A new authoritative biography of the last Queen of Egypt. Review from The New York Times.
As I Am Egypt’s Queen
By TRACY LEE SIMMONS
Published: April 1, 2010
The name Cleopatra calls up cheap flashes of Hollywood glitz, a diva in jewels, not a regal eminence invested with the power to drive armies. Those who think they know anything about her at all can do little more than recall some nebulous fame as a beautiful, cunning seductress of mighty men in togas. She’s more the stuff of fable for us than a real person who inhabited her own square of time and space. But inhabit one she did, and with a good deal more intelligence, élan and tact than exercised by most of her male allies and enemies in the Roman world.
By Duane W. Roller
252 pp. Oxford University Press.$24.95
It is that real woman, Cleopatra VII of Egypt (69-30 B.C.), who is explored in Duane W. Roller’s biography. And while Cleopatra’s role in the grand drama of the fall of the Roman Republic and the birth of the Empire might not have been utterly central, history couldn’t have rolled out quite as it did without her. (Computer-generated image of Cleopatra, December 2008)
In Cleopatra’s case, the word ‘biography’ strikes a strange modern note, suggesting the existence of more historical information about her than we in fact have to draw from. But as a historian, classical scholar and archaeologist, Roller brings the full apparatus of what we do know to bear — a tricky task given how Cleopatra’s reputation was officially propagandized into oblivion after her defeat and death. The result is an authoritative, amply footnoted yet brisk account not only of her life but also of its rich backdrop, featuring a cast extending backward through almost three centuries of the Ptolemaic dynasty.
Cleopatra’s father, Ptolemy XII, though harried by civil turmoil, worked to reinvigorate fading intellectual life in the great scholarly city of Alexandria, a cause which his daughter, uncommonly well educated even for a woman from a royal household, carried on when she ascended the throne in 51 B.C. for what could have been an enlightened reign. (Roller emphasizes Cleopatra’s achievements as a scholar, linguist, diplomat, and even naval commander — a welcome corrective to the popular conception of her as merely a schemer of royal blood with alluring advantages.)
Strife broke out with a faction supporting her brother over sovereignty, though, and it wasn’t until Julius Caesar arrived in 48 and applied his leverage that she took undisputed power. Then, too, began the chain of events that molded her legend — the murder of Pompey by her brother and her ingratiating alliance with Caesar; the son she claimed was his; her presence in Rome when he was assassinated; her intricate intrigues, private and otherwise, with Marcus Antonius and the twins she bore him; her joint defeat with Antonius at the hands of Octavian in the Battle of Actium; her suicide. Little wonder she was taken up by poets, painters and Elizabeth Taylor.
Roller tells his tale smoothly and accessibly. Scholarly digressions are consigned to helpful appendixes that Roller uses as small seminars for airing points of dispute, as a good many remain. What, for example, were the origins of Cleopatra’s mother? Was Cleopatra — the quintessentially vile foreigner according to Octavian’s propaganda — a Roman citizen? (Roller believes she was.) And he offers a digest of classical literary descriptions of the queen and a discussion of her iconography (including coin portraits, which are the only certain likenesses) to pinpoint those elements of her modern identity that only evidence from the period can prove or support.
The resulting portrait is that of a complex, many-sided figure, a potent Hellenistic ruler who could move the tillers of power as skillfully as any man, and one far and nobly removed from the “constructed icon” of popular imagination.