Cleopatra: Fact and Fiction
Barbara Watterson
Amberley Publishing
304 pp, 
35 colour and 9 black & white illustrations
Hardback, £20

Cleopatra was a legend even in her own time, and the drama of her life and tragic end have proved irresistibly fascinating for successive generations and provided an endless source of inspiration for artists, writers and film-makers.

Cleopatra VII was the last member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, founded by Ptolemy I Soter, the friend and general of Alexander the Great, which ruled Egypt for nearly three centuries. Following Alexander's directions, Ptolemy began the construction of Alexandria on the western reaches of the Nile Delta and it soon became one of the greatest cities of antiquity. A centre of learning and culture, it was where Cleopatra's tumultuous life was largely played out and it was a fitting home for the most mesmorising of queens.

Barbara Watterson, author and freelance lecturer in Egyptology, provides us with a concise history of the Ptolemies, their often murderous ambitions and troubling inclin-ations, including a penchant for marrying their close relatives and dispatching those who threatened them. A sure sense of self and a ruthless streak were required to survive in the family, and from a young age Cleopatra displayed both in large measure. But the menace of her siblings was not her only challenge. By the time of her birth in about 69 BC, Egypt was under the shadow of Rome and her life was spent attempting to retain her power and navigate her way through Rome's deadly political upheavals until the wily Octavian triumphed.

Cleopatra's story, which is simply and clearly told here, never ceases to amaze. Her allure is said to have resided in her acute wit and intelligence – she spoke many languages – and her charm rather than in her physical appearance. This certainly rings true considering that the central drama of her life was her relationships with two of the mightiest Romans – Julius Caesar and Mark Antony – both of whom she held in her thrall. Caesar took her to Rome where she held court in his villa and shocked the locals; Mark Antony gambled everything to remain with her.

Little wonder, then, that the Romans feared and denigrated her as a dangerous, decadent seducer. Little wonder, too, that her life has prompted such a wealth of creative work, from her dazzling portrayal by Shakespeare to Michelangelo's haunting portrait of her, wreathed in a serpent.

Watterson chronicles the depictions of Cleopatra in art and drama that have helped shape our perceptions of her, and she provides plenty of entertaining material. The movie industry also mined her story, from the first film about her in 1910, to the legendary 1963 film, starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and the 1964 comedy Carry on Cleo. So, what is her allure?

In the words of her maid Charmian in Shakespeare's play, she is 'a lass unparalleled'; a woman who threw herself headlong into the mighty frays that surrounded her, and she lived life on a grand scale in every sense. She entertained many people in her brief, fiery life, choosing suicide at the age of 39. And she continues to entertains us.
Diana Bentley

 

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