Cleopatra: what kind of a woman was she, anyway?

Serpent of the Nile? Learned ruler? Sex Kitten? Ambitious mom? African queen? History is still toying with the poor lady's reputation

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"Until now, everyone has had pretty much the same fix on Cleopatra: passion's plaything, sultry queen, a woman so beautiful she turned the very air around her sick with desire, a tragic figure whose bared bosom made an asp gasp when she died for love. Inevitably, the best-known incarnation of her is Hollywood's: Theda Bara, Claudette Colbert, Elizabeth Taylor, telling us what fun it was to be filthy rich in the first century B.C., spending days in enormous bathtubs and nights in scented sheets. Drinking pearls dissolved in vinegar. (Do not try this at home; it doesn't work.) Lounging around on a barge, being waited on hand and foot. Sometimes the asp looks like a small price to pay."

So writes Barbara Holland in a story that briskly and irreverently takes up Cleopatra's actual character and role in history insofar as they can be pieced together from such sources, reliable and not so, as Plutarch, the Roman poet Horace, and Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. Holland's conclusion: though the lady played fast and loose with Julius Caesar (by whom she claimed to have had a child) and Mark Antony (the father of three of her children and whom she seems to have loved), Egypt's queen was a brave and coolheaded political realist struggling to save herself and her country from Roman domination, and a highly educated, top-flight administrator as well.

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