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May-15-2009 07:14printcomments

Myths Block Discovery of Real Cleopatra

Archaeologists may be on the verge of discovering Cleopatra’s long-sought tomb, and bestselling novelist Michelle Moran is concerned over inaccuracies commonly believed for more than 2,000 years about the Egyptian queen.

An alabaster head of Cleopatra
An alabaster head of Cleopatra was found near Egypt’s Mediterranean city of Alexandria in 2008.

(SAN BERNADINO, Calif.) - Remembered for her political triumphs, legendary seductions, and untimely death, Cleopatra remains one of the most evocative figures of all time.

Believing the discovery of her tomb to be imminent, the head of Egypt’s Supreme Council for Antiquities, Dr. Zahi Hawass, recently promised that the find will be “bigger than that of King Tutankhamun’s.”

But how much of her legend is reality and how much is fable created by time and ancient Roman propaganda? The true discovery of Cleopatra will lie not in finding her remains, but in unraveling the myths that have enshrouded her for more than two millennia.

Myth #1: The Great Beauty

Best known to Romans as the seductress of Julius Caesar, with whom she had a son, and for a later fling with Marc Antony, which produced three children, it has long been assumed that Cleopatra was irresistibly beautiful. Yet according to Plutarch, Cleopatra was “reputed to be no great beauty” and her face “was not altogether incomparable.” The ancient Roman historian went on to write that Cleopatra’s attraction came not from her looks, but from “her charm and wit.” If contemporary carvings of her are accurate, then Plutarch was correct. Instead, Cleopatra’s appeal must have come from within. She spoke Greek, the language of Egypt’s Hellenistic rulers at that time, as well as eight other tongues. More a Siren than a Venus, listening to her, Plutarch reported, was like listening to “an instrument of many strings.”

Myth #2: The Seductress

Just as Cleopatra was probably no great beauty, her reputation as a seductress was largely unearned. In a successful smear campaign to discredit her reign, Cleopatra’s rival, Octavian, accused her of being a temptress hungry for any man of power. Yet there is no evidence that she ever had any sexual partners other than Julius Caesar and Marc Antony.

Myth #3: Suicide Over Disgrace

Legend has it that rather than be disgraced by being paraded through Rome, Cleopatra chose to take her own life. But as Julius Caesar discovered when he marched Cleopatra’s sister Arsinoë through the streets, degrading a queen of the most civilized kingdom in the ancient world was not a popular thing to do. At such a precarious time in his reign, it’s highly unlikely that Octavian would have taken this risk. Since Cleopatra and her sons would have been a rallying point for those who opposed Octavian’s rule, her “suicide” by asp was probably performed under great duress.

The ancient Egyptians believed that, “To speak the name of the dead is to make them live again.” If archaeologists truly succeed in uncovering the tomb of Cleopatra and Marc Antony, the queen of Egypt will, in effect, be resurrected. Strong, educated, a leader who braved the military power of Rome, Cleopatra was arguably the most learned woman of her time. But while her final resting place would truly be the archaeological find of the century, it may do little to dispel the myths surrounding her life.

Michelle Moran is the best-selling author of two historical novels. Her third book, CLEOPATRA’S DAUGHTER, will debut September 15, 2009.

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Greatness June 17, 2012 11:58 pm (Pacific time)

Hahaha 2012 ahahaha 3 years later

heliosmou April 15, 2010 1:21 am (Pacific time)

Thanks for setting the record straight... Even though people will continue to believe what comforts them most, at least we do have some documentation that Cleopatra was an accomplished woman and significant leader of Hellenistic Egypt, despite attempts to smear her image.

frankinstin November 11, 2009 12:12 pm (Pacific time)


Hayley May 15, 2009 12:20 pm (Pacific time)

I agree. Finding the body won't dispel the myths. I'm really looking forward to this author's book, as well.

gp May 15, 2009 12:15 pm (Pacific time)

Lovely, just lovely, so the beautiful seductress part is a myth not the powerful, learned, charming leader part. In fact, the myth was created to discredit her and steal her power. How very interesting. Most women understand this all too well. Don't call us beautiful and sexy though we may be, name our other fine attributes. Please. Thank you. It is 2009. We have been able to vote for 90 years or more. We may eventually get equal rights.

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