Cleopatra: The E(gypt)! True Hollywood Story

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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

In the brilliant and gritty HBO series Rome, Cleopatra is a crafty and ambitious seductress who charms first Caesar and then Mark Antony for the sake of preserving Egypt (and her power over it) at a time when Rome was transitioning from republic to empire.

In this clip from the series (below), Cleopatra visits Mark Antony in Rome to ask his help in getting a public declaration of paternity for her son, Caesarion. (In the show, as in history, Cleopatra claimed that her son’s father was the murdered dictator Julius Caesar.)

Is this flirtatious, soap-operatic scene ripped from the pages of history? Of course not -- well, not really. Like so many other depictions of Cleopatra in historical fiction and pop culture, from Shakespeare to Elizabeth Taylor, HBO’s is based scantly on fact and vastly on imagination.

But to be fair to all those who have invented these colorful, grandiose, and largely fictitious portraits of the most famous woman in antiquity, there's good reason for playing fast and loose with the details.

For one, there aren't very many. Cleopatra VII was the last of the 250-year-old Ptolemaic dynasty and queen of Egypt for 21 years, yet, as Duane W. Roller shows Cleopatra: A Biography, published by the Oxford University Press, accurate accounts of her life and career are sparse.

"This is attributable largely to the information about women, even famous ones, that pervades Greek and Roman literature and to the effects of the destruction of her reputation in the propaganda wars of the latter 30s B.C.," Roller explains. (Cleopatra was not popular in Rome, you see.)

In his unembellished and fascinating study, Roller dispels the misconceptions that have plagued Cleopatra’s story for centuries by hewing as closely as possible to the primary sources. And even the best of these, such as Plutarch's Life of Antonius, hardly provide a complete picture.

So who was Cleopatra?

One of three children of King Ptolemy XII, Cleopatra grew up in Alexandria and was remarkably well educated. Fluent in multiple languages and well-versed in medicine and pharmacology, she composed several scholarly texts, including the Cosmetics. That her political career revolved around her relationship with two of the most prominent and powerful Romans of the era is established fact. But given that she pursued only those two men -- Julius Caesar and Antonius (Mark Antony) -- her reputation as a seductress seems exaggerated.

Still, there may be some truth in Plutarch's account of how she allegedly smuggled herself into Caesar's chamber tied up in a bedsack. Given her acute consciousness of her regal status, Roller argues, this was an "almost demeaning way for the queen of Egypt to appear before the consul of the Roman Republic." Yet, he writes, "In whatever manner the queen appeared before him, Caesar was immediately captivated."

Her true relationship with Antonius, too, was enough to inspire legend. Antonious forsook his life in Italy to be with Cleopatra -- to fight with her against his fellow triumvir Octavian (Caesar Augustus), and to father three of her children. During the most peaceful time of Cleopatra's reign, she and Antonius called themselves the Amimetobioi -- the "Inimitable Livers" -- and enjoyed lavish feasts: "eight boars for a dinner party of 12, and meals always ready so that they could be served at a moment's notice," Roller writes.

Yet in the end, Cleopatra betrayed Antonius. As Octavian moved toward Alexandria, Cleopatra sent word to Antonius that she was dead. Roller writes, "Cleopatra knew that he had threatened suicide twice previously, and her note was probably meant to plant the idea again in his mind. He responded as expected, stabbing himself in the stomach."

As for her own suicide, the famous story of her death by the bite of an asp smuggled into her chamber in a basket of figs is probably untrue. However she died (more likely by a poisonous injection), it's clear that she chose to take her own life rather than form an allegiance with Octavian in which she would be a subjugated ruler. "I will not be led in a triumph," she reportedly told him, referring to the traditional Roman ceremony of parading deposed foreign leaders through the streets of Rome.

Shortly after this declaration, she was dead. With that in mind, this scene from Rome is not too far from what actually may have happened in Cleopatra's final moments.

Learn more about the life, times, and death of Cleopatra VII when Roller speaks at the Central Library on Thursday, September 30, at 6:30 p.m. A 6 p.m. reception precedes this free event.

-- Jason Harper