Taking Another Look At Cleopatra

Harry Wilcoxen and Claudette Colbert in the 1934 movie version of "Cleopatra"

The problem with Cleopatra is the way she's been packaged - sometimes in
crates protecting the priceless artifacts that are a testament to the greatness, power and allure of one of the most enigmatic figures in history. CBS News Correspondent Mark Phillips reports for CBS News Sunday Morning.

But there's another kind of packaging - the kind done by Hollywood: Claudette Colbert and the pageantry Cecil B. DeMille made famous; Vivien Leigh as the Egyptian goddess-queen; or, most famously of all, Elizabeth Taylor in the violet-eyes-to-die-for version.

In fact, Taylor's breathy Cleopatra probably did more to define our image of the temptress of the Nile than 2,000 years of actual historic study.

An exhibit, titled "Cleopatra: From History to Myth," drew large crowds to the British Museum in London and is now packing them in at the Field Museum in Chicago. It's the largest collection of Cleopatra artifacts ever assembled.

These aren't just statues and ancient works of art. They are the evidence of Cleopatra's real story. These objects were the political billboards, the TV ads, the gossip columns of the period.

And the fun of this exhibit is comparing this reality with the more modern celluloid images that act as a backdrop. Either way, according to David Foster, who brought this exhibit to Chicago -- it's a hell of a story.

Says Foster: "What the curators at the British Museum did -- and I think it was a
brilliant conception -- they started with this name, this universally recognized name recognized for the wrong reasons, as you say, and then what they do is sort of peel away those misconceptions, to take you back to recover the historical truth. And what you see face to face is evidence of the fact that, contrary to myth, a very able, a very adroit ruler, a very accomplished, a very intelligent woman, a very astute woman."

Susan Walker of the British Museum put the exhibit together, drawing artifacts from museums around the world. Says she, "I think it's a really heady mixture of high politics, sexual adventure and a perception of Cleopatra that has endured over the last 2,000 years."

Cleopatra was the last of the family of Greek rulers of Egypt who traced their origins back to Alexander the Great. To consolidate her power and placate Rome, she forged political and romantic alliances -- first with Julius Caesar. After his death, she took up with Mark Anthony, who was then fighting for control of Rome with his rival, Octavian.

The evidence shows her as a skillful politician and able administrator in her own right.

It pays to follow the money.

Jonathan Williams knows everything there is to know about the loose change of antiquity. He comments on one ancient coin: "This is a coin of Cleopatra and calls her Queen Cleopatra, the Queen of Kings and the Sons of Kings, an extraordinary sort of exalted title. She really did think that she was ruler of the world… Whoever chose to put Cleoatra on one side (of a coin) and Anthony on the other, knew that what they were doing would please the respective individuals portrayed on the coin… It's a tribute to their greatness, is what it is."

In a way, it's also serving notice that they're going steady.

"That's right. That's right," says Williams. "That…they are a couple, they've come together. When you think of Anthony, you think of Cleopatra, and this is…really a new thing in the '30s BC."

Two sides of the same coin…so to speak.

And the coins also go a long way toward answering the age-old question: What was it about Cleopatra that drew the great men of her time to her, often to their ruin? Put bluntly, was she really that gorgeous?

According to Williams, the truth of the matter is that we really don't know what she looked like, not even from an image on a coin.

"My suspicion is that you'd probably be able to recognize that as a portrait of the real Cleopatra, were she in the room with us now, but it's a stylized portrait of power," he explains. "It doesn't intend to be, doesn't claim to be, realistic."

But beautiful? It's the old eye-of-the-beholder thing.

Foster explains, "Her physical beauty wasn't of the kind that immediately struck the beholder. But the force of her personality, the charisma that she projected, and the intelligence that she manifested, and the fact that she could speak in seven or eight languages with any ambassador that came to her court -- all of those exhibited a peculiar force on onlookers. And so I think the whole package was a charming attractive package."

To further complicate matters, Cleopatra's image changes dramatically over time, depending on who was doing the sculpting.

Sally-Ann Ashton is credited with discovering that a certain statue from the San Jose Museum is actually of Cleopatra, even though it looks different from the others. The key is the tell-tale three-cobra head dress which Ashton says only a queen would wear. Whatever, so-called beauty isn't necessarily the issue.

"I think it's difficult, because with each new time period we have very different perceptions…and I think, perhaps, slightly too much emphasis is placed on her beauty, really, rather than her achievements and historical achievements and also her presentation as a person, as a ruler of a very important country."

Cleopatra's problem isn't the way she looked. It's the way she was portrayed by the people who ultimately told her story. And because she had backed the wrong horse -- the loser -- in Mark Anthony, it was the victorious Octavian who got to define her. And not kindly.

Observes Walker, "'The whore of Kinocus' is how she was described."

Cleopatra was dissed big time, her reputation dragged through the Roman mud.

Explains Foster, "Octavian launched a vicious propaganda war against her and, in fact, he kind of established a motif of the insatiable seductress of the Nile, sexually insatiable quen who unmanned Anthony through sexual wiles. He created that then, and in fact,his writers were so effective, it sort of guaranteed her survival through history."

For a final opinion, it's useful to get away from the old rocks and into the literature -- inevitably to Shakespeare.

Janet Suzman is widely credited with the defining theatrical portrayal of Cleopatra.

Says she, "Well, my first impression is that is the received idea, that Cleo is just a sexpot, and, of course, to liberated women like me, this is deeply uninteresting."

What Janet Suzman discovered is that our fascination with Cleopatra is rooted in the universal theme of the historic relationship between the sexes.

"It's actually a terrible burden on women to have to be acceptable in the bedroom, rather than a boardroom,: says Suzman, "and I think Cleopatra obviously combined both. I think she had an absolutely wonderful mixture of something of the whore, and something of the scholar that,combined with her regal disposition and her cunning,must have been a pretty hot cocktail."

Hot enough that a couple of millennia later, she's still a mystery. And, if the museum crowds are any guide, still irresistible.

To learn more about the Cleopatra exhibit at the Field Museum, go to its special Web site.

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