Who Was Cleopatra?- page 2 | History | Smithsonian
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The Egyptian queen frequently surrounded herself with splendor, but luxury was less an indulgence than a political tool. ("Anthony and Cleopatra" by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1885)

Who Was Cleopatra?

Mythology, propaganda, Liz Taylor and the real Queen of the Nile

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Though some modern historians have portrayed Cleopatra as a capable, popular Egyptian leader, we tend to imagine her through Roman eyes. During her lifetime and in the century after her death, Roman propaganda, most of it originating with her enemy Octavian, painted Cleopatra as a dangerous harlot who employed sex, witchcraft and cunning as she grasped for power beyond what was proper for a woman. The poet Horace, writing in the late first century B.C., called her "A crazy queen...plotting...to demolish the Capitol and topple the [Roman] Empire." Nearly a century later, the Roman poet Lucan labeled her "the shame of Egypt, the lascivious fury who was to become the bane of Rome."

After Roman tempers cooled, the Greek historian Plutarch published a more sympathetic biography. Cleopatra became a tragic heroine, with love of Antony her sole motivation. Over the next two millennia, countless paintings and dramatizations—including Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra and John Dryden's All for Love—focused on the fantastic details of her suicide after Octavian defeated Antony. We know almost certainly that Cleopatra, along with her two most trusted servants, killed herself on August 12, 30 B.C., to escape capture by Octavian. However, since the facts of her death were unclear even to the men who found the bodies, we will never know if it was the famous asp that killed the queen, or a smuggled vial of poison. The asp legend has prevailed, however, and the image of her death, more than anything else, gave Cleopatra immortality.

In February 2007, a recently discovered coin bearing a portrait of Cleopatra went on display at Newcastle University in England, sparking renewed interest in the queen and a debate about whether she was really as beautiful as we imagine. The coin, dated to 32 B.C., shows a rather homely Cleopatra with a large nose, narrow lips and a sharp chin. She looks nothing like Elizabeth Taylor. But ancient historians never characterized Cleopatra as a great beauty, and in her time she was not considered a romantic heroine. In his A.D. 75 Life of Antony, Plutarch tells us, "Her actual beauty...was not so remarkable that none could be compared with her, or that no one could see her without being struck by it, but the contact of her presence...was irresistible.... The character that attended all she said or did was something bewitching."

Cleopatra's beauty (or lack thereof) was irrelevant to the Romans who knew her and the Egyptian people she ruled. The real Cleopatra had charisma, and her sexiness stemmed from her intelligence—what Plutarch described as "the charm of her conversation"—rather than her kohl-rimmed eyes. Pharaoh Cleopatra VII was a brilliant leader, says Joann Fletcher. "She was one of the most dynamic figures the world has ever seen. And I don't think that's an exaggeration."

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About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Boston-based freelance journalist writing about government, education and ideas. Her writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Slate, Boston Magazine and the Boston Globe.

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