Cleopatra: A Sign of the Times

by Diana Lerman

"For Rome, who had never condescended to fear any nation or people, did in her time fear two human beings; one was Hannibal, and the other was a woman" (Lefkowitz 126).


Cleopatra VII, the last reigning queen of Egypt, has intrigued us for centuries. Her story is one that has been told many times, and the many different and vastly varied representations of her and her story are solely based on the ways in which men and society have perceived women and their role in society throughout history. By looking at the perceptions of women starting from the Hellenes, the Greeks who greatly influenced Roman ideals, and following those perceptions through to the end of the 19th Century, it is easy to see how Cleopatra has been used to represent the "good woman." In other words, she has been used as a role model for women, to show what was their acceptable role in society and to shape their actions and beliefs into an acceptable form. The earliest writers saw her as an evil temptress, as attitudes changed she became a victim and now in recent representations she is seen as "a feminist hero and a savvy politician" (Nilsen 1). Following this history, one can see how the story of Cleopatra is a story that has been told many times to fit each time period's own allegiances.

* * *
The negative image of Cleopatra that has presided throughout history can be traced back to 5th Century Athens and their perceptions of women. During this time period the Greeks pit their own bourgeoisie ideal of femininity against their counterparts in "barbaric societies" (Nyquist 89). This barbarism was also associated with Orientalisms and therefore Egypt was considered barbaric. The barbarians and the Greeks were considered to be complete opposites and this could be seen in many ways. The barbarians ruled with a system of "monarchy" or "tyranny" and the Greeks were run by a democracy (Nyquist 88). "They were assigned systematically...