Cleopatra: separating fact from fiction


I’m not the only one who is fascinated by the story of Cleopatra – that much was evidenced by the packed auditorium for David Stuttard’s lecture on ‘Cleopatra: Fact or Fiction?’, at the British Museum. As David pointed out at the beginning of his talk, there have been so many different portrayals of her – on screen and TV, in paintings, books and plays – that it is difficult to get to the true nature of Cleopatra’s personality.

In fact, even establishing what she looked like is a challenge, so bombarded have we been by images of the women who have portrayed her – Elizabeth Taylor, Vivien Leigh and Lily Langtree, to name but a few. I mean, who wouldn’t want to look like one of those women? So it was a shock when we were shown a coin adorned with Cleopatra’s profile and approved for her by circulation during her lifetime; a disbelieving chuckle ran through the auditorium. How, then, to find the “real” Cleopatra – and understand her?

It was her near-contemporary, Plutarch, who wrote the most about her and whose accounts are most trusted by historians. His view was that it was Cleopatra’s personality that made her special; that the charm of her person was irresistible. Plutarch describes Cleopatra as well-educated and clever, taking the time to learn Egyptian so that she could communicate with her subjects in that language – something that no ruler of Egypt had bothered to do before (she was a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, who traditionally spoke Greek). In other words, Cleopatra understood the power of communication.

She was brave and resourceful as well, contriving a meeting with Julius Caesar by having herself smuggled into the royal palace (her family was desperate to keep them apart). Needless to say, Caesar was unable to resist her charms – although her hand was not won easily. By the time Caesar left Egypt, however, Cleopatra was expecting their child. Their relationship was not to be straightforward – for example, critics complained that Cleo had too much influence on Caesary and strongly objected to him bringing Cleopatra and their son to Rome with him. To this day, David Stuttard argued, we know little about either Cleopatra’s or Caesar’s motivations or how they really felt about each other. Undoubtedly, Cleopatra understood that it was Rome who held all the cards and that as long as she played the game, Alexandria and Egypt could retain their independence.

However, on 15 March 44BC catastrophe struck: Caesar was assassinated and his close ally, Marc Antony, and his nephew & heir, Octavian, went to war for control of the Roman Empire. We all know what came next – but were Marc Antony and Cleopatra star-crossed lovers, as legend would have it, or was Cleopatra, ever the pragmatist, playing the game once again? We know that she bore his children – a twin boy and girl, followed by another son (new images of whom have recently been discovered), but circumstances were to dictate that they would spend huge chunks of time apart – three years, on one occasion, with Marc Antony unable to remain in Alexandria and needing to be present in the wider Roman world, campaigning for Rome and against Octavian.

Octavian, meanwhile, had a very different world view. Having declared war on Cleopatra (but not on Marc Antony, so as to avoid civil war), he set out to systematically destroy the Egyptian queen’s reputation, spreading vile propaganda wherever he went. With Marc Antony engaged in disastrous military campaigns and suffering from what historians now believe to be clinical depression, there was never going to be a happy ending. Following one final, bloody battle, everyone of significance defected to Octavian’s side.

What, though, should we make of Cleopatra’s and Marc Antony’s suicides? According to Plutarch, our most reliable source, Cleopatra had messages sent to Marc Antony saying she had died, believing that, unable to live without her, he would kill himself. In fact, she was very much alive and, ever the politician, still trying to negotiate with Octavian, who was unmoved by her pleas. Propaganda continued to swirl around Cleopatra concerning her grief, infidelity, remorse…and even Plutarch admits that he doesn’t know the true circumstances of her death. Did she know about the asp, as we are led to believe, or was she taken by surprise? What seems certain is that there was no trace of poison on her body and the asp was never found.

As David Stuttard pointed out, much of what we think we know is hearsay – much of which doesn’t add up. Plutarch’s view – and all these centuries later, historians tend to concur – is that no-one, except perhaps Octavian, knew the truth. Whether or not that’s the case, Octavian’s camp continued to spread rumours about Cleopatra long after her death, painting her as an amoral seductress beset by insatiable avarice. As David concluded, there were so many images – both physical and mental – of Cleopatra in circulation even while she was alive, that it will forever remain a challenge to know the real woman. What is certain, though, is that throughout her entire life she had to be all things to all men – for which, ultimately, she paid the highest price.

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