If it wasn’t all true, it would be hard to believe; thirty years before Jesus, an eighteen year old princess tried to take over the world? Outrageous. But that's what happened.
She was the seventh Ptolemaic Queen Cleopatra but really - there is only one. She has been variously portrayed as virtuous suicide, exuberant lover, professional courtesan, scheming manipulator, and femme fatale. Was she Shakespeare’s cruel and lazy siren, George Bernard Shaw’s man-eater or Elizabeth Taylor’s alluring beauty?
Hollywood has never had any doubts. In the thirties Cecil B de Mille offered the role to Claudette Colbert with the words: "How would you like to play the wickedest woman in history?"
Was she history's wickedest woman? She was certainly a woman with cojones. She took on Roman military and political power at the apogee of its power. If she had succeeded – and she very nearly did – the world today might look a very different place. God really might be a woman - called Isis.
It is true that she scandalized the Roman world, but much of what was said about her at the time was mostly misinformation used by her enemy, Augustus, to rally his fellow Romans against her. He used her to turn the tables on Anthony, who was his rival for power in Rome, leaking rumours about her bathing in asses’ milk and having sex with her slaves in order to make Anthony look ridiculous.
And it worked; worked so well in fact that his propaganda still informs much of popular opinion about her, even today.
She was certainly not the sexual virago of legend. She did not copulate with crocodiles, (it's dangerous and probably not that much fun) or with her slaves (beneath her dignity). In fact, it seems she only slept with two men all her life, and both of them were husbands.
Well, not her husbands, admittedly - but in fairness, she did marry them later, according to Egyptian rite, if not theirs.
The real Cleopatra was a consummate political animal, a woman far ahead of her time; she had the marketing acumen of Lady Gaga, the ruthlessness of Margaret Thatcher and the charm of Lady Diana.
Yet we don't really know what she looked like. But surely, you say – she looked like Elizabeth Taylor? With a bob, and a beauty spot, reclining on an antique sunbed?
|bust of Cleopatra in the Berlin Museum|
Some historians even speculate that Cleopatra may have even been blonde. As she was part Macedonian, there's a fair chance, so to speak.
I toyed with the idea of having Cleopatra as a blonde in WHEN WE WERE GODS, to show that I had done my research and to distance myself from the movie. But my publisher said to me: you can't do that. They said: Cleopatra is now far too deeply ingrained in our consciousness as a bobbed brunette, it will jar in a reader's imagination.
She may not even have been that beautiful. There are few existing likenesses of her extant. (A coin from the period shows her in profile, and it’s a pretty terrifying image too, not unlike Mike Tyson.)
There are only two ambiguous accounts from her contemporaries; Plutarch was at pains to describe her 'pleasing personality' - which is damning with faint praise - and only Cassius Dio lauded her looks, but did he say that because he had to?
And anyway, does it really matter? In the context of her story it was her spirit not her looks that really mattered. Despite overwhelming odds, she almost became ruler of the entire western world using her intelligence and her daring. In the end she scandalized the Romans not because of her sexual conquests but because a woman almost beat them at their own game.
She was truly one of the most extraordinary women in history.