We know all about Cleopatra. She was (pick one):

(A) A sly young seductress who used all of her sexual powers to entrap Julius Caesar and Mark Antony (sequentially) to get power and glory for herself. (The Western literary/entertainment tradition.)

(B) An Egyptian-nationalist feminist who used the only methods her society allowed in order to preserve as much independence and dignity as possible for her country and her people. (The politically correct version now taught in most US Universities.)

(C) Some combination of A and B. (What legitimate independent historians -- i.e., those not seeking university tenure -- think.)

(D) None of the above. (Various fringe groups, including new-agers, "pyramid people", and UFO theorists -- "Just look at those alien eyes!".)

The most amazing thing about Cleopatra is that, after 2000 years, people still hold passionate opinions about her. But first the undisputed "facts". She was certainly the last Pharaoh of Egypt -- after her it was Roman governors. She achieved this position, with Roman help, despite the efforts of her brother, Ptolemy XIII, who tried to get rid of her -- Julius Caesar helped her turn the tables and they got rid of Ptolemy XIII instead. She had affairs with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.

Everything else, and especially her motives, is hotly disputed. But first, remember this: none of the "experts" can tell you what was in somebody's head, and especially if, like Cleopatra, she's been dead for 2000 years. If they claim they know what she was thinking, we are justified in suspecting that they are really only ascribing their own thoughts and motives to their subject. And large numbers of experts saying the same thing about what she might have been thinking do not make it any more true.

Even ancient Roman "primary sources" on Cleopatra are extremely chancy. First, only works by authors that agreed with subsequent political and social views of her -- almost always negative -- were likely to survive even the first few centuries. The process of excluding complimentary accounts of Cleopatra began immediately after her death when Octavian (Caesar Augustus) ordered all images of her and inscriptions praising her to be destroyed. Second, of the "primary sources" usually cited, only Cicero and Horace were alive during her time, and their political histories and social connections would predispose them to be against her. Plutarch, who wrote about her in his biographies of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, was writing 150 years after her death.

Later writers and academic historians -- up until the last fifteen or so years of the 20th century -- used the negative opinions in the surviving Romans sources to justify their own positions which became more and more shrill and prurient. "Politically-correct" writers of the past few years have cited the unanimous negativity of 2000 years of their predecessors to "prove" that Cleopatra was a maligned heroine (the argument being that the lack of complimentary accounts proves a systematic plot against Cleopatra.) Not incidentally, this position advances nationalist, feminist, and/or minority-history agendas that didn't exist in her time.

P.S.: (1) Cleo's good looks: Her images vary widely. Some show a voluptuous young girl in a transparent gown in a classical Egyptian pose. Her images on coins are less flattering and have been used to "prove" that she was ugly -- weak and doubled chin, hooked nose. The few sculptured Roman heads are rather plain, but also not ugly, and that matches up with contemporary descriptions. All the images are corrupted by artistic conventions: Egyptian statues always showed princesses as young and voluptuous, but the Egyptian conventions of beauty at the time also demanded that sculptors make faces rounder than they really were and add a double chin. It is true that she was described by contemporaries as having a prominent nose, but a hooked nose was never mentioned, and bad noses were, on the other hand, a common problem in coin dies of the time. Male and female members of the Ptolemy line are always shown with a small mouth and pursed lips, which are unappealing to us in this age of toothy beauties like Sharon Stone and Julia Roberts, but as recently as the 1920s it was all pursed, cupid's-bow lips -- Clara Bow and Theda Bara, the latter of which was a 1917 film Cleopatra.

P.S.: (2) The American Embassy's own Cleopatra Sculpture is back on display in the fountain behind Villa Pinciana after its recent restoration.

There are tons of Internet links on Cleopatra. Her are a few of the more interesting ones:

From the government of Egypt tourism site:

From Middlebury College, Vermont -- Cleopatra's Infinite Variety

From Sangha, India -- Cleopatra Temple:

Ancient Roman sources:



Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra:

Cleo in the movies -- dozens of flicks and TV shows from 1908 to 2000: