- Cleopatra: A Biography (Women in Antiquity)
- Oxford University Press, 272 pp.
Pity Duane W. Roller, author of Cleopatra: A Biography. I can just imagine the initial conversation at the Oxford University Press:
“We want you to write a biography of Cleopatra, sensuous queen of the Egyptians, famed figure of ancient history.”
“Excellent, as Professor Emeritus of Greek and Latin at The Ohio State University, I’d be thrilled to delve into a world of intrigue and shifting political sands.”
“Good. But no sex, please, we’re British.”
So while Roller gives us a succinct (if sometimes tangential) history of Cleopatra, I’m afraid there’s very little in this book to stir the blood. By striving to strip the myths away from the woman, he sometimes forgets that there’s nothing wrong with telling a good story – especially if it’s true.
Now to give Roller credit, he’s facing a number of thorny problems. To start with, there aren’t that many original sources from which he can draw:
This is attributable largely to the limited information about women, even famous ones, that pervades Greek and Roman literature and to the effects of the destruction of her reputation in the propaganda wars of the latter 30s B.C.
Plutarch’s Life of Antonius helps somewhat, as does the evidence of Egyptian coinage and inscriptions, but really, after sifting out the innuendo, we’re not left with much.
What we do know is fascinating nonetheless. ¼ Egyptian (from a hypothesized half-Egyptian mother) and ¾ Macedonian Greek, Cleopatra was the last in a royal line that began with Ptolemy, Alexander the Great’s childhood friend and military commander of his eastern campaign.
Born in 69 B.C., the second of three daughters and sister to two brothers, there was no rational reason to believe that the young Cleopatra would grow up to become sole ruler of Egypt, but then again, these weren’t rational times.
These were, dare I say it, romantic times. The times of famous names – Pompey the Great, Julius Caesar, Brutus, Cassius, Mark Antony and Octavian (later the Emperor Augustus), and famous battles (the Battle of Pharsalus, in which Caesar defeats Pompey; the Battles of Philippi, in which Antony and Octavian ultimately triumph against Caesar’s assassins; and the Battle of Actium, but we’ll get to that later).
Most of all, this was the time of Rome. Rome, whose leaders and well-disciplined armies could make or break a kingdom. Rome, whose senate was intensely proud of its stoic virtues and intensely suspicious of eastern influence. Rome, who needed Egypt’s grain to feed its empire. Indeed, by the time Cleopatra was born, her father, Ptolemy XII, was completely tied up in its politics and deep into debt with its bankers.
When he died, after a regime marked by internal convulsions, Cleopatra and her brother, Ptolemy XIII, were made joint rulers (their older sister had been executed for revolting against their father).
It was not a happy arrangement – Cleopatra eventually left the country to raise an army against her brother – and it took the intervention of Julius Caesar, arriving in Egypt to deal with his rival Pompey, to settle their quarrel. In a famous scene from history, Plutarch tells of how Cleopatra snuck back into the country:
The princess, taking only one friend, Apollodorus, the Sicilian, with her, got into a small boat and in the dusk of the evening made for the palace. As she saw it difficult to enter it undiscovered, she rolled herself up in a carpet; Apollodorus tied her up at full length, like a bale of goods, and carried her in at the gates to Caesar.1
Charmed by this entrance, Caesar took Cleopatra to his heart and his bed. This is ripping stuff, yet Roller doesn’t quote the original text or speculate overmuch on their relationship. He does discuss whether the meeting could be true, and comes away with a maybe, but readers cannot rely on analytics alone.
Of course, if you’d like a dramatic interpretation, you can always rent the famous 1963 film of Cleopatra, where Elizabeth Taylor, when she’s not falling out of her tops, does an admirable job of falling out of the carpet:
More problematically, Roller does a fair amount of skipping around. Cleopatra’s complicated family history is mixed up with her personality, her territorial ambitions, her uneasy relationship with Herod and her affairs with Caesar and Mark Antony. And, due to space constraints, he also assumes a certain amount of familiarity with the ancient world.
Still, there’s plenty here to intrigue a reader. We learn that while Cleopatra may have been short, she was highly intelligent, fluent in multiple languages, trained in the art of war and diplomacy and, as we know from Elizabeth Taylor, seduction.
A skill that Roller illustrates was more calculated than we might have believed. For once Cleopatra had lost Caesar and his protective presence, she turned to Mark Antony, his best friend and in charge of Rome’s eastern empire. She indulged his love of excess and encouraged his dreams, and in the process gained unofficial control of much of her ancestors’ Ptolemaic kingdom.
Again, for an entertaining take on Antony and Cleopatra’s relationship, check out the HBO Series, Rome, which sexes things up while sneaking in a few subtleties:
She also planned her pregnancies carefully, having one child by Caesar (a boy, Caesarion) and three by Antony (Ptolemy Philadelphios and the twins Cleopatra Selene and Alexander Helios). These heirs, she hoped, would assure her status in the eyes of Rome.
Her primary concern was always, first and foremost, Egypt. Viewed as a god on earth, and closely associated with Isis, Cleopatra saw herself as a single mother ruling over her only child, her country. Love came second to its health and survival.
It was given its deathblow at the Battle of Actium, when Cleopatra and Mark Antony’s forces met with those of the young leader Octavian, Antony’s former ally. It was a battle of East vs. West, Egypt vs. Rome, with Rome emerging as the ultimate victor.
By the time Octavian reached Alexandria, in pursuit of the lovers, Cleopatra had run out of options. Antony was a mess (he eventually committed suicide when he realized he was finished) and her forces had vanished. She had only herself to offer to the victor.
Famously, she refused. Rather than be paraded as a conqueror’s prize through the streets of Rome, she too committed suicide by mysterious means. The standard story is that she used a basket of figs to smuggle in an asp, which bit her, but it may just have well been a poison scratched into the skin.
Thus ended the dream that was Egypt, and thus ends Roller’s biography. But we’re left with a sense of something missing.
Immediacy, that’s it. The touch, taste and feel of Cleopatra’s roiling, breathing, vibrant life. In Roller’s take, she’s viewed from a distance, made safe by the remove of history. Which I think is a discredit to her. For let’s face it, even when all the stories are laid bare, Cleopatra remained anything but safe.
1Plutarch’s Lives: Translated from the Original Greek by John Langhorne and William Langhorne. Cincinnati, OH: Applegate, Pounsford and Co., 1872. 476.
Elinor Teele is a freelance writer and photographer living in Massachusetts. In addition to reviews and essays, she writes short stories, novels and plays for children and adults. An adopted New Zealander, she holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge, England.