Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.05.26

Michael Chauveau, Cleopatra: Beyond the Myth. Translated from the French by David Lorton.   Ithaca:  Cornell University Press, 2002.  Pp. 128, 2 maps, 10 halftones.  ISBN 0-8014-3867-5.  $22.50.  

Reviewed by Prudence Jones, Rutgers University (
Word count: 926 words

Cleopatra has been portrayed as femme fatale, classic beauty, ruthless politician, ingénue, and even saint. But who was she really? In Cleopatra: Beyond the Myth, Michael Chauveau (C.) aims to uncover the historical Cleopatra through a careful examination of ancient sources including not only historians' accounts but also inscriptions, coins, monuments, and selected literary and artistic treatments. The slender volume that results is a testament to the challenge of extracting the facts from the complex traditions surrounding this fascinating historical figure. Subtract from the book's modest page count the usual front and back matter, two maps, a chronological table, and a selection of passages translated from the ancient sources, and the portrait of Cleopatra totals a mere 80 pages. In this space, however, C. succeeds in conveying the events of Cleopatra's life as well as the circumstances that surrounded those events.

The pairing of C. with translator David Lorton is not a new one, nor is C.'s emphasis on uncovering the history of Hellenistic Egypt a new interest. The two collaborated on C.'s Egypt in the Age of Cleopatra. History and Society under the Ptolemies.1 In the current volume, Lorton provides a clear and readable translation.

C. states his aim in the book's brief introduction: to "attempt to exorcise the myth and to reduce the person of Cleopatra to the facts--that is, to what the ancient writers reported and to what we learn from contemporary documents." In light of the evidence itself, which, as C. points out, does not include a single ancient biography of Cleopatra, this ambitious goal is quickly revised to: "undermine the certitudes and clichés that have been spread by an abundant but too often complaisant literature" (p. 3). The book fulfills this promise, delivering three chapters that detail Cleopatra's ancestry, lifetime, and death with ample documentation from the ancient sources and a minimum of editorializing by the author.

In the chapters, "A Queen Issued from So Many Kings," "The New Aphrodite," and "Cleopatra, Enemy of Rome," C. meticulously constructs a narrative of Cleopatra's life that adheres closely to the ancient historical and documentary sources. Punctuated by helpful lemmata, the account is well organized and clearly written. Only infrequently does C. offer subjective judgment: for instance calling Caesar's tears at the sight of Pompey's severed head "scarcely convincing" (p. 22). This is not to say the evidence is presented uncritically: on a number of occasions, C. re-examines what the sources say and presents his own analysis (e.g. evaluating the dating of documents, p. 16). The tendency, however, is to let the evidence speak for itself and not to press it too far for meaning. C. often warns against over-interpretation, as in the case of a non-mention of Cleopatra's brother and co-ruler in a decree. This omission has been taken to mean that Cleopatra had, by this time, displaced her brother. C. argues that the silence may result from the source's vantage point, from which Cleopatra was still famous but her brother obscure (p. 16).

The evidence on which C. bases his account is carefully cited in copious endnotes. Along with the expected historians and numismatic evidence are some works of literature and art. Horace's Ode 1.37 receives brief mention, as does a statue of Ptolemy XII Auletes. In addition, paintings illustrate the meeting of Antony and Cleopatra and one of their banquets. While the visual record does not receive the exhaustive treatment accorded the historians, the images serve their illustrative purpose well and their quality and captions are good.

The content of the chapters is supplemented by a selection of passages translated from the ancient sources, two maps, a chronology of the Ptolemies, and a bibliography in narrative form. These features are helpful, though a genealogy would be a sensible addition and the bibliography does more to offer resources for further reading than to list the secondary scholarship on which the book relies. The scholarly works used in the book are all cited fully in the endnotes, but an alphabetical list would make for easier reference. In the section called "Ancient Texts," passages are drawn from Plutarch, Horace, and Josephus and each is given a title (e.g. "A Defeated Queen," p. 85; "The Final Days," p. 87) and a sentence or two to place it in context. The selection and ordering follow the principal events of Cleopatra's life, creating in this section of the book a biography in miniature, in which the ancient sources are allowed to speak to the audience with minimal mediation. C. does not state his goal in this section, but perhaps he means to provide readers an extended encounter with the ancient sources and encourage them to perform their own analysis.

Despite C.'s goal of separating fact from fiction, the book's conclusion, "The Memory of Cleopatra," proves the irresistibility of delving into the myth of Cleopatra. In its final pages, a book dedicated to excavating the real Cleopatra from the strata of myth, bias, and propaganda indulges in the guilty pleasures of Augustan slander, sixteenth century romanticism, and matinee idols. A little indulgence, however, is not a bad thing. The conclusion not only honeys the cup, but makes the rest of the book stand out in high relief: what a different portrait of Cleopatra emerges when we allow ourselves only the certainties of her life (as far as they can be established) and permit ourselves to leave blanks where no evidence exists. What remains is enough, however, to tell us that for the Egyptians, as C. puts it, Cleopatra was "the last and greatest of their queens" (p. 80).


1.   M. Chauveau, Egypt in the Age of Cleopatra. History and Society under the Ptolemies (= L'Egypte au temps de Cléopètre, trans. D. Lorton). Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000. Reviewed by M.S. Venit, BMCR 2000.11.01.

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