The Queen of Denial

By Thomas, Louisa | Newsweek, November 3, 2008 | Go to article overview

The Queen of Denial


Thomas, Louisa, Newsweek


Byline: Louisa Thomas

Men have long vilified Cleopatra, but she's earned a royal treatment.

Cleopatra has always been a player in other people's dramas, if in different roles: she can be a coquette or a feminist, a martyr or a villain, a goddess or a fallen woman, even blond or black. Horace called her the fatale monstrum--the fatal monster. Chaucer made her virtuous. Shakespeare turned her into a romantic heroine. In her own day, legions of Egyptians thought she was the reincarnation of the goddess Isis, while 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, theater, film and, not least, history books.

It is hard to know just who she was. When she died in 30 B.C., she left no writings behind, and much of her city, Alexandria, now lies beneath the Mediterranean and a sea of modern buildings. 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, and so tempting, 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. Their deaths made it possible for her enemies to turn 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 and probably her husband, in an arrangement typical among Egyptian monarchs--moved against her, she had him killed. She liked to throw decadent feasts to impress visiting dignitaries. 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 at the Battle of Actium, she died too, killing herself, according to the official story, by the bite of an asp.

The official story--Octavian's version, promoted in speeches, rumors, pamphlets and the deft use of symbols--says that Cleopatra corrupted the innocent Caesar and Antony in order to ruin Rome and advance herself. (This is not so different from the depiction in the HBO series "Rome"--Cleopatra, a druggy strumpet, offers herself as Caesar's "slave," while secretly conniving for control. …

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