Above painting: Louis Jean Francois - Mars and Venus an Allegory of Peace


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Monday, August 22, 2011

Cleopatra Undressed with Guest Author Colin Falconer

Today on History Undressed, I'd like to introduce you to a new guest, Colin Falconer, author of historical fiction. Mr. Falconer is going to tantalize us by stripping away some layers on the history of Cleopatra, the main character in his fascinating re-release, WE WERE GODS ONCE. Prepare to enjoy yourself... I most definitely did!

by Colin Falconer

If it wasn’t all true, it would be hard to believe: thirty years before Jesus, an eighteen year old princess tries to take over the world? Outrageous. But that's what happened.

She was Queen Cleopatra the Seventh but really - there is only one. She has been variously portrayed as virtuous suicide, exuberant lover, professional courtesan, scheming manipulator, and femme fatale. Shakespeare made her a cruel and lazy siren, (his genius was drama not history!) George Bernard Shaw’s made her a man-eater and Elizabeth Taylor convinced everyone she was her.

Hollywood has certainly never had any doubts about who Cleopatra was. In the thirties Cecil B de Mille offered the role in the movie to Claudette Colbert with the words: "How would you like to play the wickedest woman in history?"

Was she history's wickedest woman? Probably not. But she was certainly a woman with what we would call today - cojones. She took on Roman military and political power at the apogee of its power. If she had succeeded – and she very nearly did – the world today might look a very different place. God might really be a woman - called Isis.

It is true that she scandalized the Roman world, but much of what was said about her at the time was mostly misinformation used by her enemy, Augustus, to rally his fellow Romans against her. He used her to turn the tables on Anthony, who was his rival for power in Rome, leaking rumours about her bathing in asses’ milk and having sex with her slaves in order to make Anthony look ridiculous. And it worked; worked so well in fact that his propaganda still informs most popular opinion about her, even today.

She was certainly not the sexual virago of legend. I hope you're not too disappointed but she did not copulate with crocodiles, (it's dangerous and probably not that much fun) or with her slaves (beneath her dignity). In fact, it seems she only slept with two men all her life, and both of them were husbands. Well, not her husbands, admittedly - but in fairness, she did marry them later.

The real Cleopatra was a consummate political animal, a woman far ahead of her time; she had the marketing acumen of Lady Gaga, the ruthlessness of Margaret Thatcher and the charm of Lady Diana. Extraordinary.

Yet we don't really know what she looked like. But surely, you say – she looked like Elizabeth Taylor? With a bob, and a beauty spot, reclining on an antique sunbed?

Well, no.

Some historians speculate that Cleopatra may have even been blonde. As she was part Macedonian, there's a fair chance, so to speak. I toyed with the idea of having Cleopatra as a blonde in WHEN WE WERE GODS, to show that I had done my research and to distance myself from the movie. (Also so that Scarlett Johanssen could play the role in my film. Or, at least, in my fantasies.) But my publisher said to me: you can't do that. (Have a blonde Cleopatra, not have fantasies about Scarlett Johanssen.) They said: Cleopatra is now far too deeply ingrained in our consciousness as a bobbed brunette, it will jar in a reader's imagination.

She may not even have been that beautiful. There are few existing likenesses of her extant. (A coin from the period shows her in profile, and it’s a pretty terrifying image too, not unlike Mike Tyson.) There are only two ambiguous accounts from her contemporaries; Plutarch was at pains to describe her 'pleasing personality' - which is damning with faint praise - and only Cassius Dio lauded her looks, but did he say that because he had to?

And anyway, does it really matter? In the context of her story it was her spirit not her looks that really mattered. Despite overwhelming odds, she almost became ruler of the entire western world using her intelligence and her daring. In the end she scandalized the Romans not because of her sexual conquests but because a woman almost beat them at their own game. She was truly one of the most extraordinary women in history.

WHEN WE WERE GODS, is now re-released on Kindle US, Kindle UK and for all other formats on Smashwords for $2.99. For free excerpt click here.

Colin Falconer has been published widely in the UK, US and Europe and his books have been translated into seventeen languages. He invites you to join him at http://www.colinfalconer.net/


Vonda Sinclair said...

This sounds truly fascinating! Thanks for the great post!

Unknown said...

Good morning!

Hollywood takes us into whatever they portray an image to be, put in the most beautiful face at the time and twist the fantasy to bring in interest and money.

I enjoy reading the truth about history from every aspect. Even our own American History is rife with lore and tales to make history more heroic, fascinating. We look at our founding fathers--yes they did some amazing things but history and media have painted them so much larger than life. If we were to go back in time and meet them--most were every day farmers and merchants.

Still a young woman of 18 besting the Roman Empire--pretty darn impressive in any century. :) Great Blog!

Susan Higginbotham said...

Great post! Looking forward to reading this novel.

Chicks of Characterization said...

Cleopatra a blond?? Wow! Thanks so much for the fabulous post!!!

Violante said...

Indeed, Cleopatra was not beautiful according to our modern standards, but she couldn’t have been totally ugly since powerful men and beauty connoisseurs fell for her. Most important, she was the brainiest girl in town, an able ruler and a great tactician. Incredible, since she was the product of incest. Her father and mother were brother and sister, and so were her grandparents), and yet she was physically and mentally sound.

Anonymous said...

Great post! Cleopatra sounds like a great heroine. How tantalizing to have such tidbits about her and not be able to find out more. And yet, that may be partly what makes her so entrancing.

Lorena said...

Oh, I'm so glad your publisher voted against a blond Cleopatra! (not that I have a problem with blondes, just with Scarlett Johanssen, ha ha!) And what if they didn't cast her and chose someone like Cameron Diaz or gulp, Pamela Anderson?

Violante, I had no idea Cleopatra's parents were siblings.

Interesting stuff.


Thank you all for your comments - she was an extraordinary woman, wasn't she? To clarify - yes as Violante pointed out, her mother and father were probably brother and sister but Cleopatra's birth mother was probably a Syrian concubine. I think this was why not all Ptolemy babies were not born with two heads ... Anyway, so glad you all enjoyed the post! Colin Falconer