With the help of everyone from William Shakespeare to Elizabeth Taylor, history has found plenty of ways to depict the ancient world’s most famous woman. Who was Cleopatra? Take your pick: Fearless leader. Sly seductress. Brazen hussy.
Separating the truth from myth about Cleopatra is no easy matter. British historian Joyce Tyldesley makes a valiant attempt in her new biography, Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt, but she has trouble giving us a full portrait of this most mysterious of monarchs.
The challenge lies in the scarcity of reliable accounts of Cleopatra’s life, including her flings with Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony, two of the most powerful men on earth. Much of what we think we know about Cleopatra comes from Roman historians with axes – or asps – to grind.
“There are simply too many details missing” to write a conventional biography of Cleopatra’s life, Tyldesley admits.
Even so, Tyldesley notes that some basic facts of the queen’s life seem clear, although perhaps not well-known amid two millennia of speculation about her love life.
Cleopatra was “ambitious and ruthless,” as Tyldesley puts it; she most likely had two of her siblings killed. Smart and savvy, and hardly the emotion-driven female of history, she ruled as a living incarnation of the goddess Isis. And while she’s known for her supposed lusty liaisons, it appears she had no intimate relations with men other than Caesar and Anthony.
There are other surprises. It turns out that the queen probably wasn’t much of a looker; depictions on coins show a woman lacking natural beauty by ancient or current standards. But she was rich, intelligent, and powerful, and all these things made her irresistible.
While Tyldesley provides occasional doses of wit, “Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt” is a bit of a slog at times, especially when Tyldesley delves into the complicated politics of ancient Egypt. Readers must cope with 15 Egyptian kings named Ptolemy – Cleopatra alone co-ruled with three of them – and a slew of royals also named Cleopatra. (The queen in question was No. VII.)
Tyldesley is careful to avoid turning Cleopatra into a doomed romantic, noting that it’s impossible to know whether she and Anthony shared “genuine passion.” But this cautious approach saps life from the Queen of the Nile, turning her into an interesting but remote character, one whose motivations may be forever veiled by time and myth.
Ultimately, the most vivid and fascinating version of Cleopatra will always be found in our imaginations.
Randy Dotinga is a freelance writer in San Diego.