BMCR 2005.12.15

Cleopatra and Rome

, Cleopatra and Rome. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005. 1 online resource (340 pages) : illustrations (some color). ISBN 9780674039667 $29.95.

Diana E. E. Kleiner (K.) presents Cleopatra’s story as only an art historian could tell it. Beautifully illustrated and engagingly written, Cleopatra and Rome unveils Egypt’s most famous queen through her portraits, monuments, and spectacles. K. approaches Cleopatra in terms of the latter’s relationship to Rome, observing that Cleopatra’s “defining moments had to do with Rome” (K. 1). In addition to that fact, a Rome-centered examination of Cleopatra reflects the nature of the historical sources for Cleopatra’s story: many of them come from authors who were Romans or who lived in the Roman Empire.

The thesis of K.’s book, however, calls attention to one more reason the Roman perspective has particular relevance in telling Cleopatra’s story. K. sees Cleopatra as a major influence on Augustan monuments, portraiture, and even the public personae of key members of the imperial family. In support of this thesis, K. reexamines a number of well-known Augustan monuments, coins, and statues, highlighting aspects of their iconography that owe a debt to Cleopatra’s careful crafting of her public image. Some of these monuments, like Julius Caesar’s planned public library at Rome, are a direct and obvious imitation of Alexandrian institutions. Others, like the Forum of Julius Caesar, which may have drawn inspiration from the Caesareum in Alexandria, present more difficulties to one attempting to make a definite link. To be sure, K.’s essential argument, that Caesar’s sojourn in Alexandria profoundly affected his approach to urban renewal, is a sound one. In the Augustan period as well, some aspects of material culture reveal their Alexandrian roots more clearly than others. Imported obelisks send a clear message, while Augustus’s increasing willingness to advertise his divine associations has Cleopatra as just one of several potential models. K.’s comparison of the Ara Pacis and the Egyptian temple at Dendera proves one of the book’s most interesting pieces of analysis. Through a detailed reading of the iconography, K. presents persuasive evidence for the shared themes and purpose of these two seemingly unrelated monuments.

Perhaps the clearest instance of Augustus taking a page from Cleopatra’s book comes from the image he projects in Egypt following its annexation as a Roman territory. The comparisons K. makes between Augustus’s self-presentation in Rome and in Egypt are striking. K. observes that in the annexation of Egypt, Augustus’s actions demonstrate that he did not wish to destroy Cleopatra but rather to possess her. The evidence she cites, not only Augustus’s choice not to impose damnatio memoriae upon Cleopatra, but his addition of his own image to key monuments depicting Cleopatra and his representation in statues in pharaonic garb, speak eloquently to Augustus’s acknowledgment of the power of Cleopatra’s image and his desire to associate himself with that power.

Some of the book’s most fascinating material involves K.’s study of imperial women. Focusing in particular on Octavia, Livia, and Augustus’s daughter Julia, K. demonstrates the impact Cleopatra had on these elite women’s roles in both family and public life. Differences in the ways Augustus and Antony represent women associated with them on coins ingeniously provide indirect evidence of the influence Cleopatra as a female sovereign had on Antony’s concept of female power. Augustus’s gradual adoption of some of these ideas strengthens K.’s case. While Livia never gained a position on Augustus’s coinage, she did enjoy the role of queen in Egypt. It is with Julia, however, that Augustus emulates Cleopatra: Julia takes on the role of mother of the successor when Gaius and Lucius were being groomed as heirs, and coins showing Julia with her sons resemble those of Cleopatra and Caesarion. Intriguing but more speculative is the idea that the nodus hairstyle, pioneered by Octavia, emulates the uraeus that adorned Cleopatra’s forehead.

Because Cleopatra and Rome is not a biography of Cleopatra, the author acknowledges that she does not always present events in chronological order or offer an exhaustive treatment of the historical sources in the interest of allowing the material remains to tell Cleopatra’s story.1 Despite this disclaimer, K. does place those material remains in enough historical context to make Cleopatra and Rome accessible to readers not already familiar with Cleopatra’s life story. In addition, relevant background information is provided for readers who may not have studied classics extensively, as aspects of ancient culture are elucidated (“great books [scrolls in those days]” [K. 17]) and knowledge of specialized terminology is not assumed (” uraeus, the representation of a rearing cobra that protected pharaohs” [K. 87]).

Cleopatra and Rome falls into two parts, with chapters 1-10 following the story of Cleopatra’s life quite closely and chapters 11-19 proceeding thematically in an examination of Cleopatra’s impact on Augustan Rome. In chapters 1-10, K. takes a biographical approach, first introducing the major characters in Cleopatra’s story and then focusing on several key events. Her style is lively and her organization clear. Headings in the margins guide readers and also sum up the historical figures with amusing and memorable epithets (“First Sister: Octavia” [K. 32]; “Master of the Universe: Octavian Augustus” [K. 39]). In addition to the historical background one might expect, K. continually integrates material culture into the telling of Cleopatra’s story (chapter 5 focuses on Cleopatra the urban planner) and explores social history as well (chapter 4 considers the role played by professionals from hairdressers to architects, who were responsible for the construction Cleopatra used to transmit her messages).

In the early chapters, art serves a dual purpose: as evidence and illustration. Including art as illustration gives K. the opportunity to integrate later depictions of Cleopatra. In general, these add richness to the narrative, but one later work seems to have overshadowed the historical sources. Based on Tiepolo’s fresco of the banquet at which Cleopatra made her famous pearl and vinegar cocktail, K. locates the event in Tarsus (K. 26). While Pliny does not mention a location in his account, the context he gives, that the incident occurred at a time when Antony had taken to holding lavish banquets on a daily basis, suggests that this particular banquet took place during the winter Cleopatra and Antony spent in Alexandria following their meeting at Tarsus.

Chapters 11-19 focus on K.’s thesis that Cleopatra had a major role in shaping Rome as well as Alexandria. Through analyses such as those discussed above, K. draws a number of parallels between Cleopatra’s self-representation and the images of power that become prominent in the late Republic and Augustan periods. Each of these chapters can stand on its own. This is an advantage because they are fascinating short takes on various aspects of Cleopatra’s influence. The cost of this independence is occasional repeated content (the nodus hairstyle as inspired by Cleopatra’s uraeus is discussed in chapters 9, 17, 18, and 19) and one minor inconsistency (in the Prologue, Augustan poets are characterized as having a “censorious view of Cleopatra” [K. 3], while in chapter 19, they are credited with contributing to the transition of Cleopatra’s image from “harlot to noble queen” [K. 274]).

Cleopatra and Rome will be of interest and value to specialists and non-specialists alike, thanks to its fresh look at a number of well-known monuments and the clarity with which the material is presented. In addition to the main text, the volume includes notes, which consist of citations of primary sources, an annotated bibliography organized by chapter, image credits that provide all relevant information, and a detailed index.


1. Readers desiring such a biography can turn to works such as Michael Grant’s Cleopatra (New York: Dorset, 1972) and Michel Chauveau’s Cleopatra: Beyond the Myth tr. David Lorton (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002).