Back in the thirties, Cecil B. de Mille offered the role of Cleopatra to Claudette Colbert with the words: ‘How would you like to play the wickedest woman in history?’
Was she really history’s wickedest woman, reclining on an antique sunbed, being fed grapes by Nubian slaves and giving eyes to every man who strolled in from the desert?
Even today many people believe she bathed in asses’ milk and slept with hundreds of men.
Let’s start with the asses’ milk. Yes, she did spend a fortune on cosmetics because she was very conscious of her image. But for political reasons, not because she was vain.
In fact, evidence suggests she was a political and marketing genius of the first rank.
Even though she had Greek and Syrian blood, she presented herself to the Egyptian people as Isis, goddess of all Egypt.
By doing so, she secured the ‘chora’, the working people, and the priesthood, as her power base.
When she went to meet Marc Antony at Tarsus, she used this public persona in another way. Antony had been hailed as the new Dionysios, a god in his own right. After Caesar’s death, she needed his support and his influence. She did not seduce him with anything as unreliable as pillow talk.
Instead, she sailed into Tarsus in a galley with gold-tipped oars and purple sails, servants dressed as nymphs draped in the rigging. The sails had been impregnated with rich perfumes so that the wind announced her arrival long before she docked at the quay.
Cleopatra herself sat on the deck under an elaborate canopy, dressed as Isis, Queen of the Ocean, using this astonishing spectacle to announce to the whole world that she had come to meet Antony not as a supplicant, but as a fellow divinity.
It worked. He returned with her to Alexandria and a deal was struck. Together they would become king and queen of the entire Mediterranean.
So was she the siren Hollywood has made her out to be?
That slur came from their main rival, the man now known to us as the Emperor Augustus. He was every bit as astute as Cleopatra at manipulating public opinion and he was the one who denounced her as a sultry temptress to the Roman senate, in order to turn the tables on her. He ‘leaked’ rumours about her having sex with her slaves and even crocodiles in order to make Antony look ridiculous.
This smear campaign was probably one of the most effective in history. It worked so well that it still informs popular opinion about her, even two thousand years later, (with a little help from Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw).
The real Cleopatra was a consummate political animal, a woman far ahead of her time.
She spoke at least a dozen languages, was well-versed in mathematics, philosophy, and astronomy. She was also an excellent administrator. Women in Egypt had civil rights that Roman women of the age could only dream of.
She wasn’t even very promiscuous. In fact, it seems she only slept with two men all her life, and both of them were husbands.
Well, not her husbands, admittedly – though in fairness, she did marry them later.
Both of these affairs were politically expedient, for her and for the two Romans she married – Caesar and Marc Antony.
Despite overwhelming odds, she almost became ruler of the entire western world using her intelligence and her daring. In the end she scandalized the Romans not because of her sexual conquests, but because a woman almost beat them at their own game.
The one thing that everyone agrees on is THAT hairstyle: the one worn by Elizabeth Taylor and the many actresses who have portrayed her through the years.
Even that is probably untrue. Because of her Macedonian heritage – she was a descendant of one of Alexander the Great’s generals – historians now think there’s a fair chance that Cleopatra may have been… blonde.
If you’re interested in Cleopatra, there’s an excerpt from my novel about her here: ‘Cleopatra: When We Were Gods’.