He had resolved the civil war; he had restored peace after years of unrest. He restored the natural order of things. She had her hands full. The pyramids, to which Cleopatra almost certainly introduced Julius Caesar, already sported graffiti. It was Cleopatra's curse to inspire its great poets, happy to expound on her shame, in a language inhospitable to her. For ten generations her family, the Ptolemies, had styled themselves pharaohs. A very different kind of woman, the Virgin Mary, would subsume Isis as entirely as Elizabeth Taylor has subsumed Cleopatra. Her power was immediately misrepresented because—for one man's historical purposes—she needed to have reduced another to abject slavery. Then it began to dematerialize.
With permission of Little, Brown and Company. It is not difficult to understand why Caesar became history, Cleopatra a legend. Men who came in contact with her seem to have lost their heads, or at least to have rethought their agendas. Even at a time when female rulers were no rarity, Cleopatra stood out, the sole woman of her world to rule alone. Then it began to dematerialize. Our fascination with the last queen of Egypt has only increased as a result; she is all the more mythic for her disappearance. Possibly, but not in an age when Rome controlled the narrative. Cleopatra stood at one of the most dangerous intersections in history: A capable, clear-eyed sovereign, she knew how to build a fleet, suppress an insurrection, control a currency. To read the official historians, it is as if with his return the Italian peninsula burst—after a crippling, ashen century of violence—into Technicolor, the crops sitting suddenly upright, crisp and plump, in the fields. We remember her, too, for the wrong reasons. She nonetheless survives as a wanton temptress, not the first time a genuinely powerful woman has been transmuted into a shamelessly seductive one. DeMille is said to have asked, "How would you like to be the wickedest woman in history? Octavian magnified Cleopatra to hyperbolic proportions to do the same with his victory—and to smuggle Mark Antony, his real enemy and former brother-in-law, out of the picture. It was Cleopatra's curse to inspire its great poets, happy to expound on her shame, in a language inhospitable to her. The Renaissance was obsessed with her, the Romantics even more so. The two sides ultimately faced off at Actium, a battle less impressive as a military engagement than for its political ramifications. As one of Caesar's murderers noted, "How much more attention people pay to their fears than to their memories! And the glory of the once-great Ptolemaic empire had dimmed. Cleopatra descended from a long line of murderers and upheld the family tradition, but was for her time and place remarkably well behaved. The holes in the story keep us coming back for more. Portrait of a Marriage. The career that had begun with a brazen act of defiance ended with another; for the second time she slipped through a set of enemy fingers. She helpfully illuminated one of the poet Propertius's favorite points: A Biography, by Stacy Schiff. Shakespeare attested to Cleopatra's infinite variety.
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