The Portrayal of Cleopatra in Historical Fiction

Cleopatra has been a favourite subject of many artists.

Cleopatra is a cultural phenomenon; you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who has not at least heard her name.  There are movies, plays, songs and (of course) books about her life, but I’m only focusing on one of these mediums: books.  How is Cleopatra portrayed in historical fiction and just how accurate are these portrayals?

First, we have to take a look at the basics of her life.  Cleopatra VII Philopator (Father-Lover) was the last pharaoh of ancient Egypt in most people’s eyes.  She was, however, part of the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty and the last Egyptian pharaohs had been long dead by her time.  It is said she was fluent in nine languages, including Egyptian, which endeared her to the native Egyptian population the typically Greek-speaking Ptolemies ruled over.

Cleopatra, as was Egyptian tradition, ruled jointly with her father and later her two brothers in the typical brother-sister marriages.  Why?  According to Egyptian tradition, it was the royal women that held the power to legitimize the males.  In addition to that, nearly all of the gods were married to their siblings.  Isis and Osiris, Set and Nepthys, Nut and Geb.  And were the pharaohs not the sons of gods?  Well, that was the theory anyway.

The second most famous brother-sister couple, after Zeus and Hera.

When Caeasar followed Pompey into Egypt, he stumbled upon a civil war between Cleopatra and her brother-husband Ptolemy XIII.  Naturally, when she smuggled herself into the palace in a rug (or a laundry bag, depending on your source) and became Caesar’s mistress, he took her side and reinstated her as sole ruler of Egypt after her brother drowned trying to escape.  She was 21 and Caesar was 52 at the time.  After Caesar’s assassination in 44 B.C., she latched on to Mark Antony (who I’ll refer to as such, but his Latin name was Marcus Antonius).

Long story short, Antony and Octavian, Caesar’s nephew and designated heir, ended up being the two most powerful men in Rome.  Naturally, they decided to go to war over who would be the most powerful and Antony’s liaison with the wicked Eastern queen gave Octavian the necessary moral high ground to go to war with his brother-in-law.  Octavian won at the Battle of Actium and after a mix-up at the palace, Antony stabbed himself, believing Cleopatra was dead.  She was not and held him in her arms as she died.  When Octavian arrived at the palace and took her prisoner, intending to march her through the streets of Rome at his triumph, legend says she had an Egyptian asp smuggled into her room and committed suicide as well.

Octavian would go on to become everyone’s favourite emperor: Caesar Augustus.

You may not know all of the details of Cleopatra’s life, but most people can give a basic summary of her short (but memorable) life.  She is a cultural phenomenon and is probably the most famous female in history, if only because of the sensationalist stories about her.  But who was the real Cleopatra?  How is she portrayed in historical fiction and who has written the best portrayal?  I can’t possibly list all of the different Cleopatra novels, but here are the three basic Cleopatras you’ll find in historical fiction:

A bust of Cleopatra in the Greek style.

1.  The Cleopatra who became ruthless and cynical because of her life experiences. 

One of the best portrayals I’ve seen in historical fiction surprisingly comes from Carolyn Meyer in Cleopatra Confesses.  In her novel, Carolyn Meyer gives us a very detailed picture of a very realistic transition from Cleopatra the Innocent to Cleopatra the Cynical Ruler.  The atmosphere of the court of Ptolemy would not have been easy on a young girl, especially one whose ruthless sisters were much, much older than her.  In a court where poison was common and sedition was sometimes open, you can see how Cleopatra would have grown up quickly and become very cynical about humanity.

This cynicism Carolyn Meyer portrays is very important because it explains a lot of Cleopatra’s actions in her later life.  Becoming Caesar’s mistress was a brilliant political move and it probably was just political at the beginning.  Maybe she fell in love with him, maybe not.  I suspect it was a relationship of convenience for her and that would also explain her surprising dedication to Mark Antony later in her life.

By all accounts, her relationship with Mark Antony was not exactly the most functional one, but I think they loved each other as much as two powerful, usually shallow people can.  A happy relationship that also served her politically would have been a surprise to Cleopatra after her relationship with Caesar, thus explaining her dedication to him.

Now, my interpretation of Cleopatra as a person is likely very different from yours.  Everyone projects their own life experiences onto their interpretations of historical figures and I am no different.  So let’s explore some other portrayals, shall we?

Cleopatra as Isis on the temple walls of Dendera.

2.  The Cleopatra that was interested in doing the will of Isis, her patroness.

This portrayal is much more common in historical fiction involving fantastical elements, much like in Hand of Isis by Jo Graham.  Is this a realistic portrayal?  Not really.  Perhaps she actually believed she was doing the will of Isis, but I suspect she cultivated her association with the mother goddess to win the support of the native Egyptians.  Or, maybe she truly believed Isis was guiding her and did the goddess’ bidding.

This portrayal of Cleopatra is usually much more sensitive and is more attentive to Cleopatra the woman, not just the ruler.  In most instances, she genuinely falls for Caesar and Antony, albeit after a bit of time: it starts out as a relationship of convenience, but she falls in love with them as she gets to know them.  This isn’t exactly unbelievable, but that depends on your personal religious inclinations if we’re talking about historical accuracy.

Elizabeth Taylor in one of her more famous roles.

3.  Cleopatra the evil, ruthless witch who seduced men to save her own skin.

Ah, we have now reached Hollywood’s favourite Cleopatra.  Cleopatra was a stone-cold sociopath who seduced Julius Caesar and Mark Antony into doing her bidding, but never felt anything for either of them.  She experimented with different poisons on prisoners when it looked like she might have to commit suicide.  She had her sisters murdered in order to gain her position as heir despite being the third oldest daughter.

This portrayal seems to be the case when Julius Caesar meets Cleopatra in Conn Iggulden’s Emperor: The Gods of War.  However, since we barely see her and we only see her from the point of view of Caesar, there isn’t really much to go on.  Fiction has usually been more sympathetic to maligned historical figures than film has because readers expect a lot more from writers in novels.  Cleopatra the evil seductress has fallen out of favour in fiction and I’m impressed how even Conn Iggulden’s portrayal is slightly sympathetic.  Is this portrayal realistic?  Again, perhaps.  Maybe she really was a narcissistic sociopath; a lot of kings and queens were.

So what is your favourite Cleopatra portrayal?  Which one do you think is the most realistic?  Why?

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