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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.

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The crowning jewel of this section is a marble portrait bust of Alexander (356-323 BC) executed perhaps 100 years after his death. Beautiful, arrogant, and strong-willed, the face boasts a strong nose and chin and a peculiar dip of the brow over the left eye that makes him seem real enough to recognize on the street.

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The bust is significant in this exhibition, not just because Alexander established Greek reign in Egypt, but because its classical style affected the style of Egyptian art.

The first Pharaoh in Cleopatra's family, Ptolemy I, was one of Alexander's Macedonian generals. The dynasty he founded was to last 300 years. The Ptolemies intermarried, and Cleopatra was one among many children born to Ptolemy XII, an incompetent ruler nicknamed "flute player."

Cleopatra ascended the throne at age 18 in 51 BC, and though married officially to her younger brother, she ruled alone.

She took the three-headed snake as her diadem, and adopted the cornucopia as a symbol of the prosperity and fertility of her reign. She was beloved as a religious figure. She reigned from her seat at Alexandria, perhaps the most cosmopolitan city of its time - multicultural and sophisticated.

The complexity of an excellent mosaic of a dog looking over a water pitcher on its side is one of the most arresting images in the whole show. The jewelry in the show is intricate and sophisticated, too (though none of Cleopatra's own jewels remain).

Cleopatra in luminous marble

We meet her in the exhibition first as an Egyptian ruler - cornucopia in hand, diadem in place. A magnificent black basalt statue of her sets her firmly in place as ruler. Imagine, then, how the Romans saw her, in the luminous marble of classical sculpture. Throughout the exhibition, this duality is stressed, the confluence of the ancient Egyptian with the classical Greco-Roman.

After Julius Caesar conquered Pompey, he sailed to Alexandria and met the young queen, apparently falling for her charms. When Caesar returned to Rome, Cleopatra and their son accompanied him. But when Caesar was murdered, Cleopatra returned to Alexandria to avoid Roman unpleasantness.

As Antony and Octavian (later called Augustus) vied for control of the Roman Empire, Antony summoned Cleopatra as an ally. Cleopatra supported his military actions, while he granted her territories in return. The Egyptian empire temporarily expanded and prospered. Her head appeared on coins, her image graced temples.

It would take a vigorous public-relations assault to detract from her glory, and Octavian was just the man for the job, even though he was only in his early 20s. Thus began the rancorous propaganda against her. The final blow occurred when Antony repudiated Octavia, and therefore Octavian, and Octavian declared war on "that foreign woman."

Though the defeated Cleopatra tried to negotiate with Octavian to save her children, he refused. She sought sanctuary in her mausoleum. Thinking Cleopatra was dead, Antony fell on his sword. He was taken to her mausoleum, where he died in her arms. Octavian arrested Cleopatra and planned to parade her through Rome in chains. But she foiled his humiliating scheme, somehow killing herself. (No one knows how she died.)

Roman historians Horace, Lucan, and Plutarch vilified her, as did medieval Italian writers like Giovanni Boccaccio. But Geoffrey Chaucer celebrated her as a heroine of chivalric love. And Shakespeare made her a fully realized character: a strong queen and a loyal consort to Antony.

"The facts of their story were known in Shakespeare's time," Foster says. "What he did was give us a much more complex character than she had ever been depicted [as] before. Before Shakespeare, she was portrayed either as a paragon or as exemplary of everything sinful about women. His story was more true than any that had come before."

The Victorians delighted in prurient details about Cleopatra, which carried over into 20th-century movies.

"The truth is more compelling than the myths," Foster says. "What emerges is a woman of immense political acumen and power at a turning point in human history. She was a power player with the most powerful men of her day."