Egyptian Empress Cleopatra is not purely a historical figure, for her life has been much romanticized and made mythical in popular culture. Known for her seductive allure and great powers of will and conquest, she came to represent the empowered woman of historic times. In the two millennia since her demise, the aura around her has remained undiminished, as she continues to remain an iconic figure in popular cultural discourse. It is then apt to summarize her effect on culture thus: “Cleopatra keeps on changing, and will continue to do so until her name is forgotten, but the forces that shaped her life and which have shaped her legend–the forces of fear and fantasy and covert desire–are still at their lethal work in the world.” (Hughes-Hallett, 2006, p.70) The rest of this essay will provide evidence in support of this thesis.
What make Cleopatra’s influence on culture so strong are the remarkable facts of her life. Ascending the throne at a tender age of 17, she was forced to go into exile 3 years later. Languishing in exile in Arabia, she mustered all her resources in raising an army. The romantic side of her life has added to the allure of her legend. This includes “her enchantment of Caesar (smuggling herself into the royal palace, according to Plutarch, in a rolled-up sack) and her legendary appearance, dressed as Aphrodite in a gilded boat, before Mark Antony. Even Shakespeare’s febrile description of the spectacle — “So perfumed that/The winds were love-sick” — is based on contemporary accounts.” (Denny, 2001, p.40)
But her relevance to the contemporary world is not something immutable, as demonstrated by recent developments surrounding her legacy. As historians utilize forensic and other advanced research techniques to revise historical accounts, many unknown facts pertaining to iconic figures like Cleopatra have emerged. One such is the logical deduction by American scholar Martin Bernal (the most prominent of a long line of Afro-centrist classical historians). Bernal claims that most previous historians underestimated the culture of Egypt as they were unwilling to acknowledge that Greek, and by extension all European, civilization had its beginnings in Africa. But, thanks to Bernal, this Afro-centrist view became more acceptable – indeed more fashionable to articulate. The clearest manifestation of this change in public perception and acceptance of historical facts is witnessed in the British theatre scene.
“In the summer of 1991 two productions of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra were running in London. In each of them Cleopatra was played by a black actress: one of whom, Donna Croll of the Talawa Theatre Company, told a reporter ‘the fable of the white Cleopatra is just another way of bleaching out history’… Just as Cleopatra had previously been co-opted into playing a part in discussions about the ethics of suicide, the status of a wife and the comparative merits of aristocratic or autocratic government, so in the last years of the twentieth century she found herself at the centre of a debate about race relations.” (Hughes-Hallett, 2006, p.70)
It should be remembered that Egypt and Rome of first century BCE were multi-racial societies. Being the centers trade and politics, the cities hosted tens of thousands of slaves. Cleopatra’s father was a Ptolemy, his stock being derived from descendants of one of Alexander’s generals. His roots could be traced to Macedonia, where natives tend to be fair of skin color. “Theoretically he, and all his forebears for over two centuries, had been the offspring of incestuous brother-sister marriages, and were therefore purebred (as well as inbred) Greeks. In fact, it occurred more than once that the heir to the throne of Ptolemaic Egypt was the child of a royal concubine of unrecorded origin. Cleopatra was one such case. We do not know who her mother was.” (Hughes-Hallett, 2006, p.70)
It is highly likely that Cleopatra was thus inter-racial, thus adding to her exoticism. The fact that her mother was a Royal concubine has added much to the eroticism associated with her. It is part of centuries old folklore that Cleopatra had an insatiable appetite for sexual pleasures. She is also projected to be a sexual dominatrix, who ruled over her slaves carnally too. This image of Cleopatra still finds circulation in contemporary popular culture, with many erotic and pornographic films being made on the theme. (Gadeken, 1999, p.523)
Among other lasting impressions of the great Egyptian empress are her identity as “the most illustrious and wise of women…we come to see Cleopatra as the embodiment of unfettered passion and intrigue, even in death clasping the asp in ardent embrace?” (Walker, 2001, p.6) And what capture this sentiment most clearly is not historical accounts of Cleopatra but references to her in literature. And since literature has a greater influence on culture than does academic scholarship, it is impressions left by numerous playwrights which have endured to this day. And as each literary artist adorned his muse in his own ways, the richness and variety of her representations have also grown. “From Plutarch’s description of her presence as “utterly spellbinding” (although he countered that “her beauty was not in and for itself incomparable”) down to the protean enchantress of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, the particularities of her appearance have always been left to the imagination. And there are as many different Cleopatras as there are readers of those texts.” (Denny, 2001, p.40)
Although later historical and literary representations of her showed her in kinder light, the early portrayals of her (much of it was commissioned by her political rivals) were unsympathetic. For example, in the literature to have emerged during her life-time, Cleopatra “was the whore of the Canopus, the foreign queen who had unmanned Antony, and made him un-Roman. In the first century AD, when Antony’s descendants Caligula, Claudius and Nero had made the Roman imperial court the setting of licentious and unseemly behavior, negative images recalling Cleopatra’s alleged wantonness appeared in various art forms. The focus throughout was on Cleopatra’s sexual appetite as expressed in her relationship with Antony.” (Walker, 2001, p.6)