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‘Cleopatra not most beautiful, but capable woman ruler’: Historian Lucy Hughes-Hallet

British historian and author of Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams and Distortions, Lucy Hughes-Hallet separates facts from legends about the enigmatic and charming queen of ancient Egypt.

books Updated: Feb 05, 2018 13:31 IST
Indo Asian News Service
Cleopatra,Cleopatra legends,Mark Antony
Actor Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra (1963).(IMDb.com)

In popular memory, she seems synonymous with Elizabeth Taylor or Monica Belluci (for the present generation ), both of whom have portrayed her in popular Hollywood films. But was Cleopatra, possibly the ancient world’s most famous woman ruler, really that irresistibly bewitching, sartorially resplendent and sporting those elaborate headdresses?

Not really, contends acclaimed British historian and author Lucy Hughes-Hallet, who says that Cleopatra VII Philopator, to give her full title, was not the most beautiful woman of her time, but certainly the richest and a capable ruler.

She was also a canny politician who managed to get two of the most powerful leaders of the region’s pre-eminent power, Rome, on to her side though it failed to benefit her in the long run, the author of Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams and Distortions (1990), who was in Jaipur for the Jaipur Literature Festival 2018, told IANS.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in a still from the film Cleopatra (1963). Cleopatra was much younger than her film depictions – being 23 when she met Caesar – and never had bobbed hair like Elizabeth Taylor sported in the 1963 film, says historian Hughes-Hallet. (IMDb.com)

Hughes-Hallet, however, maintained that Cleopatra should not be seen only as an exotic queen whose cultural appearances span Shakespeare to Asterix, but also as one of the first historical personages to realise the importance of a leader’s public image.

On the other hand, Cleopatra was also among the first to have her enemies spread stories about her to undermine her reputation, depicting her as a ravishing but cunning Oriental seductress, who beguiled Marcus Antonius (or Mark Antony, as we know him), she said. It is this image that has come down the ages, with “legends obscuring fact”, she said.

And while some of the legends, say the one about how she had herself smuggled into Julius Caesar’s presence rolled in a carpet, may be likely true, Cleopatra’s reputation as cunning seductress is part of this character assassination or based on her Hollywood depictions, Hughes-Hallet said.

So what was the real Cleopatra like?

“She wasn’t particularly beautiful, but rather attractive, had a charming manner and was knowledgeable,” said Hughes-Hallet, quoting Roman historian Plutarch who said that she wasn’t “physically beautiful so much as she was personally appealing, charismatic, and charming”.

Cleopatra was a competent ruler who restored Egypt’s economy, further ruined in the civil war with her brother, says Hughes-Hallet. She adds it was this facet which attracted Mark Antony. But their partnership was for mutual benefits.

She was much younger than her film depictions – being 23 when she met Caesar – and never had bobbed hair like Elizabeth Taylor sported in the 1963 film, or be dark-skinned like in the Asterix comics for she was from a Greek ruling family descended from Alexander the Great’s general Ptolemy.

Cleopatra also wanted to reach out to her Egyptian subjects as the Pharoah, for which she sought to depict herself as the reincarnation of goddess Isis, and thus wore a cobra head-dress, rather the more elaborate ones sported by Taylor, said Hughes-Hallet.

The third child of her family, she had seen her two elder sisters executed for rebelling against their father, Ptolemy XII Auletes, said the historian. Eighteen when she ascended the throne with her brother and co-ruler Ptolemy XIII, she was soon driven out by the regent and took Caesar’s help to regain power.

She was a competent ruler who restored Egypt’s economy, further ruined in the civil war with her brother, says Hughes-Hallet, adding it was this facet which attracted Antony. But their partnership was for mutual benefits. She was looking for alliances and so was he to set up an “Empire of the East” after being out-manoeuvred at home by Caesar’s heir Octavian.

And this was eagerly seized by Octavian and his side to show her as someone who had “besotted” Antony to the extent that he was prepared to commit the unthinkable act of giving up his Roman heritage, says the author, adding this aspect was reflected in paintings, etc., depicting her as a seductress.

Hughes-Hallett, whose most recent work was a 2013 biography of bombastic Italian poet and adventurer Gabriele D’Annunzio, says she was inspired to work on him, for he also had created a public image based on propaganda, and by twisting facts.

Both he and Cleopatra were skilled propagandists, said the author, whose works also include Heroes: Saviours, Traitors and Supermen (2004) in which she seeks to examine the concepts of heroes and hero-worship through figures like Cato, Sir Francis Drake, Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar “El Cid” and Garibaldi.

“All of these were not models of virtue.. but sometimes nations need figureheads,” she said.

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First Published: Feb 05, 2018 13:25 IST