Cleopatra Revisited

Cleopatra has always been a player in other people's dramas, if in different roles: she can be a coquette or a feminist, a martyr or a villain, a goddess or a fallen woman, even blond or black. Horace called her the fatale monstrum—the fatal monster. Chaucer made her virtuous. Shakespeare turned her into a romantic heroine. In her own day, legions of Egyptians thought she was the reincarnation of the goddess Isis, while her nemesis, the Roman Octavian, called her a whore. It is that description—Cleopatra as a vamp, a seductress whose machinations led to the downfall of Julius Caesar and Marc Antony—that dominates the countless depictions in art, literature, theater, film and, not least, history books.

It is hard to know just who she was. When she died in 30 B.C., she left no writings behind, and much of her city, Alexandria, now lies beneath the Mediterranean and a sea of modern buildings. But the shards of evidence the Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley pieces together in her engaging new biography, "Cleopatra: The Last Queen of Egypt," reveal why it is so easy, and so tempting, to misconstrue her story. Her death marked the end of ancient Egypt and the birth of the Roman Empire. For her, sex really was politics: her two most important political allies, Antony and Caesar, were also her lovers. Their deaths made it possible for her enemies to turn her legend into a cautionary tale about the unfitness and danger of having women as leaders. In the year of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin, untangling the legend of Cleopatra has special urgency.

Cleopatra was, of course, more than a mistress; she was a queen—an ambitious and ruthless one. When her brother—who was also her co-ruler and probably her husband, in an arrangement typical among Egyptian monarchs—moved against her, she had him killed. She liked to throw decadent feasts to impress visiting dignitaries. With her lover and ally Antony at her side, she was a major player in Rome's civil war. Soon after Antony's suicide, following a devastating defeat to Octavian at the Battle of Actium, she died too, killing herself, according to the official story, by the bite of an asp.

The official story—Octavian's version, promoted in speeches, rumors, pamphlets and the deft use of symbols—says that Cleopatra corrupted the innocent Caesar and Antony in order to ruin Rome and advance herself. (This is not so different from the depiction in the HBO series "Rome"—Cleopatra, a druggy strumpet, offers herself as Caesar's "slave," while secretly conniving for control.) The archeological record is thin, but it suggests something else: that Cleopatra was a competent ruler in difficult times, dealing with internal unrest and unstable neighbors. Tyldesley wants to "put Cleopatra back into her own, predominantly Egyptian context"—to see her as a ruler of Egypt, not as a consort of Romans. In this view, sex was one of the few tools available to women, and her use of it was "sensible," not "weak." In fact, Tyldesley writes that Cleopatra "probably had no more than two, consecutive relationships."

Octavian was heavily invested in portraying Cleopatra as a harlot. Antony was his former ally; a power struggle tore them apart. Cleopatra, as a female and a foreigner, was a more obvious enemy. She became a scapegoat—dark to Rome's pure light, woman to Rome's man, a monarch to Rome's republic. Cicero met her at Caesar's house and found her intelligent but arrogant. "I hate the queen!" he wrote. The historian Plutarch, whose vivid and fascinating "Lives" continues to shape popular perceptions of antiquity, lived a century later, but he hated her too. His Cleopatra is devious and immoral. In one typically dramatic but probably fantastic scene in Plutarch's telling, Cleopatra had herself smuggled into Caesar's presence for the first time in a bundle of bedsheets. Later depictions—including the 1963 Elizabeth Taylor version—have her falling to his feet, tousled and sexy, as he unrolls an anachronistic Persian rug.

These portrayals of Cleopatra tell more about their own times than about the Egyptian queen herself (though she probably did have a flair for the dramatic). She has become a kind of Rorschach test. Renaissance painters depicted her as their pale blond vision of beauty, but in the 19th century, an era of imperialism, she was dark and exotic. Romantics loved the femme fatale Cleopatra, while early cinematic portrayals appealed to both men and women by making her smart and funny and scantily clad. Many scholars today fixate on Cleopatra's looks (her profile, seen on coins, features a huge nose) and skin color (the Ptolemies were from a Macedonian line, but Cleopatra's maternal ancestry and the race of her paternal grandmother are disputed). As Tyldesley points out, these squabbles are largely about society's obsession with beauty and race. To regard Cleopatra as an Egyptian ruler instead of a male myth, and to assess her using scholarly and archeological tools, is a worthy goal. It seems long overdue.