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Eye of the empress

Queen, temptress, politician, murderer: Cleopatra remains an object of fascination for writers, artists and filmmakers

The last queen of Egypt, Cleopatra was one of Rome’s most formidable enemies. She ruled Egypt from 51-31 BC, and after the death of her two husbands, chose a partner in Rome, Marc Antony, to augment her power. For centuries, she has remained an object of fascination for writers, artists and filmmakers and continues to capture the popular imagination across the world as the extraordinarily beautiful heroine of an iconic love story.

Queen, harlot, politician, murderer – Cleopatra became a great heroine, and it was assumed that she must have been extraordinarily beautiful.
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Sometime during the millennia between her lifetime and ours, there emerged a universally-accepted assumption that any heroine who was to be deemed great, would be the heroine of a story about love, and her stature would be defined by her beauty. Any hero who was to be deemed great, would be an exceptional soldier, and his stature would be defined in military or political terms. One could perhaps ascribe these notions to centuries of patriarchy and misogyny, and everything else that accompanied them. Queen, harlot, politician, murderer – Cleopatra became a great heroine, and it was assumed that she must have been extraordinarily beautiful. One account by a late Roman historian refers to an episode immediately following her defeat at the Battle of Actium and Marc Antony’s death, where Octavius comes to meet her. He is so frightened of looking at her, lest he be smitten by her beauty and cease to be worthy of power, that he stands with his back to her throughout the conversation. In terms of historical fact, the only reliable portraits of Cleopatra are inscribed on the coins made during her lifetime, and in them, she has a hooked nose and a hooked chin – not quite as breathtakingly beautiful as she is made out to be. One of the best accounts of her life, written by Plutarch nearly 200 years after her lifetime, refers to descriptions of her by people who actually knew her, and states that she was attractive, intelligent and had a good manner, but wasn’t particularly good looking. She was, however, the richest and most powerful woman in the world. Recreated over and over again, each time in a form that suited the fantasies and prejudices of the age that produced it, the Egyptian queen has had almost as many faces as the years that have passed since her emergence into the popular consciousness.

While there were many other distinguished queens in Egypt, Cleopatra grew to be extremely significant in the history of the Roman empire. Most of our sources for her story are accounts by Romans, or Greeks writing under Roman domination, for whom her entanglement with the history of Rome made her particularly interesting. This is the practical answer to the question of why her story continues to fascinate minds across the world. Another answer is that her story has three themes that make it endlessly resonant: one, it is a story about love; two, it is a story about power - in particular, about female power; and three, it is a story about race. An enormous number of the many versions there are of her story, have been produced in the West, and she is defined as the foreigner in them all – someone who is at once suspect and alluring.

For 19th century Europe, Cleopatra came to embody an escape from an increasingly constricted way of life. The idea of her court in Alexandria represented a flight from the banal and the ordinary. Several European authors writing at this time fantasised about Egypt, with Cleopatra at the centre of that fantasy. There are even instances where her court is seen as a repository of wisdom and sophistication!

While Western reimaginings of Cleopatra have consistently described her as the exotic seductress, she doesn’t quite occupy the same space in the popular imagination of Egypt. The country has had several iconic queens including Hatshepsut and Nefertiti - it wasn’t unusual for a woman to have real power in Egypt. And while we refer to Cleopatra as simply ‘Cleopatra’, she was, in fact, Cleopatra VII – one among many Cleopatras to rule the country as members of the Ptolemy dynasty. As a politician, she holds a remarkable reputation in Egyptian history. Egypt had sunk into debt under her father, who had resorted to borrowing money from Roman money lenders. While this had increased the national debt to an astonishing level, it was also dangerous as a political move – Rome now saw Egypt as a weak country that could be conquered with ease. Between Cleopatra’s accession to the throne at the age of 18 and her meeting Antony eight years later, she had restored the Egyptian economy to stability, and even prosperity. While little is known about how she managed to do this, accounts by Jewish historian Josephus provide interesting insight into her political acumen. While he, too, describes her as a depraved seductress, he also mentions her negotiation with the king of Israel on the right to extract minerals from disputed territory. As one delves deeper into such episodes, one begins to see a completely different Cleopatra – an accomplished queen who thinks about industry, economics and diplomacy.


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