Michelle Rafferty, Publicity Assistant
Cleopatra’s sexual liaisons have made her famous for being the femme fatale of classical antiquity and a heroine in the greatest love affair of all time. In Cleopatra: A Biography historian, archaeologist, and classical scholar Duane Roller aims to clear up the infamous queen’s identity—from the propaganda in the Roman Republic all the way to her representations in film today. And what, according to Roller, do the cold hard facts reveal? A pragmatic leader trying to save her kingdom as the reality of a full blown empire loomed ahead.
For more on your favorite queen tune in for Day 2 tomorrow.
Michelle Rafferty: Your new book Cleopatra argues that much of what we think about Cleopatra is sensationalized or untrue. Why is it that our understanding of the Egyptian queen is so skewed, and who is the real Cleopatra?
Duane Roller: Well in terms of your first question, about why is the understanding so skewed, there are really two reasons. One is that much of what we know about her is from her enemies who defeated her, who obviously wanted to create her as a genuine threat to the Roman Republic, and indulge in a great deal of propaganda as to how horrible this women was, all of the terrible, nasty things she did, and obviously there’s a certain amount of gender issues built into this as well. The second is reason is that because Cleopatra was such a fascinating character, she became almost an icon in art and literature and drama, starting probably with Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, but continuing down through a vast number of representations in the visual arts, Delacroix and others, opera, Massenet’s Cleopatra, and of course in the 20th century ending up with well known film and cinema representations. And so that of course emphasizes the scandalous and dramatic by necessity, and has kind of overwhelmed the relatively scant information about the women herself.
Who is the real Cleopatra? Well she was a woman who inherited a dying kingdom, who was the only woman to rule alone in all of classical antiquity, and tried to salvage the situation against the overwhelming power of Rome. She also, if her kingdom was to survive, she had to produce heirs. And that meant personal involvement in the way that a male ruler would not have. She was a linguist, she was a published author, a skilled military commander—all of which makes her a fascinating woman without necessarily some of the scandalous material that we’ve come to know and love so much about her life.