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The Legend of Cleopatra

Francine Prose —

If we view Cleopatra through any lens except that of her appearance, her seductiveness, her sexual agency, and her relationships with two men, we see a brave and highly competent leader. Revered as a living goddess, she was an accomplished diplomat and military strategist. She helped maintain Alexandria as one of the ancient world’s most vibrant and beautiful cities, even as she made the complicated decisions and carried out the duties of ruling a multilingual, multicultural state with a vast bureaucracy and perpetual ethnic and class tensions between Egyptians and the Macedonian Greeks, dividing the peasants from the priests and from the officials who oppressed them. It was not just an abstract achievement but a political survival skill to have mastered as many languages as Plutarch tells us Cleopatra spoke.

The only existing document believed to have been signed by Cleopatra herself concerns a matter of customs and tax exemptions for one of Mark Antony’s generals. Daily life must have included many such signings and minor obligations, though we have been encouraged to think, as so many Romans and their successors seemed to believe, that she passed her time getting dressed, applying cosmetics, concocting love potions, and plotting erotic conquests. It is hard to think of a king or emperor whose prodigious achievements and accomplishments were so widely ignored even as he was ferociously reviled for having conducted two sequential and serious love affairs.

According to the historians W. W. Tarn and M. P. Charlesworth, Cleopatra has inspired “one of the most terrible outbursts of hatred in history; no accusation was too vile to be hurled at her.” Much has been made of the jeweled pleasure boat, the gilded palace, of the waste and excess in which she indulged while ordinary Egyptians went hungry. The Egyptian priests and the Macedonian ruling class might have argued that the splendor was proper and even necessary for a queen who, like her Ptolemaic forebears, was part human, part divine, but that would have seemed heretical to the Romans, who prided themselves on their (relative) temperance and republican ideals.

For the writers and readers who lived after her, her successive liaisons with Caesar and Antony have overshadowed the fact that for more than two decades a woman outwitted her political enemies while successfully thwarting the acquisitive Roman Empire. The speed and thoroughness with which Octavian absorbed Cleopatra’s kingdom after her death offered yet more evidence that in its final decades Egypt had owed its (relative) independence and survival largely to its last Ptolemaic queen.

Cleopatra’s legend has inspired writers from disparate cultures and distant historical periods to focus on her alleged licentiousness, her elaborately staged seductions, and, even more dramatically, her suicide, allegedly by snakebite. Only in recent decades have historians attempted to construct from the available fragments a fuller, less constricted narrative of her life.

A more accurate picture might be formed by adding to these narratives of sex and death a deeper appreciation for the daily labor of governance and statesmanship, the constant calculations required to regulate currency and ameliorate the effects of periodic droughts and crop failures, to pacify the powerful priests and outwit the ambitious and hostile courtiers who surrounded her. Two millennia after her death, we can only marvel at the immense responsibility and daunting challenge of remaining in power and guiding an enormous country through famine and war during two tense and difficult decades.

Meanwhile the changing (or unchanging) manners and mores that separate our time from hers can be tracked by looking at the ways in which successive centuries have portrayed her. She has become a sort of mirror in which each era sees itself. Novels have been written and epic films made; television programs about her can be streamed day and night. Among the women in antiquity, she is one of the few who has endured as an object of curiosity, fascination, and desire.

From Cleopatra: Her History, Her Myth by Francine Prose. Published by Yale University Press in 2023. Reproduced with permission.

Francine Prose is the author of numerous books, including Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932; Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife; and Reading Like a Writer. A Distinguished Writer in Residence at Bard College, she lives in New York.

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