The real Cleopatra resurfaces in TV specials

Just when you thought the political temptress-as-prime-time entertainment was safely off television (and out of the country!), she's back. No, not Monica Lewinsky. This time Cleopatra, history's ultimate seductress, is the subject of a slew of new TV projects.

Yes, Cleopatra is coming. But not the sexy vamp portrayed on film by Elizabeth Taylor or the spunky ingenue of Shakespeare's imagination in "Antony and Cleopatra."

This time, producers of several specials are determined to deepen the public's understanding of arguably the most famous woman in ancient history.

The Discovery Channel presents an archaeological documentary, "Cleopatra's Palace: In Search of a Legend" (Sunday, 9-10 p.m.) followed by "The Real Cleopatra" (10-11 p.m.), a documentary portrait narrated by Angelica Huston. Competing for the same viewer time slot will be A&E, airing "Cleopatra's World: Alexandria Revealed" (Sunday, 9-11 p.m.). Then, ABC will air a four-hour miniseries, "Cleopatra," (May 23). (ABC was not above riding on the notoriety of Monica Lewinsky - the first TV ads for this miniseries aired during the Barbara Walters interview).

Material for the Discovery program came from the work of underwater explorer Franck Goddio, on the site of the ancient city of Alexandria, submerged for thousands of years. In a decade-long project culminating last fall, he has uncovered the remains of the palace of Cleopatra. In addition, he has retrieved from beneath layers of silt a 2,000-year-old shipwreck and two sphinxes, one of which is thought to represent Cleopatra's father, King Ptolemy XII.

"Alexandria is one of the most famous cities of the ancient world," observes Egyptologist Emily Teeter, who was on the Goddio team. "Cleopatra certainly is one of the most famous women of the ancient world ... perhaps in history," she says, pointing out that historical sites have remained shrouded in as much legend as fact. "Now, with this new work, we can begin to work with the archaeology rather than just the legends of the city and the woman."

"When you see the topography of the city as we've discovered it," says explorer Goddio, speaking about how the layout explains ancient texts from Julius Caesar, "you perfectly understand why he was attacked on that place and how he could have burned his fleet from the palace where he was besieged."

The ABC miniseries, based on the 1997 Margaret George novel "The Memoirs of Cleopatra," follows Cleopatra from age 20 to her suicide. The author says she sought to dispel the notion of Cleopatra as a sexual bimbo.

"She was obviously very appealing, very charming, but was not flighty and silly," says Ms. George, who adds that much of the historical record concerning Cleopatra was penned by her Roman enemies. "The flighty aspect of her is basically Roman propaganda that then got picked up by Shakespeare, where you have scenes of her ... idle and lying around eating grapes all the time," she says with a laugh.

George maintains that Cleopatra was a clever and ambitious politician who died trying to unite the ancient kingdoms of Rome and Egypt.

Actor Billy Zane portrays Caesar's general, Marc Antony, who became Cleopatra's lover following the death of Caesar. The performer suggests that in an age when women's rights are being recognized, appreciating the full contributions of such a singular woman as Cleopatra may finally be possible. "There's just a very appropriate timing for this story right now," Mr. Zane says. "And we embraced a slightly new but perhaps the most ancient and classic take on the character and the story."

*Gloria Goodale's e-mail address is goodaleg@csps.com

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