Cleopatra: A Biography

by Duane W. Roller (Oxford University Press, viagra diagnosis 2010) hardback, rrp £14.99
Reviewed by Christina Riggs

Mother of four. Sailor. Author. Medical student.

Not exactly the sexpot of Shakespearean lore and Hollywood legend. But history suggests that there was much more to Cleopatra than the men in her life – surprise, surprise.

In this book, classical historian Duane Roller sets out to provide the most fact-based account possible of the life of Cleopatra, the last queen of Egypt. The challenge with any biography, and especially the biography of an ancient figure, is how to interpret the written sources on which history is based. For Cleopatra’s eventful life, the most complete sources were only written a century after her death, in particular the Roman writer Plutarch’s biography of her partner, the statesman and general Marcus Antonius (Marc Antony). Plutarch had access to sources that no longer survive, which are tantalizing to imagine: Cleopatra’s personal physician Olympos wrote a memoir, and her son-in-law, king Juba II of Mauretania (in what is now part of Morocco and Algeria), wrote a history of her reign. Other important sources include a few Egyptian papyri and inscriptions, the coins she issued in different parts of her kingdom, and a few works of art – though not as many as Roller suggests, for portraits of the queen are an area of scholarly disagreement. (What museum wouldn’t like to have a statue of the Cleopatra?)

Roller’s book, though very much an academic account, does offer clear explanations of the convoluted political motivations and personal relationships that marked this era. Rome had risen rapidly from a minor city-state to a military power that controlled most of the Mediterranean. Cleopatra’s Egypt was the last of the great Hellenistic monarchies, established 300 years earlier to divide the territory conquered by Alexander the Great. Cleopatra was descended from two of Alexander’s childhood friends: Ptolemy, who ruled Egypt, and Seleukos, king of Syria. Her royalty outranked any Roman, and that motivation was behind her most astute decisions, up to and including her suicide.

Cleopatra was one of five children born to Ptolemy XII, and her unnamed mother was probably from the Egyptian aristocracy – which may explain why Cleopatra was the first of her dynasty to speak Egyptian, in addition to Greek; she knew several other languages, too. As a royal princess, she had the finest education, covering philosophy, mathematics, and medicine, and she is thought to have written a book on pharmacology. She was a skilled orator and diplomat, and became an experienced naval strategist, confident in command of a ship.

Cleopatra came to the throne around the age of eighteen, following a struggle that was typical for her family: her father had put her older sister to death, and Cleopatra ruled uneasily alongside her brother, Ptolemy XIII. When war broke out between them, Cleopatra won the support of Roman general Julius Caesar, who had previously helped her father. Ptolemy XIII died in battle, and Cleopatra ruled for a time with her other brother, twelve-year-old Ptolemy XIV. Cleopatra was the real power, however, and she eventually eliminated Ptolemy XIV, becoming sole ruler of Egypt until her death in 30 BC.

Ruling alone as a woman was almost without precedent, and put Cleopatra in a delicate situation. She needed an heir, and ideally a spare, but there were few partners of suitable rank; nor would she want to relinquish her hard-won power. The solutions she found made political sense, and may have reflected genuine personal feelings as well. First, she formed a relationship with Caesar himself, and gave birth to a son named Ptolemy Caesar, known as Caesarion. Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, and three years later, Cleopatra encountered Marcus Antonius, who was based at Tarsus (south eastern Turkey) to oversee Roman interests in the east. Their ten-year, off-and-on relationship produced three more children, twins named Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene (‘sun’ and ‘moon’), and another son named Ptolemy. As Roller points out, Cleopatra spaced her pregnancies at roughly four-year intervals, and she tends to disappear from historical records during the months after each birth, suggesting a balancing act between motherhood and queenship.

Under Cleopatra’s rule, Egypt expanded its territories and held its own in a world increasingly dominated by upstart Rome. The end came not because she had frittered away her kingdom on men, wine, and milk baths, but because she and Antonius gambled that they could defeat his rival Octavian, who was Caesar’s official heir. Victory would have meant that they, and Cleopatra’s children, ruled a territory stretching from Libya to the shores of Turkey, leaving Octavian with Italy and much of Europe. They lost the gamble and retreated to Alexandria, waiting for the arrival of Octavian and his troops. Roller suggests that Cleopatra tipped the depressed and drunken Antonius over the edge to suicide, so that she could negotiate with Octavian on her own. She wished to go into exile and leave Caesarion on the throne of Egypt, which would declare loyalty to Rome. What she dreaded was the shame of being paraded in triumph by Octavian, and seeing her children disinherited. When she sensed that Octavian would not grant her terms, she used her knowledge of poisons to kill herself under the noses of her Roman guards. Octavian could take her country, but not her regal pride. She was thirty-nine years old.

Victors (and men) write history, and most Roman authors pilloried Cleopatra, depicting her as a temptress, an exotic, a hedonist – the image that has informed so many paintings, plays, and films. In an Epilogue, Roller traces the fates of her survivors. Although Caesarion was murdered while trying to flee, Cleopatra’s children by Antonius were adopted by his widow – and Octavian’s sister – in Rome. Cleopatra Selene married Juba II and ruled over a cosmopolitan court in Mauretania, inspired by her maternal heritage. And she named her own son Ptolemy, quietly carrying on the family line.

Cleopatra: A Biography (Women in Antiquity) available at Amazon

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