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WHO WAS THE REAL CLEOPATRA? by Duane Roller. (Great Lives)
Elizabeth Taylor portrayed a mistaken vision of Cleopatra.
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COLUMBUS, Ohio--We've all heard about Cleopatra. She was the queen of Egypt who seduced Roman commanders, was known for her profligate lifestyle, and who eventually committed suicide by an asp bite.
Or was she? Nothing in the previous statement is true beyond the fact that she was queen of Egypt and committed suicide. Yet centuries of a disinformation campaign, starting with the Romans who defeated her, have obscured the real Cleopatra and created the familiar icon so familiar from literature, art, music, and cinema. The real Cleopatra was a much more interesting person.
She was queen of Egypt from 51 to 30 B.C., the last of a long dynasty established 300 years previously. She was Macedonian Greek, not black African. For just more than 20 years she ruled her kingdom with skill and ability. But the world was changing. The kingdoms in the eastern Mediterranean established by the successors of Alexander were fading. The Romans were in the ascendancy.
By the time Cleopatra came to the throne, her kingdom was the only one left: The Romans ruled almost everywhere else. Egypt and the rest of Cleopatra's kingdom (west into modern Libya, and north through the Levant into modern Turkey, and including Cyprus) was too rich and powerful to be ignored. Cleopatra was well aware of the Roman threat, and sought, unsuccessfully, to defuse it.
She was no seductress. We know only about two relationships in her 21 years of rule, both of which were carefully chosen: Her liaisons were with the two most powerful Romans of the era. First there was Julius Caesar, and then when he was assassinated, she turned to his second-in-command, Mark Antony. These relationships were not casual hormon-driven encounters: They were calculated attempts to create alliances between herself and the powers in Rome. If her kingdom were to continue, she would need heirs, and what better choice as a partner than a powerful Roman?