Rehabilitating Cleopatra

Egypt’s ruler was more than the sum of the seductions that loom so large in history—and in Hollywood

The Egyptian queen, shown here in a 19th-century engraving, sneaked back from exile and surprised Julius Caesar. (Granger Collection, New York)
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A year later Octavian marched an army to Egypt to extend his rule, claim his spoils and transport the villain of the piece back to Rome, as a prisoner. Soundly defeated, Cleopatra could negotiate only the form of her surrender. She barricaded herself in a vast seaside mausoleum. The career that had begun with a brazen act of defiance ended with another; for the second time she slipped through a set of enemy fingers. Rather than deliver herself to Octavian, she committed suicide. Very likely she enlisted a gentle poison rather than an asp. Octavian was at once disappointed and in awe of his enemy's "lofty spirit." Cleopatra's was an honorable death, a dignified death, an exemplary death. She had presided over it herself, proud and unbroken to the end. By the Roman definition she had at last done something right; finally it was to Cleopatra's credit that she had defied the expectations of her sex. With her death the Roman civil wars came to an end. So too did the Ptolemaic dynasty. In 30 B.C. Egypt became a province of Rome. It would not recover its autonomy until the 20th century A.D.

Can anything good be said of a woman who slept with the two most powerful men of her time? Possibly, but not in an age when Rome controlled the narrative. Cleopatra stood at one of the most dangerous intersections in history: that of women and power. Clever women, Euripides had warned 400 years earlier, were dangerous. We do not know whether Cleopatra loved either Antony or Caesar, but we do know that she got them to do her bidding. From the Roman point of view, she "enslaved" them both. Already it was a zero-sum game: a woman's authority spelled a man's deception.

To a Roman, Cleopatra was thrice suspect, once for hailing from a culture known—as Cicero had it—for its "fribbling, fawning ways," again for her Alexandrian address, lastly for her staggering wealth. A Roman could not pry apart the exotic and the erotic; Cleopatra was a stand-in for the occult, alchemical East, for her sinuous, sensuous land, as perverse and original as its astonishment of a river. Men who came in contact with her seem to have lost their heads, or at least to have rethought their agendas. The siren call of the East long predated her, but no matter: she hailed from the intoxicating land of sex and excess. It is not difficult to understand why Caesar became history, Cleopatra a legend.

Her story differs from most women's stories in that the men who shaped it enlarged rather than erased her role, for their own reasons. Her relationship with Antony was the longest of her life—the two were together for the better part of 11 years—but her relationship with Octavian proved the most enduring. He made much of his defeat of Antony and Cleopatra, delivering to Rome the tabloid version of an Egyptian queen, insatiable, treacherous, bloodthirsty, power-crazed. Octavian magnified Cleopatra to hyperbolic proportions to do the same with his victory—and to smuggle Mark Antony, his real enemy and former brother-in-law, out of the picture.

As Antony was erased from the record, Actium was wondrously transformed into a major engagement, a resounding victory, a historical turning point. Octavian had rescued Rome from great peril. He had resolved the civil war; he had restored peace after 100 years of unrest. Time began anew. To read the official historians, it is as if with his return the Italian peninsula burst—after a crippling, ashen century of violence—into Technicolor, the crops sitting suddenly upright, crisp and plump, in the fields. "Validity was restored to the laws, authority to the courts, and dignity to the senate," proclaims the historian Velleius.

The years after Actium were a time of extravagant praise and lavish mythmaking. Cleopatra was particularly ill-served; the turncoats wrote the history. Her career coincided as well with a flowering of Latin literature. It was Cleopatra's curse to inspire its great poets, happy to expound on her shame, in a language inhospitable to her. Horace celebrated her defeat before it had occurred. She helpfully illuminated one of the poet Propertius's favorite points: a man in love is a helpless man, painfully subservient to his mistress. It was as if Octavian had delivered Rome from that ill as well. He restored the natural order of things. Men ruled women, and Rome ruled the world. On both counts Cleopatra was crucial to the story. She stands among the few losers whom history remembers, if for the wrong reasons. For the next century, the Oriental influence and the emancipation of women would keep the satirists in business.

Propertius set the tone, dubbing Cleopatra "the whore queen." She would later become "a woman of insatiable sexuality and insatiable avarice" (Dio), "the whore of the eastern kings" (Boccaccio). She was a carnal sinner for Dante, for Dryden a poster child for unlawful love. A first-century A.D. Roman would falsely assert that "ancient writers repeatedly speak of Cleopatra's insatiable libido." Florence Nightingale referred to her as "that disgusting Cleopatra." Offering Claudette Colbert the title role in the 1934 movie, Cecile B. DeMille is said to have asked, "How would you like to be the wickedest woman in history?"

Inevitably affairs of state have fallen away, leaving us with affairs of the heart. We will remember that Cleopatra slept with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony long after we remember what she accomplished in doing so: that she sustained a vast, rich, densely populated empire in its troubled twilight. A commanding woman versed in politics, diplomacy and governance, fluent in nine languages, silver-tongued and charismatic, she has dissolved into a joint creation of the Roman propagandists and the Hollywood directors. She endures for having seduced two of the greatest men of her time, while her crime was in fact to have entered into the same partnerships that every man in power enjoyed. That she did so in reverse and in her own name made her deviant, socially disruptive, an unnatural woman. She is left to put a vintage label on something we have always known existed: potent female sexuality.


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