The commonly accepted story arc for Cleopatra is: Caesar. Antony. Dead.

The commonly accepted story arc for Cleopatra is:

  1. Caesar.
  2. Antony.
  3. Dead.

Shakespeare even cut her arc by a third in his Antony and Cleopatra. At least the film managed to get all three plot points in.

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I was a freshman in Seldovia High when Mr. Winklebleck walked us through Julius Caesar and made us (well, me, anyway) like it. I was babysitting for Darlene Kashevarof at the time and she had recordings of Shakespeare’s plays on vinyl. I’d put the kids to bed early so I could listen because Mr. Winklebleck said Shakespeare was meant to be performed, not read, and this was as close as I could get. He was right, and I listened to every recording Darlene had, including Antony and Cleopatra, which I thought was sooooo romantic and so very heartbreaking. (Remember fourteen? Yeah, me, too. Hormones have a lot to answer for.) I’m pretty sure this was the recording.

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Click through the image, scroll down and look at the credits. Yep, that’s Ian Holm, Diana Rigg, Ian McKellen —I was listening to their voices before they hit the big time.

I was in London in 1987 when the Royal Shakespeare Company staged a production of Antony and Cleopatra with Judi Dench and Anthony Hopkins. You haven’t truly lived until you’ve seen Judi Dench writhing in sexual longing across the stage of the Old Vic. We’re talking ssssssizzle, here.

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In 2001 the British Museum had a traveling exhibition called Cleopatra of Egypt: from History to Myth, which would appear in London, Rome and Chicago. Right about that same time Alaska Airlines started flying direct from Anchorage to Chicago. So I went. In December. There for the first time (along with Garrett’s Popcorn) I was introduced to the notion that Cleopatra’s contemporaneous history was written almost entirely by historians in Augustus Caesar’s pay and that there might be, well, a bit of bias shading those narratives. I still have the book from the exhibit

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and my favorite chapter is still “Anything truth can do, we can do better: the Cleopatra Legend” by Christopher Felling.

…she swiftly became the stuff of Roman drama. Octavian worked sedulously on Italian misogyny and xenophobia: Antony became caricatured as the man sinking into Eastern excess, while Octavian himself was champion of the traditional values of home…Octavian needed to have defeated a genuinely formidable enemy.

It was necessary to Octavian’s legend that Cleopatra seduced poor, helpless Antony and bent him to her vile, anti-Roman purposes. The woman tempted me and I ate it is an old, old story.

Then in 2011 I made my book club read Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra.

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I won’t go on and on (you can read my Goodreads review here, where I do) but I found it to be a companion piece to the British Museum’s exhibit in revelations. Remember that three-point story arc? Just throw that out. Among other interesting items, Cleopatra

  1. ruled for twenty years.
  2. spoke at least seven languages.
  3. was the only Ptolemy in 3 centuries against whom her Egyptian subjects did not revolt.

In addition, the status of women in Alexandria then was staggering to me, as I tend to write off everything prior to the 19th Amendment as medieval. The women of Alexandria could marry where they chose, divorce if they wanted to, be paid alimony, keep the kids, have jobs, own and operate their own businesses. That’s Alexandria BCE, folks. Hell, that’s not even Alexandria today, as the Muslim Brotherhood will be happy to attest.

I then read other biographies of Cleopatra, of which there are many because I am not the only writer in her thrall. Turns out she was also a gifted chemist and there is a good chance she died not from the bite of an asp but from ingesting a poison of her own making. Schiff also says Octavian looted Alexandria following Cleopatra’s death to help buy himself a throne, giving him even more reason to demonize her. Enemies deserve to be looted, not to mention paraded in shame in Octavian’s triumph back in Rome, although Cleopatra outwitted him in that at the end (see poison above).

Well, I ask you, if you’ve actually made it all the way down to the bottom of this post. After all that encouragement, what was I to do but write a book set in Alexandria in the time of Cleopatra, featuring a woman in that time and place? A series of books, I hope, because twenty years is a long time and that time in particular was fraught with event.

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Dana View All →

Author and founder of Storyknife.org.

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