From a personification of the goddess Isis to a bewigged Elizabeth Taylor, sexy seductress to savvy political operator, Cleopatra VII Philopator reinvented herself, and has been reinvented, time and again. Cleopatra has been embraced, rejected, and redefined by so many different people; the most recent depiction arrives in an upcoming biopic, where she will be played by Gal Gadot. But what makes the final Ptolemaic pharaoh of Egypt so timeless?

Cleopatra ostensibly defies singular categorization: an ancient queen operating as politically equal to Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, a woman who, by Plutarch’s own admission, was a “bold coquette” and an able ruler, someone who navigated multiple cultural identities. It doesn’t help that Cleopatra’s own words do not survive. Instead, Roman political propaganda forms much of our primary knowledge of her life. So, our understanding of how Cleopatra might have described or identified herself is minimal.

Rebecca Futo Kennedy, Associate Professor of Classical Studies at Denison University, broke down Cleopatra’s appeal. Kennedy defines four key stereotypes attached to the queen that people historically migrate toward. First, Cleopatra has been considered a “femme fatale or exotic foreign seducer.” This tradition prevailed in the Western medieval canon; in his 14th-century poem De Mulieribus Claris (On Famous Women), Boccaccio condemns Cleopatra for having “no true marks of glory except her ancestry and her attractive appearance,” noting her “universal reputation for greed, cruelty, and lust.” Five hundred years later, in a review of the silent film Cleopatra, the New York Times dubbed the movie “a thoroughly successful portrait of ‘the serpent of the Nile, the siren of the ages, and the eternal feminine,’ in the words of the screen.”

Ad for silent film Cleopatra (July 28, 1918) (image by Motion Picture News via Wikimedia Commons)

Some Cleopatras exemplify Orientalist “colonizer fantasies,” in which her Ptolemaic ancestry is emphasized. Francesca Royster, Professor of English at DePaul University and author of Becoming Cleopatra: The Shifting Image of an Icon, stated that:

Approaches to Cleopatra reflect the politics of different cultural moments, from her own popularity and controversy in her own time, to [t]he ways that she’s evolved to be a figure of glamor, power and sexual freedom in our own. I do think that for some in the West, she is a figure of exotic sexuality, linked to views of Egypt itself as mysterious, glamorous, and perhaps sinful.

In contrast to some of these Western viewpoints, Hamzah Saman, CSA, head of Arab American Casting, expressed belief in Cleopatra’s enduring legacy of female Egyptian power. He explained, “As a casting director, I understand how the story of Cleopatra is captivating for so many. For those of us who are of Middle Eastern descent, we are drawn by her lasting impact on Egyptian history.” He added, “I would love for my daughter to see more examples of strong women in film, especially in films depicting Middle Eastern history.”

Cleopatra has also been portrayed as a “lady boss,” a linguistically gifted queen with the political chops to oppose or manipulate Rome. She serves as an example of gendered leadership in recent books like Leadership Strategies for Women: Lessons from Four Queens on Leadership and Career Development and What Would Cleopatra Do? Life Lessons from 50 of History’s Most Extraordinary Women.

Others tie her to “Eastern luxury,” such as Plutarch’s description of her opulent barge. A century ago, Palmolive depicted Cleopatra in a soap advertisement featuring the tagline “A Beauty Secret 3,000 Years Old.” According to Futo Kennedy, this suggested that regular housewives, too, could find a “way for them to bathe in luxury like ancient Queens.”

Laeta Kalogridis, who is writing the Gadot Cleopatra biopic, is interpreting the queen through a modern reading of Cleopatra’s identity. In a tweet, Kalogridis, herself of Greek descent, proclaimed her excitement at telling the story of “my favorite Ptolemaic Pharoah [sic] and arguably the most famous Macedonian Greek woman in history.” For her, this movie appears to be the chance to explore her own heritage through Cleopatra’s history.

Guilliam van Leefdael, “Cleopatra Enjoys Herself at Sea from The Story of Cleopatra” (1675-1685), wool and silk, slit and double interlocking tapestry weave, 154 1/2 × 141 5/8 inches, Flanders, Brussels, now at the Art Institute Chicago (image courtesy the Art Institute of Chicago)

Placing emphasis on Cleopatra’s “Macedonian” identity poses numerous problems, Futo Kennedy observed. Greek nationalist claims to ancient Macedonian identity are still a thorny issue, especially for the Republic of Northern Macedonia. Discussions of Cleopatra’s Macedonian-ness emphasize certain interpretations of the queen’s heritage and legacy. “What binds all of these desires to emphasize Cleopatra’s Macedonian-ness, however, has almost nothing to do with the modern Macedonia disputes (except that it helps feed Greek nationalist claims),” Futo Kennedy elucidated, “but with histories of anti-Blackness [there is] the desire to emphasize the European and so, by proxy, assumed ‘whiteness’ of Cleopatra and her status as a colonial ruler.”

When considering the Gadot rendition, she added:

If the emphasis on her Macedonian descent (which is over emphasized given the frequent intermarriage between the Ptolemaic and the Seleucid [dynasties], who from the beginning of their conquest of Syria and other parts of Asia, intermarried with local elites) is used as a justification for casting a pale-skinned woman of European descent, then it is getting ancient identities wrong. If the emphasis is an attempt simply to help audiences understand the complexities of ancient Mediterranean geopolitics, then great.

In her work, Royster has delved into Cleopatra’s presence in Black performance art. Orientalist depictions of Cleopatra have historically aligned with negative representations of Black women, which have been artistically subverted in movies of the last few decades. “My all-time favorite version of Cleopatra is that found in the Cleopatra Jones films, because she is ‘queenly’ in the ways that Blaxploitation films have needed queen figures,” said Royster. “She’s a great way to think about glamor, and style and also politics.” She added, “Culturally, there has just been more interest in Cleopatra’s point of view, rather than Antony’s. And sometimes, Antony gets written out entirely.”

Perhaps acknowledging how Cleopatra transcends any one definition lends to her eternal appeal. And perhaps to do this historical figure justice, we need to more deeply consider the modern political implications of the ways she is presented and should encourage even more varied interpretations of Cleopatra, especially by historically marginalized communities.

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Carly Silver

The former ancient and classical history expert for About.com, Carly Silver is a writer, editor, and public historian based in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has featured in numerous publications, including...

One reply on “Who was Cleopatra Really?”

  1. This is a super polite assessment of picking Gal Gadot, the all American icon of Wonder Woman, to play an Egyptian. It makes a pretty cynical statement that the American studios don’t think an Egyptian actresses can pull off the role. Especially since revenues now depend on global distribution and audiences. This is a time for the American movie industry to show it can get it right and redress generations of white-washing. Not for a Liz Taylor redo.

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