Cleopatra: Woman of Power

Review of a 1999 Documentary

Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra
Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra. Getty Images / Keystone / Hulton Archive

In 1999, ABC-TV presented their version of the life of Cleopatra -- Queen Cleopatra VII, the last pharaoh of Egypt, and one of the few women to rule Egypt.  The Discovery Channel re-aired their documentary on Cleopatra's life.  Ruler of Egypt, she married two Roman rulers, sequentially: Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, after first marrying her brother Ptolemy XIII as was the custom of the ruling family.

Cleopatra's life has fascinated people from her lifetime to the present.  The ABC version of Cleopatra's life was of course not the first literary portrayal of the woman whose death ended the Ptolemy dynasty in Egypt. From Cassius Dio to Plutarch to Chaucer to Shakespeare to Theda Bara to Elizabeth Taylor, Cleopatra's story has fascinated held the western world's interest for two millennia.

New York Times critic Ben Brantley said of a 1997 production of Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra,"

If Cleopatra were really alive today, of course, she would probably be on mood-stabilizing prescription drugs. Fortunately for us, such things didn't exist in either ancient Egypt or Elizabethan England.

Why the fascination?

Why the fascination? Is it because her exercise of power was unusual because she was a woman? Is it because she is seen as a freak, an exception, a contrast to the "natural" state of women? Is it just the fascination that a "mere woman" was a key player at a crucial and fascinating time in Roman history?

Is it because her life highlights the different status of women in Egypt, compared to Rome and later western culture? Is it because Cleopatra's education and intelligence stand out, fostering admiration or fear?

Is it because her story is about love and sex? Is it because the dysfunctional family relationships (to use current jargon) are fascinating, no matter when and where they happen? Is it just the two-millennium-long version of obsession with celebrity gossip? (Plutarch's account, with its anecdotes of sensational incidents, reminds me very much of a People Magazine story.)

Is it because Cleopatra represents the struggle of a small nation to stand up to the larger forces of history, as Egypt fought, through its last Pharaoh, to both keep peace with Roman power and stay as independent as possible?

In emphasizing the exceptional case of the Greek-Macedonian ruler of an Egyptian kingdom, over the lives of ordinary women, do we misrepresent what women's lives were really like in ancient and classical times?

The image of Cleopatra, ruling through a combination of her calculated liaisons with Roman rulers and her own heritage, has been largely shaped by men writing and painting for male audiences. What does the fascination with Cleopatra tell us about how men have thought about women through these two thousand years?

Was Cleopatra black?  And why might this matter? What does the evidence say about how race was treated in Cleopatra's time?  What does the interest in this question say about what we think about race today?

There are no easy answers to questions like these. What an age thinks about Cleopatra has a lot to say about what that age thinks about women in power.  How different ages -- and even decades -- saw Cleopatra tells us as much about the time of the presentation as it tells us about Cleopatra.

These links will also help you compare the historical "facts" of this latest portrayal. How did she gain the throne of Egypt? Was it so clear that Cleopatra's first son was the son of Julius Caesar? How long was she in Rome? How did she really first meet Mark Antony?