Lyndsey Marshal as Cleopatra in Rome
The real Cleopatra
If you believe what you read, Cleopatra was the beautiful Egyptian queen who seduced the Romans, fascinated the French philosopher Pascal, and inspired the writings of Shakespeare, the paintings of Tiepolo and a fair few Hollywood blockbusters.
Cleopatra: the facts
- She was born in 69 BC and died in 30BC
However, a new book by Joyce Tyldesley, a lecturer in Egyptology at the University of Manchester, challenges that popular portrait of the Ancient World’s most famous female monarch.
Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt takes issue with almost everything that is attached to her, from her reported beauty and powers of seduction to her motives and abilities. Indeed, Joyce says in order to understand the real Cleopatra, we must disregard everything we know about her, beginning with that alleged promiscuity.
"Who she wasn’t was this glamorous seductress that film-makers seem to like so much. There’s no evidence that she had more than two sexual partners - Julius Caesar, who she was faithful to until he died, and Mark Antony - but I think we like to see her that way – there’s something appealing about it, but it’s most unfair.
"She was a very clever woman. She ruled for over 20 years and managed to delay the Romans taking over Egypt, which was something that was threatening throughout her reign. Plus, she took over a country from her father that was fairly poor and strengthened the economy so that when she died, Egypt was in a good position."
Power over beauty
It is not just her role as a temptress that is questionable. Thanks to Shakespeare, Tiepolo and film portrayals by everyone from Elizabeth Taylor to Amanda Barrie, the modern image of Cleopatra is one of stunning beauty, something that Joyce says there is just no evidence to support.
"We haven’t got that many images of her and the ones we do have are very formulaic – either Classical, looking like a Greek or Roman queen, or Egyptian. They were there to represent ideas of queenship, rather what she actually looked like.
"People tend to think that her coins are more life-like and if you look at them, she’s not particularly beautiful, as she has a big nose and chin. But then, how accurate can a coin portrait be?
Coin from the reign of Cleopatra VII
"It depends on the skill of the person making the coin, who may not have actually seen her, and also what she wanted to portray – she may not have wanted to look delicate and beautiful, she may have wanted to show power above anything else."
A fake snake?
In fact, even the truth of the most famous event of her life, her suicide by inducing an asp to bite her, is uncertain, according to Joyce.
"The snake thing is interesting. There’s no evidence to say how she died. One person mentions a snake and suddenly every image we have of Cleopatra has a snake in it, but snakes are attached to Egyptian royalty, so it could be simply a case of confusion.
Cleopatra (Lyndsey Marshal) and asp in Rome
"It would be very difficult to kill yourself and two other people with a snake. The logistics mean you’d probably need three snakes and, of course, you may not even die from the bite.
"The nearest we have to an eye-witness, which was actually written hundreds of years later, says she had puncture marks on her arm – that could be anything or nothing at all. But it’s a nice story, because everyone seems to hate snakes."
The victim of propaganda
Joyce says the truth is that Cleopatra is a victim of propaganda, written by Roman authors who had their own agendas – though she adds that the image we hold in contemporary times might also be for aesthetic, rather than political reasons.
"What happened is a lot of the older Pharaohs were forgotten, but Cleopatra managed to survive because she was a part of Roman history, though she survived as an enemy of the Romans, written by classical authors.
Marble bust of Cleopatra VII (Vatican Museum)
"When Augustus took power in Rome and defeated Cleopatra, he built her up as a great enemy to make it look like a great victory, and we’re picking up on that.
"But we also like the idea of this very powerful, slightly evil and very sexy woman. In a way, it’s not as interesting when we get her back to who she really was – but of course, it makes her into a real person and not a stereotype, which is much better."
The divine queen
Those Roman writers didn’t just damage Cleopatra by creating a myth around her. They also hurt her by missing one major thing out of the portrait - her intelligence.
"There’s a lie by default because few have ever credited her with being very clever. She is mentioned in the Arabic histories, where she is reported as an intelligent woman capable of many things.
"And she was very intelligent. One example is the way that she manipulated Egyptian religion so that she was seen as a living embodiment of the goddess Isis, which allowed her to totally confirm her position. She was all-powerful anyway, but if you see the person on the throne as being divine, you are highly unlikely to disobey them."
A true Egyptian
It’s that manipulation that holds the key, as far as Joyce is concerned, to the one major mystery that plagued her while writing the book.
"There was one question that was haunting me all the time: would Cleopatra have considered herself Egyptian?
"I think she would. She was a queen of Egypt. What else would she have considered herself to be? Her father was a king of Egypt, one of her sisters had been queen, I think she would have considered herself an Egyptian - though not a native Egyptian, but a Greek Egyptian.
Mark Antony bust (The Bankes Collection)
"As the Greeks settled in Egypt, you had two populations living side-by-side, both starting to pick up on each other’s culture.
"Above them all, Cleopatra was starting to use the Egyptian culture, particularly in terms of religion. Other Ptolemies had done it before to a lesser extent, but it’s very interesting that she uses an Egyptian basis for promoting herself."
The unlucky loser
So Cleopatra wasn’t stunningly beautiful, she wasn’t a femme fatale and she wasn’t an evil schemer; instead, she was an astute politician who, in the end, was just desperately unlucky.
"She only really made one mistake and that was to be on Mark Antony’s, rather than Octavian’s [who would later become the Emperor Augustus], side when the two battled. And it was an easy mistake to make. If you had been betting, you wouldn’t have put your money on Octavian."
Yet it is that one mistake that has made Cleopatra the misrepresented figure she is today. Had she chosen the right side or had Mark Antony won, history may have treated her very differently. Of course, it might have also meant she was forgotten.
As it is, she remains one of the Ancient World’s most interesting and enigmatic figures, though thanks to Joyce, at least some of that enigma is now solved.
Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt is published by Profile Books.
last updated: 19/03/2008 at 15:24