Lewis pursued an alternate angle. During the late 19th century, debates about the queen’s ethnicity circulated. Some believed her mother was Nubian, and that Cleopatra was in fact black. Others posited that she was simply Greek. Lemmey suggests that Lewis, who herself was African-American, looked at ancient coinage to help her figure out how to represent Cleopatra. “She’s really rooting into history, which is something that is often regarded very respectfully in the 19th century,” says Lemmey. Lewis promoted her work as truthful rather than imaginative. She exhibited her sculpture at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, a venue for celebrating cultural achievements. The sculpture disappeared from public view for years. It went on to have an odd and dramatic life: A saloon owner acquired it, then a racetrack owner used as it a gravestone for a horse. It was eventually discovered in a salvage yard in the 1980s.
Lewis’s version also emphasizes her subject’s self-determination. “We’re looking at a deceased leader,” says Lemmey. “It underscores the empowerment of Cleopatra because her alternative was to have been marched in chains as a trophy of the Roman army. She has had the last word.”
Yet artists—and Hollywood—weren’t done with her yet. As Elizabeth Taylor portrayed the title character in the big-budget 1963 film Cleopatra, and subsequently launched into a romance with her co-star Richard Burton, the queen’s name adopted entirely new connotations: money, glamour, and tabloid stories. In other words, “Cleopatra” had finally become distinctly American.