A captivating and provocative cultural history that decodes the ever-changing legend of Cleopatra--""harlot queen, serpent of the Nile, the dream-woman for whose sake the world was well lost."" ""It is a book about sex, monarchy, masochism, the ethics of suicide and the rhetoric of racism"" and about ""propaganda and the persuasive power of narrative,"" writes Hughes-Hallett, a London journalist. But even the sparse facts are interesting. No beauty, Cleopatra VII was apparently ""a tactful and efficient ruler, a tough negotiator and a thrifty manager"" who had few, if any, lovers other than her expediently chosen Romans--Caesar and Antony. Her suicide, designed for maximum dramatic effect, probably did involve a snake, but more likely it was a six-foot cobra rather than the tiny asp that appears at her naked breast in countless representations of her final surrender (some seen here among the intriguing 24 b&w and eight color illustrations). The dominant image of the queen as evil temptress was promoted by her enemy, the Roman ruler Octavius (Caesar Augustus) to debase her actual political power. Hughes-Hallett also credits Cleopatra, herself a master of ceremonial spectacle, for the power and persistence of her own legend. In necessarily broad-brushed but astute readings, the author maps Cleopatra's shifting persona from Chaucer's ideal woman who sacrifices herself for love to Shakespeare's enervating, ""capricious"" lover and on through the Colonial era's Oriental ""exotic alien,"" the Romantics' personification of ""eroticized violence,"" and Elizabeth Taylor's ""camp"" version. A persuasive, exuberant, well-documented--if sometimes overdrawn--meditation on ""dream-Cleopatras"" as they reflect the preoccupations of successive eras.