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The Allure of Cleopatra

Using rare pieces of art, a major exhibition is peeling away the myth of the ancient Egyptian queen as no more than a femme fatale.

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'How would you like to play the wickedest woman in history?" Cecil B. DeMille once asked Claudette Colbert. But was Queen Cleopatra of Egypt really wicked - or was she the victim of Roman (and later, European) propaganda?

"Cleopatra of Egypt: From History to Myth," a major exhibition now at the Field Museum in Chicago questions the myths and goes a long way toward rehabilitating the most famous woman who ever lived. The exhibition, which originated at the British Museum, runs through March 3.

And it's a fascinating process. From high art to low, from historical chronicles to archaeological discoveries, the story of the last Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt has been retold and embroidered according to the requirements (sometimes prurient) of various cultures, writers, and artists.

"Art, history, archaeology - we don't make a distinction among these things," says project administrator David Foster of the Field Museum. "But the whole exhibition is comprised of rare pieces of classical art and of material culture. Period jewelry, mosaics, funerary objects, sculpture are all here. But in addition ... we added layers of context so our visitors have a meaningful frame of reference."

History, it is said, is written by the victors. When Octavian Caesar defeated Cleopatra's forces, led by Mark Antony, her treasuries were looted, her kingdom despoiled, and her personal possessions taken by the Romans. Overnight, interest rates in Rome dropped from 12 percent to 3 percent because Egypt's wealth had so swelled Roman coffers.

"Historically, politically, militarily, and romantically the story of Cleopatra is loaded," Mr. Foster says. It's the story of the woman herself that gives the whole show its vitality and power.

"Maybe history is now treating her more fairly," Foster says. "One of the goals of the show was to peel away centuries of myth and misconception, which are fascinating in their own right...."

Now seen as strong queen

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