Sunday, September 7, 2008


Roman writers, particularly Horace and Vergil, portrayed Cleopatra as the mos villainous woman in the world, who corrupted both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, leaders of the Roman world. To the Romans, she was a foreigner, a barbarian, a lesser life form. When Julius Caesar not only had an illegitimate son with her, but also decided to create a golen effigy of the Egyptian Queen, the Roman people were astonished and stunned that the man who was supposed to be the epitome of Roman values and traditions could so easily be swayed to the "dark side" so to speak.

In modern cinema, Cleopatra has been portrayed many times on screen, most famously by Elizabeth Taylor in what was, at the time, the most expensive movie ever made and also the greatest box office disater, oweing very much to the fact that Elizabeth Taylor simply was not talented for the role (or any other, for that matter). Despite what Hollywood and ancient Roman writers have done to demonize Cleopatra, a new book has come out to rehabilitate her and possibly give her some redeeming characterisitcs. Whether it is completely accurate or not, I'll leave to individual writers. But here is a synopsis.

Re-examining Cleopatra as a smart ruler, not a vamp
By ALLEN BARRASpecial to the Journal Sentinel

Posted: Sept. 6, 2008

Cleopatra, Last Queen of Egypt. By Joyce Tyldesley. Basic Books. 304 pages. $27.50.
Cleopatra has generated more fame - in the form of poems, paintings, books, plays and films - per known fact than any woman in history.
As Joyce Tyldesley phrases it in her fascinating and irresistible biography, “Cleopatra, Last Queen of Egypt,” “It is clearly never going to be possible to write a conventional biography of Cleopatra.”
So Tyldesley has gone ahead and written one.
An archaeologist, author (“Daughters of Isis”) and popular consultant for TV shows on ancient history, Tyldesley has chosen to re-create her subject by putting together the puzzle pieces of history that surround Cleopatra’s life and legend.
Neither an Egyptian by blood nor an actual Greek — Cleopatra could trace her ancestry on her father’s side to the original Ptolemy, a general of Alexander the Great — she was a fabulous hybrid of those cultures and several others that were native to the Egypt of the first century B.C.
What she was not, Tyldesley argues, was the villainous vamp portrayed in the movies. Played by such actresses as Theda Bara, Claudette Colbert and Elizabeth Taylor, the movie Cleopatra derived from the overheated imaginations of such western writers as Plutarch, whose “Life of Mark Antony” influenced most later writers, including Shakespeare.
Where Tyldesley’s book differs from most modern accounts of Cleopatra’s life and times is that her conclusions stem from an intimate knowledge of Egyptian culture rather than from Greek and Roman historians to whom Cleopatra was a combination of sorceress and seductress. Charm and intelligence were almost certainly her most alluring traits and what first attracted Caesar to her. (Her money didn’t hurt, either; according to Tyldesley “Cleopatra was the wealthiest monarch in the world.”)
Cleopatra was, she concludes, “an intelligent and effective monarch who set realistic goals and who very nearly succeeded in creating a dynasty that would have re-established Egypt as a world super power.”
Roman historians, though, saw only “an unnatural, immodest woman who preyed on other women’s husbands. From this developed the myth of the sexually promiscuous Cleopatra . . . a harsh legacy indeed for a woman who probably had no more than two, consecutive, sexual relationships.”
Readers who enjoy not only history but how it evolves into myth will find a feast in Tyldesley’s book. You may be disappointed to find out that the Queen of Egypt did not first appear to Caesar unwrapped from an Oriental carpet, and it’s unlikely that Cleopatra succumbed to the bite of an asp. Tyldesley’s theories as to what most likely did happen are at least as interesting as the folklore.

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