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Cleopatra: Woman of Power (Review of a Documentary)

In 1999, ABC-TV presented their version of the life of Cleopatra -- Queen Cleopatra VII, the last pharaoh of Egypt, and one of the few women to rule Egypt.  The Discovery Channel re-aired their documentary on Cleopatras life.  Ruler of Egypt, she married two Roman rulers, sequentially: Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, after first marrying her brother Ptolemy XIII as was the custom of the ruling family.

Cleopatras life has fascinated people from her lifetime to the present.  The ABC version of Cleopatras life was of course not the first literary portrayal of the woman whose death ended the Ptolemy dynasty in Egypt. From Cassius Dio to Plutarch to Chaucer to Shakespeare to Theda Bara to Elizabeth Taylor, Cleopatras story has fascinated held the western worlds interest for two millennia.

New York Times critic Ben Brantley said of a 1997 production of Shakespeares Antony and Cleopatra,

If Cleopatra were really alive today, of course, she would probably be on mood-stabilizing prescription drugs. Fortunately for us, such things didnt exist in either ancient Egypt or Elizabethan England.

Why the fascination?

Why the fascination? Is it because her exercise of power was unusual because she was a woman? Is it because she is seen as a freak, an exception, a contrast to the natural state of women?

Is it just the fascination that a mere woman was a key player at a crucial and fascinating time in Roman history?

Is it because her life highlights the different status of women in Egypt, compared to Rome and later western culture? Is it because Cleopatras education and intelligence stand out, fostering admiration or fear?

Is it because her story is about love and sex? Is it because the dysfunctional family relationships (to use current jargon) are fascinating, no matter when and where they happen? Is it just the two-millennium-long version of obsession with celebrity gossip? (Plutarchs account, with its anecdotes of sensational incidents, reminds me very much of a People Magazine story.)

Is it because Cleopatra

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