We all know her, she’s the ruthless seductress of the Ancient world, famously luring Mark Antony away from his duties and towards his doom, right?
The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra: 41 BC by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1883
Like most historical figures, there is more to this woman than meets the eye and in 2000 years since her death, time and propaganda have muddied the waters. So who was the woman behind the myth and why has her legacy become so tainted?
Today, Cleopatra’s image is that of the scheming femme fatale, who is most noted for seducing Julius Caesar and the Roman General, Mark Antony. However, the woman herself was an adept politician, who removed all other obstacles in her way, including and overthrowing her own brother/husband and having her rebellious sister assassinated in order to rule as Pharaoh in her own right.
Lladró’s Limited Edition Cleopatra Sculpture. The ultimate show stopper to elevate a space and add a sense of gravitas
Hollywood, Shakespeare and even the Romans versions of her have embellished, exaggerated and distorted the life and accomplishments of Cleopatra but at least one thing true about her is that she was a master of reinventing herself and knew the importance of having a brand image. From an early point in her rule she surrounded herself with an air of mystique and splendour and ingrained herself into the everyday life and culture of her people in a masterful stroke of PR by putting her likeness onto coins and associating herself with Isis, the Egyptian goddess of life, death and ultimate symbol of fertility.
Her love of opulence and luxury was not simply and indulgence but a political tactic used time and again by rulers to demonstrate her power and elevate her image and mystique. By the end of her rule, she had become practically synonymous with the Goddess Isis and revered as her Earthly incarnation.
You can see these details in Lladró’s Limited Edition Cleopatra Sculpture, that shows Cleopatra wearing the headdress of Isis, that typically consists of of Ox horns, the Feather of Ma’at, the Royal Serpent seen on her brow and the Sun Disc at its centre. The sculptor Francisco Polope spared no detail when depicting the presence and extravagance of the Ancient Pharaoh even down to the kestrel wings surrounding her, yet another symbol of Isis and her gifts of renewal and protection. This piece is lavishly adorned with decadent gold lustre, copper and jewel tones that captures the presence and character of the ancient Queen. Learn more about Lladró’s Gold lustre.
“Her actual beauty was not so remarkable that nonce could be compared with her, but the contact of her presence…was irresistible. The character that attended all that she said or did was bewitching”
— Plutarch, The Life of Antony
In reality, Cleopatra was astute in the game of politics, she was ruthless to be sure, Though while art and literature have depicted her as using her feminine whiles to get her way, contemporaries of the time instead remarked on her sense of ‘presence’, her command of a room, charisma and her skills as a conversationalist rather than her beauty. A famous example of this, was her initial meeting with Julius Caesar, rather than meet using the offical channels that would have hindered her ability to charm. Cleopatra had herself rolled into a carpet and carried into his quarters by servants where she rolled out wearing her finest clothes, all so she could meet privately with him. Many had argued that Caesar was lured by her youth and beauty but more likely, Caesar was struck by the boldness of such manoeuvre and recognised a smart and rich potential ally.
At this point, you might be wondering, “So why the femme fatale characterisation?” Well, in simplest terms, the Romans hated her. Cleopatra ruled the richest and last independent nation in the Mediterranean and was well-loved by her people, making the effort to learn their language, customs and culture, something that few of her Greek ancestors had bothered to do. She went to great efforts to secure her country’s independence by bolstering the economy with trade from Arabia and even India. To the ever expanding Roman Empire, who had sort the wealth of Egypt for years, Cleopatra was a major thorn in their side and the added loss of their famed general Mark Antony to her was a national embarrassment and threat to Roman leader Octavius.
The culmination of all of this was the Battle of Actium, where Egypt suffered a staggering defeat and of course resulted in the famous suicide of Cleopatra. Today it is believed that she did this as a final way to prevent her capture and inevitable humiliation from Octavian rather than out of love for Mark Antony. Rome quickly took control of Egypt and set about a century long campaign of propaganda designed to discredit the Queen and paint her as a dangerous, licentious and power hungry woman who met a just end. Because of this, the nature of her death and the fact the her remain have never been found have served to immortalise the Queen and created a fascination with this woman who was and remains an enigma.
Later centuries saw a change in sentiments towards the last Pharaoh of Egypt, with historians such as Plutarch exploring the notion that she was a tragic figure even heroine, theorising that she was a woman overcome by her love for Antony and doomed to for it. Because of men such Plutarch, Shakespeare and countless works of art and literature reimagining and reinterpreting who Cleopatra was to fit a certain narrative that we have two juxtaposing depictions of her, the jezebel character and the tragic heroine. Most likely, she was a dynamic and complicated character who managed to be simultaneously of her time and ahead of it.
Cleopatra is a figure who life story and accomplishments have been unfortunately reduced to the relationships between herself and the men around her as is all too common for many women in positions of power through history. We are not likely to ever truly know the true thoughts and feelings of this Queen, yet with renewed interest in her story in recent years and a changes in attitude we may see her represented in the same light as her male counterparts.