This is the latest in a series of 12 volumes on Women in Antiquity, edited by Ronnie Ancona and Sarah B. Pomeroy. Duane W. Roller has already contributed to the series a biography of Cleopatra VII of Egypt, published in 2010.
Roller’s stated aims are to spotlight queens of the Augustan era who were allied to Rome, and to expose networks of relationships between them and with the Roman imperial house. The book is structured in eight chapters, six of which detail what the sources tell us of Cleopatra VII’s daughter Cleopatra Selene, Glaphyra of Cappadocia, Salome of Judaea, Dynamis of Bosporus, Pythodoris of Pontos, Aba of Olbia and Mousa of Parthia. The evidence for the queens’ lives is framed by an introductory chapter on the historical status of royal women, especially queens, and a concluding chapter on royal women and Roman women. Roller strays beyond his chronological limits in an appendix on the girl who, at her mother’s request danced for the head of John the Baptist. The girl is Salome, the eponymous grand-daughter of Salome of Judaea; she survived this hazardous experience, allowing Roller the opportunity to demonstrate the continuity of late Hellenistic royal behaviour, at least down to the aftermath of the death of Nero. A second appendix offers a note on Josephus and Nikolaos of Damascus, explaining why the balance of surviving information is skewed in favour of the Herodian court. There follow endnotes, abbreviations, a bibliography, a list of sources consulted and an index.
The discussion of evolving regal terminology and earlier practice is thoughtful. The title basilissa was applied by Homer only to Penelope, who managed the state on her own (unlike Clytemnestra). By the time of Herodotus monarchy as an institution had become rare, and in the succeeding century the influential Aristotle expressed hostility to rule by women, a position later encouraged by Rome in the wake of the defeat of Cleopatra VII of Egypt in 30 BC. Nonetheless within the Persian empire, it proved possible for royal women such as Mania of Dardanos in the Hellespont to request successfully the succession to her deceased husband. However, Mania came to a sticky end, murdered by her son-in-law Meidias in 399 BC. Her reign was reportedly unpopular, both locally and with the Persian authorities. In succeeding years Caria was to prove more stable, establishing the dynasty of the Hecatomnids, which produced some notable royal women, including Artemisia, who commanded a squadron at the battle of Salamis in 480 BC, and was a member of an inner council sent to persuade Xerxes to withdraw from the Greek world. Artemisia was to prove the first major role model for ambitious queens since Penelope.
Olympias was the only important Macedonian royal woman of the fourth century BC, but was unable to exercise real power, so close was the association of kingship by acclamation in the wake of military victory, and the commemorative and competitive aspects of that military context surely added to the exclusion of royal women. However, the title of basilissa became the norm in the succeeding century for Seleucid and Ptolemaic women, the latter enjoying wealth from the possession of land and income from it. These well-educated royal women were both partners in and the products of sibling marriages, acting both as patrons of cults and cultic figures in their own right. Sibling marriage, also a feature of the Hecatomnid court, had fallen into disuse by the mid-1st century BC.
Inevitably the sources are often frustratingly thin, and much interpretation is needed to bring individual queens of the Augustan period within the spotlight. Such difficulties are admitted by Roller, for example in his somewhat repetitive account of Dynamis of Bosporus, pp. 96-99. Dynamis was clearly a highly significant figure, not least for her unusual longevity as ruler, but one with too few recorded footprints. As the second appendix explains, the surviving sources are biased towards the rulers of Judaea, and those who came within the regional orbit of the Hasmonean kings, such as Glaphyra of Cappadocia, who married Herod’s son Alexander. Regarded as haughty and unpopular at the Herodian court, Glaphyra exerted a long-term revenge: her great-grandson Alexander was to marry into the Roman aristocracy and serve as consul in AD 100. Such a trajectory exemplifies the long dynastic reach of such powerful women, both chronologically and in terms of developing relations with Rome.
However, this book is much more than the sum of its uneven parts, for Roller’s second aim, the exposure of the network of relationships between these monarchies, is easier to grasp from surviving accounts and coinage, and is here successfully delivered. It becomes clear that the queens conformed to well-established rules of play, with a striking lack of exceptionality. It is also clear that the Roman imperial house had a firm grasp of these matters, its leading figures adept at manipulating the theatrical personal dynamics of late Hellenistic kingship for Roman ends. Beyond inter-monarchical relationships, Roller reconstructs a fascinating picture of the roles played by these queens in concert with powerful Roman women, the latter well described as “queens in all but name”. Together they built and cemented dynastic alliances, resolving disputes and manipulating access to powerful male rulers. The extent of their travels and the use of a Roman education to mould royal children into the nexus of political relationships and protect them from strife at home are particularly striking features of Roller’s account. The role of Livia, notably as arbiter in all-too-frequent family disputes, is especially significant, and her willingness to hear grievances and travel to distant kingdoms to cement alliances surely explains the appearance of cults of Augustus’ consort at various eastern locations. Livia’s exceptional position expressed at international level the traditional Roman matronly virtue of skilled reconciliation within the family.
There is, then, much to be learned from this book, but the reader will require patience to work through the dense web of text. Illustrations are a problem: detailed maps such as Map 3, p. 60, The southern Levant after the death of Herod the Great, showing the estates of Salome, are extremely helpful, needing more references in the text than are actually given, but others such as Map 5, p. 130, The eastern Mediterranean during the Augustan period, add little to this late stage of the narrative, in which indeed the map is not referenced. A significant weakness is the choice and quality of reproduction of some of the pictures. Black-and-white reproductions in the text of the Boscoreale dish (p. 42, fig. 6) and other iconographically complex objects, such as the detail of the Ara Pacis frieze (p. 96, fig. 14), which may or may not show Dynamis with her son, are too small for the reader to verify details and are printed on low-quality paper. The latter does no favours to a glass cameo head of Livia, significantly found at Nymphaion in the Bosporus (p. 92, fig. 12), or to the author’s photograph of the Egyptian-style statue of Petubastes IV from Cherchel (p. 41, fig. 5). Several photographs of the landscapes of the late Hellenistic kingdoms are too generalised and reproduced at too small a scale to enhance the text with meaning.
The interpretation of the figures with Octavian in his chariot, from the frieze at Nicopolis (p. 33, fig. 2) is contestable: identified by Roller as the then eleven-year-old twins Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene, their presence is here interpreted as a statement of reconciliation and future hope. But evidence indicates that the children of defeated rulers were never admitted to the Roman victor’s chariot, and the busts appear too mature to represent Antony and Cleopatra’s twins, who were twelve years of age in 29 BC, the year of the Roman triumph commemorated in the Actium monument. Given the strong physical resemblance, the subjects are more likely to be masks of Antony and Cleopatra themselves. 1
It might have been more fruitful and less iconographically hazardous to focus on coinage, which offers not only portraits and significant attributes but also linguistic links to some of the surviving texts. For instance, the last line of the fascinating epigram composed for the wedding of Juba II and Cleopatra Selene (pp. 35-36) by Krinagoras of Mytilene: “Let the children of kings in turn hold from their fathers a strong rule over both lands” [i.e. Egypt and Libya, the latter comprising North African land to the west of Egypt, including Mauretania] conjures up the legends on the coinage of Cleopatra VII issued in the 30s BC, when, as Antony’s partner, her elevated status was described in biblical language as “REGINA REGUM FILIORUMQUE REGUM, Queen of kings and of her children [who are] kings.”2
The publishers have used the cover jacket as a marketing tool, focusing the title on the filial relationship of Cleopatra Selene, who is not named, to the infinitely more recognisable Cleopatra VII of Egypt, and illustrating the subject with a cropped jacket photograph of the Boscoreale silver bowl, an attractive and interesting object, but of uncertain interpretation as an image of Cleopatra Selene.
Any notions of modern echoes of this fascinating encounter between the late Hellenistic royal world and the rise of a new, imperial power are eschewed by Roller, but it will surely strike the modern reader that the recent behaviour of the Saudi Arabian royal house and the relationship of this and other neighbouring kingdoms to leading world powers surely have their remote roots in late Hellenistic theatrical monarchy. It will also be clear that the Roman imperial house had a far surer grip on its temperamental royal allies than any modern government.
1. Mary Beard, The Roman Triumph (Harvard 2007), 224-5, suggests they are Julia and Drusus, children of Augustus and Livia by earlier marriages, but the images strongly resemble Cleopatra and Antony.
2. J.H.C. Williams, Imperial Style and the Coins of Cleopatra and Mark Antony, in (eds.), S. Walker and S.-A. Ashton, Cleopatra Reassessed British Museum Occasional Paper 103 (2003), 87-94. Esp. pp. 90-91.