All well known historical figures have a reputation. They are alleged to have been of a particular disposition, to have accomplished certain deeds or to have spoken particular words. However these actions may not be factual. Others may have enhanced or defamed an individual or organisations' reputation for many reasons, for example propaganda or financial gain. History is normally conveyed from the victor’s viewpoint, usually giving a biased opinion of events and people of the time. These biased opinions are I feel especially true in the case of Cleopatra, as many of our historical records of her are portrayed from the Roman perspective.
In today's mass media society these portrayals and opinions dominate the way we interpret Cleopatra as a woman and a Queen. Cinema and Television has stereotyped Cleopatra to entertain audiences in a romantic and exotic manner and also to portray a threatening almost sinister quality to her personality. These later qualities can be seen in the mannerisms and imagery of Theda Bara in the 1917 version of the film Cleopatra with her wild eyes and exaggerated almost manic expression. This rendition is perhaps influenced by Horace (C.65-8BCE) who relates to the defeat of Cleopatra and Mark Antony by Octavian at the battle of Actium (31BCE), in which he referred to Cleopatra as “the mad queen” and that she was “crazed with hope unlimited” (Horace Ode 1.37, in T.Fear, 2008, Pg 28).
Many cinematic interpretations of Cleopatra emphasise her determination to win favour with both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, she is portrayed as beautiful and seductive whilst also being controlling and manipulative. These interpretations are I feel influenced by the writing of Cassius Dio who states that “Cleopatra 'captivated the two greatest Romans of her time' “. (Cassius Dio, in T.Fear, 2008, Pg 7), and of Plutarch who stated that Cleopatra’s beauty “was not of that incomparable kind which instantly captivates the beholder. But the charm of her presence was irresistible”. (Plutarch, in T.Fear, 2008, Pg 9-10).
My understanding of Plutarch’s words are, that her beauty was not necessarily of the visual or sensual kind but that her demeanour, the very presence of the woman was “bewitching” and she was “capable of casting a spell over men”. (T.Fear, 2008, Pg 10) This character trait was utilised perfectly by 20th Century Fox when Elizabeth Taylor played the role of Cleopatra in the 1963 version of the film. Taylor depicts a more sophisticated version of Cleopatra, due predominantly I feel to the changes in the societal values of the period. Values which continue to evolve and develop into the modern age, where gender and race have more equality, and sexual liberations have become more acceptable.
Opinions can also change, as has that of Horace when he appears to approve of Cleopatra's chosen method of avoiding capture, suicide. He concludes his Ode to say that she was "brave enough to take deadly serpents in her hand, and let her body drink their black poison". (Horace ode 1.37, in T.Fear, 2008 Pg 28)
To conclude, the Romans views have influenced the media industry considerably, having been a primary source of information. I do however feel that technological advances to the cinematic industry have also changed our perceptions of who Cleopatra was, mainly due to commercialism and to changes in societal values.
Word count: 550
Trevor Fear. (2008). Cleopatra. In: Elaine Moohan, AA100 The Arts Past and Present: Reputations. Malta: Guttenberg Press Limited. 1-28.
AA100 The Arts Past and Present: Reputations, 2008. [DVD 00520] Michael Francis: The Open University. 27/02/2014
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