Thanks to Hollywood (on one end of the spectrum of ludicrousness) and historical revisionism (on the other), there are many misconceptions about Cleopatra.
She was a sex kitten unfurling herself before Julius Caesar, a beautiful siren setting Marc Antony on a collision course with Rome. She was milky white. She was black.
She was nothing of the kind but rather something more complex and far more interesting – a striking if not beautiful, intelligent , commanding woman who managed to attract two of the most powerful men of her time as she balanced two very different cultures. That she could not hold a third culture in the equation was part of her undoing.
Like many great and tragic figures – the sculptor Isamu Noguchi comes to mind but we might also want to throw President Barack Obama into the mix – Cleopatra was part of two worlds. And when you’re part of two worlds, you often end up belonging to neither. She was the last of the Ptolemies, who were in turn the last pharaohs and are the subject of a new exhibit, “When the Greeks Ruled Egypt,” at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World through Jan. 4. (The institute is the brainchild of Shelby White – philanthropist, art collector and aficionado of all things Cleopatra.)
The Ptolemies, who reigned on the Nile for some 300 years, were themselves descended from Ptolemy I, one of Alexander the Great’s most important generals and, some whispered, his illegitimate half-brother. It was Ptolemy who “kidnapped” Alexander’s golden sarcophagus, installing it in Egypt, which he had staked out for himself in the power struggle and vacuum that followed Alexander’s death. And it was there in Egypt in the glamorous, sophisticated port city of Alexandria – which Alexander himself had founded – that Cleopatra would become the keeper of the Greco-Macedonian conqueror’s flame and the Hellenistic culture that was part of his legacy. (It’s a point well-taken in the 1963 film “Cleopatra,” which launched Elizabeth Taylor’s scandalous affair with Richard Burton.)
Cleopatra’s Greek roots were part of her attraction for the Romans, along with a strong profile that suggests an alluring if not conventional beauty. (The joke was that if she had had a shorter nose, history might’ve been quite different.) The Egyptian queen’s connection to Alexander, conqueror of the Persian Empire and something of an obsession with the conquest-mad Roman leadership, also made her catnip to Caesar and Antony.
But there was something else: She had, as Elizabeth I would be in Renaissance England, been educated like a man. The Greeks knew how to spin, and Cleopatra was able to hold her own late into the night, weaving conversations about military history, astronomy, philosophy and other subjects in several languages. She must’ve been irresistible.
She had to be. Egypt was in a precarious state. Cleopatra ruled with her kid brother-husband Ptolemy XIII. This custom of marrying within the family – which Macedonian and Egyptian rulers observed – set the Ptolemies apart from the people they controlled, creating a nest of incestuous, murderous vipers. (It’s also the reason that Cleopatra could not be black. There was little if any native blood in the line.)
Still, Cleopatra saw herself as Egyptian. She spoke the language, worshiped the gods and embraced the culture and the people. And what her people needed was someone who would help rid her of the sibling rivalry that was the backbone of Egypt’s civil wars. Enter Julius Caesar, a man who knew a thing or two about how military might can cut through political intrigue.
What must he have seen in her? Egyptian grain for sure. Egypt was a breadbasket and an army, like the Roman Army, marches on its stomach. But probably also his bygone youth, a fetching dalliance, a woman to give him the son he never had with wife Calpurnia.
Cleopatra did bear him a son, Caesarion, whom she brought to Rome – and with whom she fled back to Egypt once Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March, 44 B.C.
With Caesar gone, she formed an alliance with Antony, who had been a Caesar supporter. An alliance: That’s like saying New York is a city. There was a grand passion – political, psychological, sexual, complete. They had three children – the twins Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene and another boy, Ptolemy Philadelphus – children whom they saw one day ruling the eastern half of the Roman Empire.
This, of course, did not sit well with Octavian, Caesar’s crafty heir (the future emperor Augustus), whose sister, Octavia, was also Antony’s wife. The naval Battle of Actium pitted not only the two men against each other for all the imperial marbles but East against West. When Cleopatra fled the scene, Antony followed then killed himself, thinking her already dead. Rather than allow Octavian to drag her back to Rome in chains, she followed Antony’s example.
Octavian got rid of Caesarion. (“Too many Caesars,” he is said to have remarked about the unfortunate youth.) But he spared Antony and Cleopatra’s children, who in a twist of compassionate irony were raised by Octavia.
If only Cleopatra had been more like Elizabeth I, more a head-over-heart girl. Ah, but she wasn’t and couldn’t be. The times, the typography and her temperament destined her for tragic love.
Shakespeare has his Cleopatra say, “I’ll set a bourn how far to be beloved.”
The historical Cleo might’ve set hers too far.
Then again, maybe she didn’t set it far enough.
“When the Greeks Ruled Egypt” is on view through Jan. 4 at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, 15 East 84th St., Manhattan. For more, visit isaw.nyu.edu/exhibitions. And read more about Antony and Cleopatra and other historical power couples in WAG’s November “Power Couples” issue at wagmag.com.