as a consort of Romans. In this view, sex was one of the few tools available to women, and her use of it was “sensible”, not “weak”. In fact, Tyldesley writes that Cleopatra “probably had no more than two, consecutive relationships”.
Cicero met Cleopatra at Caesar’s house and found her intelligent but arrogant. “I hate the queen!” he wrote. The historian Plutarch, he hated her too. His Cleopatra is devious and immoral¿she had herself smuggled into Caesar’s presence for the first time in a bundle of bedsheets. Later depictions—including the 1963 Elizabeth Taylor film version—have her falling at Caesar’s feet, tousled and sexy, as he unrolls an anachronistic Persian rug.
Cleopatra is a kind of Rorschach test. Renaissance painters depicted her as their pale blonde vision of beauty, but in the 19th century era of imperialism, she was dark and exotic. Romantics loved the femme fatale, while early cinematic portrayals made her smart and funny and scantily clad.
As Tyldesley points out, these squabbles are largely about society’s obsession with beauty and race. To regard Cleopatra as an Egyptian ruler instead of a male myth is a worthy goal. It seems long overdue.
_Louisa Thomas, Newsweek
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