'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?
"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.
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.
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).
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."