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WHO WAS THE REAL CLEOPATRA? by Duane Roller. (Great Lives)
Elizabeth Taylor portrayed a mistaken vision of Cleopatra.
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She was no study in frivolity. She was well-educated, speaking at least a dozen languages and publishing medical treatises that were still quoted by authors hundreds of years later. She was a skilled field commander who took her own fleet into battle more than once. She was a single mother, raising four children while running a kingdom. She was so respected that she was addressed by the title of "king."
Yet in her struggle with Rome, she lost. Probably no one, given the dynamics of power in the eastern Mediterranean in her day, could have done any better. The power of Rome was overwhelming. In 31 B.C., after she and Antony attempted to block a Roman attack against Egypt in the famous battle of Actium, off the west coast of Greece, she retreated home to protect her kingdom and her children. Yet even tricking Antony into suicide did not save her, and after months of negotiations, she herself committed suicide, although not by an asp. That was a story she put out herself in her suicide note, and which was promulgated by the Romans.
The Roman commander, Octavian (soon to become the emperor Augustus), needed to solidify his own position and to justify the death of his fellow Roman officer (and brother-in-law) Antony. He enlisted some of the best writers the world has ever seen--Virgil and Horace lead the list--to create a demonized Cleopatra, one whose profligate ways almost destroyed Rome.
And they popularized the asp story: much better literature than just dying by poison. Cleopatra was one of the best early examples of a powerful, articulate, and capable woman whose reputation was destroyed by a male-dominated society that found her a threat.
Duane W. Roller is professor emeritus of classics at Ohio State University and author of "Cleopatra: A Biography." He will speak Tuesday at the University of Mary Washington. (See Page D1.)