Figures of legend in history assessment paper

Figures of legend in history often take on proportions which may be
less a reflection of the actual characteristics of these folklored
individuals as they are a reflection of the purposes of history’s authors.
The icons who ruled over their people and the groundbreakers that stand out
as nexus points in evolution are remembered by more than just their factual
legacies. Beyond that, they are recalled with pointed romanticism or
intentional vilification, the subject of debate, adoration, art, literature
and pop culture, their images shaped by the needs of the venue, the
interests of the historian or the desires of liberal artistry. Such is to
say that history is a sort of self-reflexive mythology, and that its
figures, rather than serving as eminent examples of quality personage, “are
better suited to inform, and give us juster Notions of Ourselves, as they
are Originals, and present the Eye with the prospect of Human Nature, taken
from Life, and not extended beyond the Limits of Credibility and
Truth.”(Gadeken, 2) Thus, in our legends there is rarely one biographical
perspective which can be assessed as truly factual. Even the most familiar
characters in our collective history are more amalgams of image,
superficial detail and speculation, much like the celebrities of present
day which we profess to know.
When one then considers the history of a prominent woman, an even
greater alertness to an opportunistic subjectivity in historiographical
perspective must be employed. Multiple histories on one subject are
usually the result of cultural, political and ideological perspective.
This is to say that the stories which survive the obscuring of passing time
are most often those told by the victor and, moreover, these stories will
be reshaped as they age as per the evolving purposes of their maintenance.
So with regard to the treatment of women in historiographical review, it is
often synonymous with the actual treatment of women throughout history.
More often then not, prominent feminine historical icons have been those
which exist in our annals in spite of prevailing sociological trends toward
a patriarchal order. This standard may either play a substantial role in
the notoriety of the figure, with her exploits against the conventional
view of women drawn explicitly in her story, or it may exist in subtextual
premises which have come to define her legend. The latter of these two
cases is that which divides historians on the characterization of
While she is perhaps the first and most famous female celebrity in
history, already a legend of literature by the start of the Common Era, her
status as a person is hardly a thing of recorded fact. Hers is an image
drawn to us by Liz Taylor in celluloid, William Shakespeare in
theatricality and stoic ancient sculptures, inanimate features in a British
Museum. And in each of these venues, there is a bias which accompanies the
perspective expressed, with the gaps in Cleopatra’s known history filled in
by the pretenses of the auteur. There is, as a result, a sprawling
dichotomy in the figure of Cleopatra. A strong female ruler, driven to the
expansion of power and the reclamation of her birthright, her behavior,
demeanor and purpose have been depicted in ways which set her in
contradictory modes. On one hand an exemplar of the earliest feminist
potential of powerful women and on the other a deceitful temptress who used
her womanly charms to exploit the weaknesses of men, these two versions of
Cleopatra are the products of two decidedly divergent purposes. And
naturally, due to inbuilt societal impulses which favored a perpetuation of
the latter of these two depictions, this is the one which has been most
actively preserved. Though there are surviving views of Cleopatra,
especially in Egyptian history and feminist teaching, as an important and
effective leader, with certain aspects of global history affirming such
ideas, they are often pushed to the periphery of a characterization which
is more consistent with the arguably misogynistic depictions in literature.

The positive views of Cleopatra, as a pharaoh of greatness in Egypt,
are the product of her actual popularity of the time. The surfacing of
ancient artifacts which have been connected to her illustrate that she was
well regarded, powerful and, to the view of her domestic artistic
biographers, responsible for a certain degree of success for their people.
She was a key figure in a time of geopolitical transition, with many of her
actions having a significant bearing therein. Her rise began rather
circumstantially, when she was just seventeen years old:
When Alexander died, male Argeads were in scarce supply: there was
only a , and Alexander’s wife Roxane
was pregnant with a son, later known as Alexander (IV). After
considerable strife a Macedonian noble was chosen as regent for these
two joint kings, and the rest of Alexander’s generals moved to seize
parts of the empire he had conquered. Female members of the royal
family were more plentiful in this period than males.” (Pomeroy, 155)

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This was the circumstance that saw Alexander the Great’s sister,
Cleopatra, wage battle against her then husband/brother Ptolemy IX, for
control of Egypt. Both she and her brother were heirs to the Ptolemic
Dynasty which, under the diminishing autonomy of Egypt and a greater
international influence of the burgeoning Roman Empire, had gradually ceded
the bulk of its authority to Italian authority. Naturally, the
strengthening of Roman authority was only aided by the divisive power
struggles within the Ptolemic ruling family, centered in the capital of
Alexandria, on the Nile. This is where the history of Cleopatra takes a
path that is subject to multiple interpretations. In 48 B.C., when
Cleopatra was 22 years old, she is said to have been famously delivered to
the visiting Julius Caesar, rolled up in an ornate Persian rug, thus
inducing an alliance between Cleopatra and central power in Rome. With
Caesar’s aid, she was able to easily defeat her husband and assume full
control of Egypt. (Ashmawy, 1) By this point, her ingenuity and
ruthlessness had elevated her to a certain status amongst the Egyptians,
amongst whom “Cleopatra was long remembered as a great ruler of divine
status, and we hear of an image of her being reverently gilded as late as
AD 373, when the empire was nominally Christian.” (Walker, 1)
The visible political motives of such an alliance as Cleopatra’s and
Caesar’s, for example, is illustrative of the admirable tenacity with which
Cleopatra is said to have pursued the glory of Egypt. Though influence had
declined under the reign of 200 years of Ptolemic subservience to Rome,
Cleopatra was the first of Egypt’s rulers since the inception of that
relationship, to have increased the sphere of its influence. She did so,
as this story illustrates, by aligning with that force which had been an
entity of lordship theretofore.
However, the story of the Persian rug does suggest a great deal more
about her character, or at least its use in history, than simply her
diplomatic prowess. The explicit element of seduction here is a self-
inflicted objectification that suggests her power was derived from her
virtues of womanhood as much as from her competence as a leader. And in
her relationship Caesar would originate a hefty piece of ammunition in the
salvo against Cleopatra’s character. The opportunistic series of
relationships which aid Cleopatra in her augmentation of influence help to
constitute the image of a bewitching temptress, blinding the senses of her
male counterparts to achieve her own devices. Certainly, this is the view
that Romans held of her when she came into the favor Julius Caesar.
In 45 BC, Cleopatra and Caesarion left Alexandria for Rome,
where they stayed in a palace built by Caesar in their honor. Caesar’s
acts were anything but overlooked by the Romans. In 44 BC, he was
killed in a conspiracy by his Senators. With his death, Rome split
between supporters of Mark Antony and Octavian. Cleopatra was watching
in silence, and when Mark Antony seemed to prevail, she supported him
and, shortly after, they too became lovers.” (Ashmawy, 1)

At this point in her biography, it would appear that the powerful men
with whom she endeavors into romantic relationships have had a defining
effect on Cleopatra’s path. And indeed, “her liaisons with distinguished
foreigners, equally, represented no departure from tradition, but recalled
the exploits of her ruthless forebear Cleopatra Thea, who had married three
kings of Syria.” (Walker, 2) She differed fundamentally though from this
precedent though. In both positive and negative accounts of her, it seems
that it may be, contrarily, that she is the force which has had a defining
effect on the men with whom she involves herself. And by extension, this
would naturally have a real bearing on the subordinate nations represented
in these men.
Cleopatra’s actual intentions, whether motivated by love, lust, greed
or politics, are at this point unknown. And as a point of fact, much of
the haziness surrounding her actual nature is derived from the primary
source-point for her biographical details. Conventional literature would
come to see Cleopatra as an exploitive whore, responsible for the downfall
of virtuous men like the Ptolemies, Julius Caesar and, inevitably, Marc
Antony as well. So is this reported by historical accounts such as that by
Cassius Dio who reflected that “Indeed she so enchanted and enthralled not
only Antony but all others who counted for anything with him that she came
to entertain the hope that she would rule the Romans as well, and whenever
she took an oath, the most potent phrase she used were the words, ‘So
surely as I shall one day give judgement [sic] on the Capitol.’” (Cassius
Dio, 39) The argument given here in defining her persona would be the
clear understanding of her imperialist intent, so to say that it had been
always an ambition for this ruler to extend the Egyptian influence to new
heights. The Roman perspective turns our attention to some correlation
between the two distinct personas which depicted Cleopatra as a powerful
ruler and a seductive and sexually driven woman.
Of course, in rhetoric and political action, the Romans had their own
imperial aims, making the union between Antony and Cleopatra an
inevitability gone awry. As the prevailing power in its context, the
Romans had longed kept a wary eye on affairs in Egypt, recognizing it both
as a power and as a resource. Thus, “the Romans watched the unfolding
royal saga with a proprietorial interest. They believed that they had a
valid legal claim to Egypt, which had been gifted to them seven years
earlier in the vexatious will drawn up by Ptolemy X.” (Tyldesley, 11) It
was thus that with the eventuality by which Cleopatra had become Queen of
Egypt, the Romans would perceive both with caution and entitlement the
events unfolding there. Especially insofar as Cleopatra VII seemed to
dismiss this latter entitlement based on her own vision of Ptolemic
expansion, her ambitions would represent the final threat from the Eastern
To the point, her ambition would be realized to a geographical range
unseen for many centuries in the fertile crescent. The threat felt by the
Romans was very real, for quite to the point, one only needed the events of
her rulership to verify that this expansion of absolute imperial majesty
was her intent. It would, in fact, be the last gasp for the once great
Egyptian kingdom, with Cleopatra seeing it to its most tautly stretched
influence before these ambitions would cause it to unravel. In her time
though, “the dramatic reign of Cleopatra VII closed one of the most
brilliant periods in ancient Egyptian history. For almost three centuries
her ancestors ruled Egypt and extended Egyptian influence throughout the
Aegean and western Asia and deep into African and Arabia. Not for over a
thousand years had Egyptian power and influence been felt over so wide an
area.” (Burstein, 1) Not coincidentally, this expansion which was an
extension of the same Greek ethnicity that produced the city of Alexandria
and the lineage to which we can attribute Cleopatra’s birth, came at a time
of Roman decline. (Grant, 4-6)
To this exact point, it is important to note that the author of the
image of Cleopatra which would have us believe she was a sex-hungry
mastermind of deception who conquered men for power was also her nemesis:
Our image of Cleopatra is ultimately drawn from sources close to
her enemy, Julius Caesar’s great-nephew and heir Octavian, later
Augustus, the first emperor of Rome. Living another forty-four years
after Cleopatra’s suicide in 30 BC, Octavian had plenty of time to re-
cast recent history to his liking. Cleopatra was represented in
literature of the day as the whore of the Canopus, the foreign queen
who had unmanned Antony, and made him un-Roman.” (Walker, 1)

Certainly, this is the image of Cleopatra that has persisted in our
most popular depictions like Shakespeare’s play, which is perhaps the best
known literary treatment of her fabled love affair with Antony and the
division that it incited within the Roman Empire. Herein, Shakespeare
reinforces an image of Cleopatra as seducing Antony and then dominating
over him in such a way as to explicitly emasculate him.
But even beyond the dominating use of deception and sexuality which saw her
to the exploitation and death of every man with whom she came into romantic
contact, there are so many nuances of her character which, in their
description of her vanity and excess, blur irrevocably the line between
history and legend. In a notorious anecdote, an alleged representation
of her ostentatious tactics in mystifying Marc Antony to subservience of
her desires and political aspirations, Cleopatra is said to have expressed
the extravagance of her love and devotion to Antony by dissolving a
priceless pearl in her wine and ingesting it for his amusement. She told
him that this was an indication of her willingness to pay any price for
just a second of his ‘diversion.’ Ultimately, as her supposed devices
become more evident, this gesture takes on a more sinister implication, an
example of the extravagance which she devoted not to love but to illusion.
“When the exotic Egyptian queen takes into her body the pearl worth “Six
Million Sesterces,” she becomes herself a part of the luxurious treasure of
empire. This treasure, so frivolous and yet so powerful, seduces the manly
Anthony and confounds the Roman Empire.” (Gadeken, 2).
This anecdote provides the seed for the ultimate rift in Rome, with
Octavian, direct lineage of Julius Caesar, driven to declare war on
Cleopatra. Sensing her influence over Antony, and recognizing the
opportunities that this represented to divide and undermine the pervasion
of Roman authority in exchange for the priorities of Egypt, Octavian
launched an attack on Alexandria, against the prodigal lovers. Antony is
famously depicted as having been incapable of mounting his duties as a war
strategist or as an effective general, ceding both priorities to his desire
to be with Cleopatra. “Distracted by incessant frivolity, and charmed by
sensuous luxury, Anthony neglects his civic duties for personal pleasure,
allowing Cleopatra to speak of him as though he were a prisoner of war and
she the conqueror.” (Gadeken, 5) This was to the advantage of Ocatavian,
who would soundly defeat Antony’s army and capture Cleopatra.
In his victory is formed the biases against Cleopatra though, leaving
us as yet fully undetermined that she has received just treatment by
history. Her suicide is notorious for its dramatic manner, as she is said
to have taken her life while in captivity of the conquering Octavian by
applying the poison of a live asp to her body. At age 39, she passed into
death and left rule of Egypt to the Romans. “Alexandria remained capital
of Egypt, but Egypt was now a Roman province. The age of Egyptian Monarchs
gave way to the age of Roman Emperors, and Cleopatra’s death gave way to
the rise of Rome.” (Ashmawy, 1) Consistent with the opportunity which
history provides to the victor to depict his conquered, Octavian authored
the unflattering image of the adulteress and lying Cleopatra. Doubtless,
the biases enforced by his desire to defend the integrity of Rome, and its
misled leaders such as Caesar and Antony, could have contributed
substantively to the description of the malicious methods she is said to
have employed. She is assailed by depictions that immediately followed her
death that contradict those purported by admiring Egyptian historians,
which have placed her in a position of retreat during the famous battle of
Actium. This “Egyptian defeat was often attributed to the early withdrawal
of a coward Cleopatra from the battle scene, although this claim is now
discredited by most historians.” (Ashmawy, 1)
Other detracting opinions have not been discredited though. There
has been extensive discourse over the role of patriarchal social structures
and a prevailing misogyny, especially reflected in Octavion’s influential
depiction of the guilty male parties as mere pawns on her chessboard.
However, it is still most widely accepted that her primary role in history
was as a destructor of the virtues of powerful men, with the focus not on
her skills as a leader or statesperson, but as an object of desire who
feigned femininity while operating on a decidedly masculine plane of
ruthlessness. In Shakespeare reading, it is not simply that Antony has
become emasculated but that he has become effeminate. Even more than that,
he and Cleopatra are said to have reversed gender roles, with she as the
masculine authority. Indeed, the Roman army which Antony commanded to war
against Octavian is actually believed to have been headed by “Mardion the
Eunuch, Photinus, Iris, and Charmian, Cleopatra’s women, who were become
Anthony’s Counsellors and Prime Ministers of State’ (p. 111). Fielding thus
identifies the effeminized Anthony with eunuchs and women.” (Gadeken, 5)
Likewise, it does offer substantiation that she had used her talents to
supplant Antony’s influence with her own.
It is crucial to keep context in mind though, if one is to
deconstruct the historical truths for some clue as to the real Cleopatra.
Today, it is still unclear whether she was the eloquent, cultured and
passionate Last Pharaoh of Egypt or the lecherous, seductress whose
personal exploits were the final nail in the Ptolemic dynasty’s coffin.
But there might be some clues in the omissions from Octavian’s account.
Though his history is elaborate in its depiction of his victory over the
effeminized and disgraced Marc Antony, it excludes the weaknesses which
also felled the mighty Caesar, instead choosing to preserve the glory of
the forebear. This is an initial indication of the conveniences which have
been employed to perpetuate a certain prejudicial treatment against she
that scandalized numerous prominent men of Roman meddle.
More recent indications of what Cleopatra may truly have been are
visible in museum exhibits that depict her in a wide array of lights, with
her countenance gracing all manner of sculpture, carving, forging and
casting. In all, there are indications that she was all of these things
that are remembered in both history and myth. The prominent hook of her
nose and the soft girlishness of her likeness during the first foray into
authority, the beauty which she is mythologized for and the sinister
determination that shaped her fate; all are interpretable now from the
artifacts which are left to prove her existence, the extent of influence
cast by her rulership and the traits which often have caused her such
salience in our reflection of human history. The literature, both primary
and secondary, which we have used as a model for her, however, should be
the subject of serious meditation. As the case of Octavion illuminates,
and as is perpetuated through classical literary history, the story of this
prominent and controversial woman is too often told by men with their own
purposes. So much was the state of imperial wars in her time as well.
While there may be some truth to the depictions of her that are least
flattering, many of these are equally if not more revealing of their
sources than of their subject.
Works Cited:

Ashmawy, A.K. (1995). Cleopatra: The Last Pharoah, B.C. 69-30. History
of Alexandria. Online at <

Burstein, S.M. (2004). The Reign of Cleopatra. Greenwood Publishing

Cassius Dio. (1987). The Roman History: The Reign of Augustus. Penguin

Gadeken, S. (1999). Gender, Empire and Nation in Sarah Fielding’s Lives
of Cleopatra and Octavia. Journal Studies in English Literature, 1500-19
00, 39(3).

Grant, M. (2004). Cleopatra-A Biography. Booksales.

McCutchen, W.H. (2000). 15 Ancient Greek Heroes from Plutarch’s Lives. E-
Classics. Online at http://www.e-classics.com/

Pomeroy, S.B. (1991). Women’s History and Ancient History. University of
North Carolina Press; Chapel Hill.

Tyldesley, J. (2008). Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt. Profile books.

Virgil. (19 BC). Aenid. www.online-literature.com.

Walker, S. (2001). Cleopatra: From History to Myth. History Today,
51(4), pp. 6.

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