The Allure of Cleopatra
Using rare pieces of art, a major exhibition is peeling away the myth of the ancient Egyptian queen as no more than a femme fatale.
'How would you like to play the wickedest woman in history?" Cecil B. DeMille once asked Claudette Colbert. But was Queen Cleopatra of Egypt really wicked - or was she the victim of Roman (and later, European) propaganda?Skip to next paragraph
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"Cleopatra of Egypt: From History to Myth," a major exhibition now at the Field Museum in Chicago questions the myths and goes a long way toward rehabilitating the most famous woman who ever lived. The exhibition, which originated at the British Museum, runs through March 3.
And it's a fascinating process. From high art to low, from historical chronicles to archaeological discoveries, the story of the last Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt has been retold and embroidered according to the requirements (sometimes prurient) of various cultures, writers, and artists.
"Art, history, archaeology - we don't make a distinction among these things," says project administrator David Foster of the Field Museum. "But the whole exhibition is comprised of rare pieces of classical art and of material culture. Period jewelry, mosaics, funerary objects, sculpture are all here. But in addition ... we added layers of context so our visitors have a meaningful frame of reference."
History, it is said, is written by the victors. When Octavian Caesar defeated Cleopatra's forces, led by Mark Antony, her treasuries were looted, her kingdom despoiled, and her personal possessions taken by the Romans. Overnight, interest rates in Rome dropped from 12 percent to 3 percent because Egypt's wealth had so swelled Roman coffers.
"Historically, politically, militarily, and romantically the story of Cleopatra is loaded," Mr. Foster says. It's the story of the woman herself that gives the whole show its vitality and power.
"Maybe history is now treating her more fairly," Foster says. "One of the goals of the show was to peel away centuries of myth and misconception, which are fascinating in their own right...."
In the attempt to separate history from myth, Egyptologists, art historians, and other antiquarians now see her as a fine stateswoman, a strong queen, and an ingenious politician. It is generally acknowledged that she was a beauty, but probably not of the kind Theda Bara portrayed in the 1917 film version - the femme fatale who was a seducer of otherwise sensible men, rather than a brave and astute leader.
Claudette Colbert's version was a little more complex, but Ms. Colbert, Vivien Leigh, and Liz Taylor sympathetically played Cleopatra for sexual mystery and mesmeric power. The movies didn't bother with the Egyptian ruler's daily tasks, her raising of children, or her 20 years' worth of strategizing.
The Romans were male chauvinists who found it a lot easier to blame Cleopatra for troublemaking than to cast aspersions on the two greatest Romans of their era for loving her. Julius Caesar brought her to Rome as his honored guest, and she was there when he was murdered in 44 BC.
Cleopatra had four children. Caesarean (Little Caesar), fathered by Julius Caesar, was murdered. Cleopatra then married Mark Antony, giving him three children, two of whom disappeared from history, but the third, her one daughter, became a great queen.
Antony was already married to Octavian's sister Octavia, but Egyptian law permitted polygamy. Roman law did not. And Octavian did not appreciate the slight to his sister. But then Octavian didn't appreciate much about the situation in Egypt. Antony was popular among the troops. A great soldier, he won many territories for Cleopatra. A final conflict was inevitable.
In the course of assembling this amazing trek into history, curators re-authenticated pieces that for years had been in doubt. And the Field Museum has done its best to create an atmosphere of discovery among these great and serious works of art.
It's the exhibit's third venue, and the only one in the United States (the first two were in Rome and London). But even after the show's masterpieces are packed and returned to their respective museums worldwide, the questions it has raised and the history it has validated will remain.
For example, the great queen wasn't really Egyptian, but Macedonian, at least by dynastic tradition. After Alexander the Great swept across the ancient world, conquered Egypt, and established the city of Alexandria, his generals divided his spoils among themselves at his death.