Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.07.25

Susan Walker, Peter Higgs, Cleopatra of Egypt: From History to Myth.   Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2001.  Pp. 384.  ISBN 0-691-08835-7.  $60.00.  

Contributors: Carla Alfano, Sally-Ann Ashton, Mary Hamer, Peter Higgs, Andrew Meadows, Christopher Pelling, John Ray, Susan Walker, Guy Weill Goudchaux, J.H.C. Williams.

Reviewed by Prudence J. Jones, Rutgers University (
Word count: 2440 words

Cleopatra of Egypt: From History to Myth richly illustrates the ongoing scholarly quest for the elusive Cleopatra VII. What did she look like? What was the secret of her success? Why did she so capture the Roman imagination? Why does she continue to fascinate us today? Beautifully illustrated essays and catalogue entries explore these and other facets of Cleopatra's life and legacy. This catalogue accompanies an exhibit at the British Museum in London and the Field Museum in Chicago.1 The first incarnation of the exhibit, at the Palazzo Ruspoli in Rome, was complemented by an Italian version of the catalogue, Cleopatra: Regina d'Egitto (Milan 2000).

Cleopatra of Egypt is a welcome addition to the group of catalogues that focus on Cleopatra VII. Previous catalogues tend to focus either on the historical Cleopatra or on the reception of her image in a particular historical period.2 Cleopatra of Egypt sets itself the ambitious task of combining the two approaches. The result is a fascinating mix of material, the treatment of which is with few exceptions excellent, but which does not quite achieve the balance suggested in the subtitle, From History to Myth. In this work, history takes center stage while myth, if the term is taken to mean the Cleopatra imagined in subsequent ages, makes a cameo in the final act.

The catalogue is divided into four sections, each of which contains two or three essays and a portion of the catalogue entries. In addition, the work contains a chronology, a glossary, a bibliography, a concordance relating the catalogue number of each object to its inventory number in the museum to which it belongs, an index, and maps of the Ptolemaic Empire and of places visited by Cleopatra. All of these features are executed well and make the catalogue accessible to those who do not have extensive knowledge of Cleopatra as well as useful to those who wish to explore the topic in greater depth. The English language version of the catalogue is a thicker volume than the Italian, which contains fewer images and essays and, of the aids to the reader, only the bibliography and chronology.

The first section, "The Ptolemies of Alexandria," provides historical, genealogical, and geographical backdrops for Cleopatra's life and reign. In "Sins of the fathers: the inheritance of Cleopatra, last queen of Egypt," Andrew Meadows treats the relationship of the Ptolemies and Rome from 273 to 30 BC. He concisely traces the deal with the devil the Ptolemies made in relying on Rome's power. This background enables us to see Cleopatra both as an innovative ruler and as a product of her family's political habits.

In the story of Cleopatra, the city of Alexandria is a character in its own right. Its allure and reputation as an intellectual and cultural center reflect and contribute to the perception of these characteristics in its most famous ruler. John Ray, in "Alexandria," examines this evocative city, weaving dreams, prophecies, and poetry into his description. Perhaps the best integration of history and reception in the collection, this piece brings together sources as diverse as a letter written in 168 BC, a poem by Cavafy, and a watercolor by J-P. Golvin. Although Cleopatra's Alexandria is a primary concern, the essay includes a glance back to Alexander the Great and forward to Christian rebuilding. This scope reminds us that Alexandria is not a static backdrop but a city as vital as its inhabitants.

The first installment of catalogue entries contains portraits of the Ptolemies (Hellenizing and Egyptianizing), some images of Egyptian gods, and a number of objects from everyday life. Throughout Cleopatra of Egypt, the images are of high quality and most are in color. Catalogue entries provide descriptive details, brief analysis, and essential bibliography. Some groups of entries are preceded by more extensive discussions of historical or religious background that discuss the images as a group and make helpful comparisons.3 The entries are informative, although they do not consistently describe the iconography on the reverses of coins. The omission of this information may leave the non-specialist reader puzzling over the significance of the ubiquitous eagle or the meanings of various Greek words.

In Part II, "Cleopatra, Lady of the Two Lands," our picture of Cleopatra comes from policy and portraiture. Guy Weill Goudchaux's essay, "Cleopatra's subtle religious strategy," outlines Cleopatra's shrewd self-presentation and its importance to her political aims. This account of Cleopatra's biography, centered on religion, presents the queen as versatile and opportunistic in her efforts to win support from Egypt and Rome. Weill Goudchaux also offers some insight into Cleopatra's lack of success in integrating herself into Roman religious life. He finds that, despite the success of the Isis cult at Rome, Roman worshippers found Cleopatra unnecessary as an intermediary (pp. 140-141).

As protean as Cleopatra's religious self-presentation is her physical appearance in portraits. In "Cleopatra's images: reflections of reality," Susan Walker surveys the major stylistic categories of Cleopatra's portraits and demonstrates the ease with which she moved between cultures. Examples range from an Egyptian relief (cat. 154), in which Cleopatra, shown as a man, trumps her identity as a woman with her status as a ruler, to a pornographic Roman lamp (cat. 357), which makes Cleopatra's gender her most significant attribute. Particularly interesting is Walker's analysis of several coin portraits. Walker suggests that Cleopatra's portrait with hooked nose and prominent chin and jaw is more complex in origin than had been thought: rather than looking to Roman republican veristic portraiture, the depiction may be influenced by portraits of Cleopatra's father, Ptolemy XII Auletes. As Walker points out, Auletes' portraits were influenced by images of Pompey the Great, but there remain elements of individuality (pp. 145-146).

The final essay in Part II, Sally-Ann Ashton's "Identifying the Egyptian-style Ptolemaic Queens," takes a broader look at Ptolemaic female portraiture in an effort to identify as portraits of Cleopatra a group of statues that had not previously been connected with one another, although they all feature a crown with a triple uraeus. The detailed examination of these statues along with a thorough study of the origin and significance of the triple uraeus contribute much to an understanding of traditional Egyptian iconography onto which Cleopatra may have put her own stamp.

The catalogue entries include many of the portraits discussed in the essays and in those cases complement the essays well. Images treated in the essays but not included in the catalogue are integrated with the text. This is a sensible solution, although the images included with the essays suffer from incomplete identifications.4 Brief descriptions are provided along with credit for the museum, photographer or illustrator, but in some instances no date is given in the caption or in the text of the essay.5 In addition to portraits, the catalogue section includes the newly published papyrus that boasts a word written in the hand of Cleopatra VII (cat. 188).

The title of Part III, "Cleopatra and the Power of Rome," announces a shift in focus from Cleopatra as a ruler in her own right to Cleopatra in relation to the leading men in Rome. Two of the three essays in this section, however, return to analysis of Cleopatra's portraits. The first of the three, J.H.C. Williams' "'Spoiling the Egyptians': Octavian and Cleopatra," conforms best to the theme of Part III. Through critical readings of the accounts of Dio, Suetonius, and Plutarch, Williams details the Roman reaction to Cleopatra as mother of Caesarion and as lover of Antony. Evidence from Augustan poetry is mentioned only briefly, not itself a cardinal sin in an essay focusing on historical sources, but the poets' conceptions of Cleopatra are reduced to "the Eastern queen, by turns a drunken whore and a formidable fury" (p. 198). While Roman hostility towards Cleopatra was significant, Williams fails to capture the ambiguity integral to portrayals of the queen by Horace, Propertius, and Vergil. Williams' treatment of the historical sources is more enlightening, however, and includes some interesting analysis of Augustus' Res Gestae.

With Peter Higgs' "Searching for Cleopatra's image: classical portraits in stone," we return to the problem of identifying statues as Cleopatra VII, this time from the perspective of history of scholarship. The essay is divided between case studies and descriptions of methods of identification from different time periods. The former examine several famous and disputed statues of Cleopatra. Higgs expertly guides readers through clues involving melon hairstyles and tell-tale snakes and intrigues involving heads separated from their proper bodies. The statues he discusses are illustrated in the essay or catalogue, with one exception: there is, unfortunately, no image of a marble head that Schliemann found and controversially identified as Cleopatra VII.

The final essay in this section blends portraiture with Roman history. Guy Weill Goudchaux is concerned not with identifying portraits as Cleopatra VII but with assessing the aesthetics of her appearance in coin portraits. His essay, "Was Cleopatra beautiful? The conflicting answers of numismatics," attempts to correlate Cleopatra's appearance on coins with evaluations of her beauty by Plutarch and Dio. While Weill Goudchaux acknowledges the limitations of his visual and textual sources, his own argument at times relies on subjective judgements of beauty. He claims that a bronze coin (cat. 179) shows an "attractive" and "radiant" Cleopatra (p. 211). Neither of these adjectives jumps to my mind when I view this portrait with its hooked nose, down-turned mouth and prominent chin. Nevertheless, there are a number of astute observations about Cleopatra's coin portraits, including the ways in which a coin's condition can influence aesthetic judgements (p. 213).

The catalogue portion of Part III focuses on the cast of characters connected with Cleopatra's involvement with Rome. There are additional portraits of Cleopatra, along with depictions of Julius Caesar, Antony, Octavia, Octavian, and Agrippa. The collection also includes some unidentified contemporary portraits and some objects relating to Actium and to seafaring generally. This emphasis on portraiture, particularly portraits of Cleopatra, reflects the focus of the exhibit on the search for the historical Cleopatra.

The title of Part IV suggests a split personality. "Egypt in Rome / The Myth of Cleopatra" divides the focus between the reception Cleopatra VII experienced at Rome and the reception her image has had in later ages. The first essay, "Egyptian influences in Italy" by Carla Alfano, treats the fascination with things Egyptian that the people of Rome experienced despite their ambivalence toward Cleopatra. Alfano, however, may overstate the positive aspect of Cleopatra's reception. She includes Cicero among those "intrigued by her fame and flattered to be admitted to her company" (p. 276). In his letters, however, Cicero does not seem impressed with the Egyptian queen.6 Alfano's analysis of Egyptian ritual and its influence at Rome is particularly good, as it explores the coexistence of official ambivalence toward Egyptian religion and the integration of Egyptian symbols into public monuments.

Christopher Pelling gives an excellent account of the origins in ancient sources for the permutations of Cleopatra's story. In his essay, "Anything truth can do, we can do better: the Cleopatra legend," he shows that even the most exaggerated portrayals of Cleopatra have roots in the image created by and for the Egyptian queen in the ancient world. Pelling not only draws his sources from the usual suspects (Plutarch, Horace, Vergil) but also seeks out evidence from Florus and from sources that provide the Egyptian perspective (the temple at Dendera, an Alexandrian inscription in Antony's honor). Pelling lets us see retellings of the Cleopatra story not as fabrications but as selective variations on themes already present in the wealth of ancient portrayals.

The final essay in the collection, Mary Hamer's "The myth of Cleopatra since the Renaissance," is, unfortunately, the weakest. Subjectivity, inaccuracy, and oversimplification plague her treatment of this important topic. Hamer sees representations of Cleopatra as subversive acts, a position that may be more a projection of her own impression of Cleopatra than a fair analysis of the works she discusses. She reveals that she formed her view that Cleopatra is a woman dangerous to think about even centuries after her death when, as a young Catholic girl, she saw Mankiewicz's 1963 film (p. 310). A flaw in Hamer's book on Cleopatra was inaccuracy and traces persist in this essay.7 In the case of a connection between Tiepolo's frescoes and Newton's experimental method, she further compresses an argument, which, in her book, already lacked necessary details.8 In the case of Cleopatra's famous banquet at which she dissolved a pearl, Hamer introduces an error she had avoided in her book. In her essay, Hamer claims that Pliny describes Cleopatra dissolving the pearl in wine when, in fact, he specifies that the liquid was vinegar (aceti, NH 9.120).9 In treating portrayals of Cleopatra that span at least five hundred years, Hamer cannot go into great depth, and she makes a number of good points about individual works. In a couple of instances, however, these brief discussions lead to simplistic conclusions. For instance, she suggests that numerous films have been made about Cleopatra because the darkness of a movie theater resembles a tomb and the medium of film is similar to hieroglyphics. In addition, Hamer reduces the Black Athena controversy to an unhealthy desire on the part of "white scholars" for factual information (p. 310).

The final group of catalogue entries contains a number of Roman artifacts that show Egyptian influence. Perhaps the most famous of these, the Palestrina Nile Mosaic, receives a lengthy entry in which Weill Goudchaux presents an interesting new interpretation: that the mosaic may have been a dedication by Cleopatra VII to the goddess Fortuna for the birth of Caesarion (pp. 333-334). In addition, there are images that illustrate the reception of Cleopatra's image in later periods. While much more material is available, the examples chosen are instructive and reflect the great variety that exists in representations of Cleopatra's legend.

Cleopatra of Egypt will be a welcome addition to the library of any Cleopatra enthusiast. The volume is beautifully produced and the images are gorgeous, with the exception of a fuzzy reproduction of a pressbook for DeMille's Cleopatra (cat. 384). Cleopatra of Egypt succeeds in bringing its audience into the world of Cleopatra with thorough analysis of the ancient evidence and plenty of helpful background information. In addition, the catalogue brings Cleopatra's world to a modern audience by including, along with numerous ancient objects, works of art as recent as the year 2000, and by enlivening the text with apt and humorous analogies, including Alexandria as the New York City of the ancient world (p. 36), Ptolemy XII as a Mafia boss (p. 132), and Cleopatra as a cautionary example for women considering rhinoplasty (p. 214).


1.   For a review of the exhibition at the British Museum, see J. Thurman, "The Queen Himself: Going wild for Cleopatra all over again." The New Yorker, May 7, 2001.
2.   Focusing on the historical Cleopatra is R.S. Bianchi et al. eds. Cleopatra's Egypt (Mainz, 1988). This is an excellent catalogue that contains some of the same images as Cleopatra of Egypt, but the latter has the advantage of color plates, while the former relies for the most part on black and white. Two catalogues containing substantial material on the reception of Cleopatra are J-M. Humbert, L'Égyptomanie dans l'art occidental (Paris, 1989) and Egyptomania. Egypt in Western Art 1730-1930. (Exhibition at Louvre, Natl. Gallery of Canada, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.) Ottawa, 1994.
3.   E.g. p. 73.
4.   This is true throughout Cleopatra of Egypt, but becomes particularly noticable in Part II, in which the essays contain numerous images.
5.   E.g. pp. 143 and 144.
6.   In Epistle 15.15, Cicero declares reginam odi, criticizes Cleopatra's arrogance, and claims he wants nothing to do with her. Cicero also mentions Cleopatra in Epistles 14.8, 14.20, 15.1, 15.4, and 15.17, but in none of these cases does he seem star-struck.
7.   M. Hamer, Signs of Cleopatra: History, Politics, Representation (New York 1993).
8.   See A.A. Donohue's review, which fills in much important background (BMCR 04.05.27).
9.   This error recurs in catalogue entries 374 and 393, though the information is correct in cat. 373.

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