Goddess, tyrant and scholar... the real woman behind the mask of Cleopatra

MENTION the name Cleopatra to most people and it's likely to conjure images of a sultry Elizabeth Taylor draped over Richard Burton's Marc Antony, or Shakespeare's tragic queen who took her own life with an asp.

Hollywood and the Bard helped cement Cleopatra's legend as a femme fatale whose dangerous liaisons almost brought the Roman empire to its knees. But over the centuries fact and fiction have become blurred, something Joann Fletcher wanted to separate.

The Barnsley-born historian and archaeologist spent five years researching and writing Cleopatra The Great, The Woman Behind the Legend, in a bid to debunk some of the myths surrounding one of history's most iconic figures.

"I always felt she was misrepresented, whether it was by Elizabeth Taylor, or William Shakespeare, she always seemed to be portrayed as a deranged woman who seduced men and drank to excess, and it just didn't seem to ring true because the Egyptological sources tell a very different story."

Dr Fletcher, an honorary research fellow at York University, says the Cleopatra she unearthed was a far more complex character. "Forget fiction, there has never been a story like hers – for me, Cleopatra is the greatest heroine of all time."

Apart from the fact that she was a pharaoh, not a queen, Dr Fletcher says Cleopatra was a polymath who could reportedly speak nine languages and studied mathematics, medicine and philosophy. She was also a direct descendant of Alexander the Great, whose mummified body she kept in her palace. "She was Greek, not Egyptian, and that fascinated me, because she was inspired by Alexander and came so close to restoring his empire."

Cleopatra was, undoubtedly, a woman of contradictions. She knew how to play the political game, transforming herself into a different goddess depending on the occasion – a Venus for Julius Caesar, an Aphrodite for Antony and Isis for the Egyptian people.

"She had great self-belief, she led her army and navy into battle and came from a generation of pharaohs who were worshipped as demi-gods." And long before today's celebrities learned how to pout for the cameras, Cleopatra used her appearance to her own advantage. "There is an image of her with red hair and pearl-tipped hair pins. She loved big pearl earrings and necklaces which she wore to display her wealth."

However, there was a darker side to her character. She reigned for more than 20 years and as mother of four children stopped at nothing to keep her grip on power and safeguard their future.

"She was bloodthirsty and ruthless, but you need to set her in context because the Roman emperors have a reputation for being cruel and violent but her dynasty, the Ptolemaics, could have taught them a thing or to," explains Dr Fletcher. "They would resort to bribery and murder to stay in power and it's known that she gave orders to have political enemies dispatched, including her own sister, who was herself trying to have Cleopatra killed, which shows what a dog eat dog world it was."

She embarked on well-documented affairs, first with Julius Caesar and then Marc Antony – together they took on the might of the Roman empire before eventually being defeated by Octavian. They committed suicide together in 30 BC although it was poison, rather than an asp, that probably killed them.

So why, then, have so many myths sprung up around Cleopatra? Dr Fletcher believes there was a deliberate attempt to discredit her. "History is written by the victors and because she brought Rome very close to defeat I think they never really forgave her. Octavian, who became Augustus Caesar, had some marvellous spin doctors, the poets Horace and Virgil, and they did a great hatchet job. They set the ball rolling for generations of, usually male, scholars and writers who maintained the image of this monstrous woman," she says.

With her fiery red hair and nose piercing, Dr Fletcher doesn't look like your stereotypical historian and she can probably empathise with Cleopatra's struggle to assert herself in a world dominated by alpha males. However, her fascination with Egypt's ancient civilisations dates back to her childhood.

"When I was six, a Tutankhamun exhibition came to the British Museum and that was it. I had posters of Tutankhamun all over my room, I was totally obsessed and when my mother said you could actually be an Egyptologist, I didn't want to be anything else."

But fulfilling her dream hasn't been easy. "I'm from Barnsley and proud of it, but you don't get many Egyptologists coming from Barnsley and the careers advice at school was either to be a teacher, or a nurse."

Despite such underwhelming support, she stuck to her guns and later gained a place at University College London studying Ancient History and Egyptology, before going on to do a PhD at Manchester University focusing on Egyptian wigs and jewellery. The 43-year-old has since written several books, including The Search for Nefertiti, which caused a stir when it was published five years ago because of her claims that she had identified the mummified remains of the famous Egyptian queen through a fragment of a wig.

She has also made regular TV appearances, most recently as the lead investigator in The History Channel series, Mummy Forensics. Even so, she claims the world of archaeology remains something of a closed shop.

"The more high-profile you become, the more the establishment wants you to fit the mould. You're supposed to be male, over a certain age and have the right accent and I don't tick any of those boxes."

Having said that, her enthusiasm and fascination with the subject remains undimmed. "There is this element of mystery about Ancient Egypt, especially when we think about the pyramids – because we still don't know exactly how they were constructed, all we know is that the level of skill, manpower and resources involved would have been mind-blowing," she says. "Plato travelled to Egypt and was influenced greatly by what he learnt during his time studying there. It's not by chance that it was called the 'cradle of civilisation'. Its culture was way ahead of its time and didn't rely solely on brute force. You had men wearing make-up and women with weapons and armour who ruled as pharaohs, compared to Rome where women weren't even allowed out in public."

For many people, the land of Cleopatra and the pharaohs seems distant and remote, but Dr Fletcher says Yorkshire has a treasure trove of artefacts.

"Harrogate's museum collection has some excellent Egyptian artefacts as does York, Sheffield, Leeds and Barnsley, there are some real gems. So it's not some esoteric world that can only be studied by scholars thousands of miles away, it's here on our doorstep."

Cleopatra The Great, The Woman Behind the Legend is published in paperback by Hodder on July 23, priced 9.99. It is available to buy through the Yorkshire Post Bookshop on

0800 0153232 or online at www.yorkshirepost bookshop.co.uk. Postage and packing is 2.75.

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