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I recently learned that the real Cleopatra wasn’t Elizabeth Taylor beautiful (neither was she Egyptian, she, along with her Ptolemy family, hailed from Greek).  Her nose was long and a bit hooked, her chin pronounced, but her charisma captivating, her voice deep and as rich as Egypt’s lush fields.

A coin with a likely true to life image of Cleopatra VII

Admiration and love for spread from Julius Caesar (more than 30 years her senior, she bore him his only child) to the younger, totally ripped Mark Antony (she bore him several children). She was married to neither (the main reason that the Macedonian Ptolemy’s held Egypt’s throne by marrying their sibling, kept rivalry to a minimum. Cleopatra was married to her younger brothers, one at a time).

For the love of a woman, a man may do many things.  And this woman need not be Hollywood beautiful.  Though the fact that this surprises me proves how much I’ve been wallowing in Hollywood beauty.

A recent biography, Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff (New York Times review) does an admirable, rich unearthing of the real woman. Schiff’s original source work astounded me.  I discovered a few things that affect women and spirituality, especially as Cleopatra pre-dates Jesus and the women he worked with by only 50 years.

First, Cleopatra’s jewel of choice was a pearl. Pearls were 1st century BC diamonds.  An updated gloss on Jesus’ parable about a pearl of great price could read “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant seeking fine diamonds” (Matthew 13:45).  This empress wore pearls in her hair.

Second, from the 40’s BC to 2011 not much has changed in terms of historical judgment on wealthy, intelligent, culturally, politically savvy, opulent (her parties included details like knee-deep rose petals) and sexually intimidating women.  Cleopatra was all of these, but for her crime of taking two (powerful) Roman lovers (one at a time). For sleeping with them for power, she is considered very wicked, even whorish, insatiable lascivious, wretched, disgusting. Her name became synonymous with feminine caprice and wily, snakey, enchantress-y types.

Her affair with Mark Antony became gossip for the whole world. Her seduction of him (not vice versa) proof of her witchery, though Schiff gives us another idea.  She and Antony were the first Brangelina, or for seasoned readers Dickenliz.  But this at a time where Thucydides wrote, “The greatest achievement for a woman is to be as seldom as possible spoken of.”

Though Cleopatra governed an empire, funded wars, sustained her multi-ethnic population and cultivated Isis worship, blending it successfully with the Roman goddesses (Venus and Artemis), she will be remembered as a seductress.

Why do we focus on her sexual exploits, but not those of Mark Antony (Antony had so many affairs that one grandson could claim him as his grandfather on both sides) or in our day, of Martin Luther King Jr.  We believe to focus on powerful, charismatic men’s consorts is to miss their greater contribution (Yeah, Solomon had a woman problem, but look at the stuff he wrote!).  We focus on women’s consorts to pen their legacy.  I believe it is because they upset the “way things ought to be” at least in our minds. For more about how things are really not the way we think see Lust.

Third, Cleopatra was a lovely scapegoat for Octavian (later Caesar Augustus) to claim power from Antony.  The two rivals had parsed up Rome between them after the Ides of March (when Cleopatra’s first lover is stabbed to death) and a few attempts with Triumvirates.  Octavian announced to Rome that if Antony served Cleopatra (debatable, she was a rich patron for the war he HAD to fight) and Cleopatra wanted Rome (improbable, she already had a much more exotic empire to run), then Cleopatra was reversing the natural order of things: men ruled women and Rome ruled the world. To arms, to war against this “whore queen.”

Fourth, Cleopatra is partially to blame (or thank) for Roman women’s increase in privileges.  She paved the way for Roman high-born sisters and wives to enjoy a public life,  to counsel their husbands, to travel abroad, to commission temples and sculptures. While they certainly didn’t give her credit both Mark Antony’s second wife (Octavia) and Caesar Augustus’ wife (Livia) could thank Cleopatra for their unprecedented powers as Rome’s first ladies.

Fifth, you can date the modern era from Cleopatra’s death. With her suicide (not by asp or cobra by the way–she wasn’t another Eve) she took with her the Hellenistic Age and the four hundred year old Roman Republic. 30 BC is the birth of the modern world.

For the love or hatred of a woman, a man can do many things, make peace (Julius Caesar), make war (Octavian), fall on his own sword (Mark Antony).

As a woman I wonder at the power that women can wield.  None of Cleopatra’s male forebears took on Rome as she did.   Was it the combination of her spirit, her mastery of costume and performance, her wealth, her voice? In some ways her power and the reputation that followed her reminds me of Aimee Semple McPherson, founder of the Foursquare Church.

Cleopatra ended her life with more dignity than Antony.  She remained poised, even in control, as Octavian closed in. Most probably she used poison of her own knowledge or concoction, not a snake.  To the end Cleopatra wasn’t a “normal” woman. She defied the “natural order.” She allowed herself to be worshiped as a Goddess incarnate, she took territory in her own name, she advised on the battlefield, she made soon-to-be glorious Rome (transformed from dirty, brick out-cropping to marble high-rise by her empire’s conquered money) feel insecure and poor in her wake, she wrecked homes, consorted with married men and brought Abercrombie-like men to their end.

I wonder at her power. I envy it in some ways, but fear it in others.  It almost seems for all her intelligence that she used people. She could always, as Schiff writed, be counted on to do the intelligent thing.  I wonder if she loved Mark Antony.  It becomes impossible as she grew in glamour and grandeur to separate the play-acting from the real woman.

Mark Antony

One of my favorite stories from her life comes from a fishing expedition with Mark Antony, Cleopatra has been hostessing, playing dice, drinking, sporting with him, even watching him exercise (along with governing her empire).  This day they’ve taken up fishing on the Nile a huge fleet to set up the teeming Nile for Antony’s sport.  The man who has commanded armies will now master the Nile. Mark Antony, frustrated and unable to pull up anything impressive sends a few servants (secretively) to dive and hook pre-caught fish on his line.  Perhaps a bit too obviously he begins pulling in fish after fish. But Cleopatra is all admiration, meanwhile she arranges her own surprise, a large Black Sea herring, imported and furtively attached to Antony’s line.  Watching Antony struggle against it’s weight and finally pull the trophy in she doesn’t shame him.

“Leave the fishing rod, General, to us.”  I can see her laughing melt into a pivotal mission statement, “Your prey are cities, kingdoms and continents.”  (taken from Schiff quoting Plutarch).  Plutarch calls her a biting, lecherous woman, pleasing and provoking. I think he was jealous. There must be something particularly maddening to a man about a woman who unashamedly uses all her powers to achieve what she wants.

No wonder most historians and the winning team (Rome) slandered her, from Plutarch to Shakespeare to Cecil D. DeMille.  I’ve got a few theories about why women’s sexual exploits decide her reputation, while a man’s sexual exploits don’t make or break his legacy (see more on excusing Martin Luther King Jr.’s adultery), but I’d like to know what you think.

What is an adulterous woman a whore, but an adulterous man just “getting his needs met”?