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In Search of the Real Cleopatra

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Age cannot wither her,” Shakespeare wrote, “nor custom stale her infinite variety.” Elizabeth Taylor portrayed her 3½ centuries later as a gold-encrusted, exotic ideal. But those images of the Queen of the Nile need a serious overhaul, according to a new exhibition at Chicago’s Field Museum. Conceived by curators at the British Museum in London, “Cleopatra of Egypt: From History to Myth” is the first show to bring together coins minted during her reign, newly identified Egyptian statues and 2,000 years of often fanciful portraits. What’s missing is evidence to suggest that Cleopatra was a beauty queen.

Instead, scholars now believe, she was an irresistible combination of brains and charisma. “There was an aura about her that she promoted,” says the British Museum’s Dr. Susan Walker. “She was good at mystique.” Born in 69 B.C., Cleopatra VII inherited the throne at 17. To bolster her power she learned several languages. She also married her two brothers and later killed one. When Julius Caesar took Alexandria in 48 B.C., she smuggled herself into his palace in a bedroll. After his murder in 44 B.C., Cleopatra took up with Mark Antony, who would later battle co-ruler Octavian for control of the Roman Empire. Antony’s defeat and suicide in 30 B.C. led her to end her own life with the sting of an asp.

Octavian promoted the myth of Cleopatra as a harlot, but her alliances with powerful men had little to do with her looks. Says David Foster of the Field Museum: “She was one of the most politically savvy people alive.”