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The Egyptian queen, shown here in a 19th-century engraving, sneaked back from exile and surprised Julius Caesar. (Granger Collection, New York)

Rehabilitating Cleopatra

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

Cleopatra VII ruled Egypt for 21 years a generation before the birth of Christ. She lost her kingdom once; regained it; nearly lost it again; amassed an empire; lost it all. A goddess as a child, a queen at 18, at the height of her power she controlled virtually the entire eastern Mediterranean coast, the last great kingdom of any Egyptian ruler. For a fleeting moment she held the fate of the Western world in her hands. She had a child with a married man, three more with another. She died at 39. Catastrophe reliably cements a reputation, and Cleopatra's end was sudden and sensational. In one of the busiest afterlives in history, she has become an asteroid, a video game, a cigarette, a slot machine, a strip club, a synonym for Elizabeth Taylor. Shakespeare attested to Cleopatra's infinite variety. He had no idea.

If the name is indelible, the image is blurry. She may be one of the most recognizable figures in history, but we have little idea what Cleopatra actually looked like. Only her coin portraits—issued in her lifetime, and which she likely approved—can be accepted as authentic. We remember her, too, for the wrong reasons. A capable, clear-eyed sovereign, she knew how to build a fleet, suppress an insurrection, control a currency. One of Mark Antony's most trusted generals vouched for her political acumen. Even at a time when female rulers were no rarity, Cleopatra stood out, the sole woman of her world to rule alone. She was incomparably richer than anyone else in the Mediterranean. And she enjoyed greater prestige than every other woman of her time, as an excitable rival king was reminded when he called for her assassination during her stay at his court. (The king's advisers demurred. In light of her stature, they reminded Herod, it could not be done.) Cleopatra descended from a long line of murderers and upheld the family tradition, but was for her time and place remarkably well behaved.

She nonetheless survives as a wanton temptress, not the first time a genuinely powerful woman has been transmuted into a shamelessly seductive one. She elicited scorn and envy in equal and equally distorting measure; her story is constructed as much of male fear as of fantasy. Her power was immediately misrepresented because—for one man's historical purposes—she needed to have reduced another to abject slavery. Ultimately everyone from Michelangelo to Brecht got a crack at her. The Renaissance was obsessed with her, the Romantics even more so.

Like all lives that lend themselves to poetry, Cleopatra's was one of dislocations and disappointments. She grew up amid unsurpassed luxury and inherited a kingdom in decline. For ten generations her family, the Ptolemies, had styled themselves pharaohs. They were in fact Macedonian Greek, which makes Cleopatra about as Egyptian as Elizabeth Taylor. She and her 10-year-old brother assumed control of a country with a weighty past and a wobbly future. The pyramids, to which Cleopatra almost certainly introduced Julius Caesar, already sported graffiti. The Sphinx had undergone a major restoration—more than 1,000 years earlier. And the glory of the once-great Ptolemaic empire had dimmed. Over the course of Cleopatra's childhood Rome extended its rule nearly to Egypt's borders. The implications for the last great kingdom in that sphere of influence were clear. Its ruler had no choice but to court the most powerful Roman of the day—a bewildering assignment in the late Republic, wracked as it was by civil wars.

Cleopatra's father had thrown in his lot with Pompey the Great. Good fortune seemed eternally to shine on that brilliant Roman general, at least until Julius Caesar dealt him a crushing defeat in central Greece. Pompey fled to Egypt, where in 48 B.C. he was stabbed and decapitated. Twenty-one-year-old Cleopatra was at the time a fugitive in the Sinai—on the losing side of a civil war against her brother and at the mercy of his troops and advisers. Quickly she managed to ingratiate herself with the new master of the Roman world.

Julius Caesar arrived in Alexandria days after Pompey's murder. He barricaded himself in the Ptolemies' palace, the home from which Cleopatra had been exiled. From the desert she engineered a clandestine return, skirting enemy lines and Roman barricades, arriving after dark inside a sturdy sack. Over the succeeding months she stood at Caesar's side—pregnant with his child—while he battled her brother's troops. With their defeat, Caesar restored her to the throne.

For the next 18 years Cleopatra governed the most fertile country in the Mediterranean, guiding it through plague and famine. Her tenure alone speaks to her guile. She knew she could be removed at any time by Rome, deposed by her subjects, undermined by her advisers—or stabbed, poisoned and dismembered by her own family. In possession of a first-rate education, she played to two constituencies: the Greek elite, who initially viewed her with disfavor, and the native Egyptians, to whom she was a divinity and a pharaoh. She had her hands full. Not only did she command an army and navy, negotiate with foreign powers and preside over temples, she also dispensed justice and regulated an economy. Like Isis, one of the most popular deities of the day, Cleopatra was seen as the beneficent guardian of her subjects. Her reign is notable for the absence of revolts in the Egyptian countryside, quieter than it had been for a century and a half.

Meanwhile the Roman civil wars raged on, as tempers flared between Mark Antony, Caesar's protégé, and Octavian, Caesar's adopted son. Repeatedly the two men divided the Roman world between them. Cleopatra ultimately allied herself with Antony, with whom she had three children; together the two appeared to lay out plans for an eastern Roman empire. Antony and Octavian's fragile peace came to an end in 31 B.C., when Octavian declared war—on Cleopatra. He knew Antony would not abandon the Egyptian queen. He knew too that a foreign menace would rouse a Roman public that had long lost its taste for civil war. The two sides ultimately faced off at Actium, a battle less impressive as a military engagement than for its political ramifications. Octavian prevailed. Cleopatra and Antony retreated to Alexandria. After prolonged negotiation, Antony's troops defected to Octavian.

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