Scandal, mystery, sex, money and power aren’t just the secrets to every soap opera’s success, whether screened in daily daytime episodes or served up in a big-budget display of dragons, bloodshed and nudity. Blend them all together and the basis for many of humanity’s great narratives emerges, including a seductive real-life story that has continued to fascinate for more than 2000 years.
During her lifetime between 69BC and 30BC, Cleopatra was many things. Born into royalty, she was a queen by the age of 18, survived successive reigns with her younger brothers, outlived all three of her competitive siblings, bedded two of Rome’s chief military figures, became the last active pharaoh of Egypt, and identified as a living goddess. Indeed, her rule became the stuff of legend, as did her calculating intellect, persuasive charisma and bewitching presence. It’s little wonder that everyone from HBO to William Shakespeare to Elizabeth Taylor has tackled her tale in the two millennia since, with two-part documentary Cleopatra the latest to dive into the details.
From sordid beginnings
Forget every trashy television show that you’ve ever watched. Unless the Ptolemies were involved, they simply can’t compare to just what might be history’s most scandalous family. Protecting the bloodline by incest and intermarrying was common custom during their stint at the top of Egyptian society, as was fighting and murdering for supremacy. In a development that sounds like a Game of Thrones storyline, it is widely accepted that Cleopatra had a hand in the deaths of her three siblings, including the two brothers that she shared the throne with and was also married to. Hers was a time when the connections of kin were more about consolidating control than care and affection, complete with cutthroat tactics to dispatch with inter-family threats.
In fact, before HBO transported TV viewers to the seven kingdoms — and into the comparable exploits of the Starks and the Lannisters — it spun two seasons out of the bloodlust, bed-hopping and political power frenzies courtesy of Rome. With its focus falling firmly on Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, Cleopatra proved a significant part of the sumptuous, expensive, swords-and-sandals, sex-and-steaminess-heavy production, with sordid family affairs heightened, and with her allure thrust to the fore by British actress Lyndsey Marshal.
Glitz and glamour
The black cascading hair, the piercing kohl-rimmed eyes: whenever Marshal took to the screen as Cleopatra in Rome, both were a pivotal part of her look. With accounts of the fated queen’s beauty only growing over the years, revelling in her seeming glitz and glamour is clearly one of the factors keeping interest in her life and times alive — and enticing everyone from Elizabeth Taylor (in 1963’s notoriously overblown Cleopatra) to Angelina Jolie (in a planned epic that never came to fruition, as infamously documented in the Sony hack) to the role of history’s number one sex symbol.
But was she? Expects actually beg to differ. While accounts from the time mightn’t claim that she had a face that launched a thousand ships like Helen of Troy, coins from the period paint a much plainer picture, depicting Cleopatra with pronounced features that don’t conform to typical standards of extreme attractiveness. Of course, it’s her bedroom dealings that have ensured that most people think otherwise, and have resulted in actresses that are pleasing to the eye playing the part on screen, such as Theda Bara in 1917’s silent effort Cleopatra (which was later deemed obscene under Hollywood’s Hays Code). Believing that two of the most powerful men in the world at the time fell under the thrall of her physical charms, rather than being wooed by her brilliant mind or motivated by political savvy, is a much more traditional line of thinking, after all.
An epic love story
You can’t examine the reality of Ptolemaic Egypt without detailing the kingdom’s relationship with Rome, and you certainly can’t explore Cleopatra’s life and death without reference to her high-profile couplings. So intertwined are her bedfellows with her legend that many a text dare not divide them. Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra was by no means the first, nor the last, but it helped cement the perception that her tale was inseparable from the men she reportedly loved.
With their union book-ended by death — first Julius Caesar’s, then their own by separate suicides — Cleopatra and Mark Antony’s story could only be rendered a tragedy, as the Bard knew. Thanks to the many machinations surrounding their pairing, particularly the presence of Antony’s fellow Roman leader Octavius, love was only one part of the narrative, but it’s what subsequent versions have pushed front and centre. You don’t cast Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as the duo, or make the resulting film the most expensive ever made at the time, without relishing the real-life couple’s time together. And while George Bernard Shaw preferred to fictionalise her other famous relationship in late 19th century play Caesar and Cleopatra, romance still sits at its core. His text is considered to further the position that it was love rather than politics that brought the two together.
Everybody loves a mystery
The continued speculation surrounding Cleopatra’s love life typifies a common element to every aspect of her story. Perhaps the strongest reason that she remains such a subject of interest is also the simplest: ongoing intrigue. With many of the specifics unknown (including the identity of her mother, other than her lineage as a Ptolemaic family member) there’s plenty of room for fascinated parties to fill in the gaps. Scandal, mystery, sex, money, power and a narrative open to endless interpretations — who wouldn’t want to piece together that puzzle?
Follow Cleopatra through ruthless political manoeuvring, family betrayal and sensual seduction in Cleopatra, streaming now on SBS On Demand: