BMCR 2006.11.39

Cleopatra. A Sourcebook. Oklahoma Series in Classical Culture, 31

, Cleopatra : a sourcebook. Oklahoma series in classical culture ; v. 31. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2006. xv, 345 pages : illustrations, maps ; 23 cm.. ISBN 080613741X. $19.95 (pb).

This work is divided into two sections, arranged chronologically and thematically. The first deals with the history of Hellenistic Egypt and the role of the Ptolemies ending with the major events in Cleopatra’s life. The second part concerns the reception of Cleopatra from ancient times to the twentieth century.

The work begins with a brief summary of Cleopatra’s life and a statement of the book’s agenda by the author, Prudence Jones (PJ). Part 1 Ancient Sources begins with extracts from Diodorus Siculus, Pausanias, Strabo and Plutarch on the geographical history of Hellenistic Egypt and the city of Alexandria. This is followed by a passage from the Theocritus, Idyll 17, an encomium of the Ptolemies. Each passage is preceded by a short introduction to the author and period. The introductions are italicized, which at first is a little disconcerting, since it is usual for quotations to be printed in italics. However, this is a minor point and no doubt a matter of personal preference.

Chapter 2 examines the sources for Cleopatra’s early career and consists mainly of gobbets taken from Appian and Cassius Dio. The chapter begins with a physical description of the young queen as recorded in Plutarch’s Life of Antony. This is followed by an inscription from the Buchis Stele which mentions Cleopatra. The stele is dated to the year 51 BC when she became pharaoh, and her coronation coincided with the consecration of a new Buchis bull to the city of Hermonthis, near Thebes. Cleopatra is referred to as Thea Philopater (the goddess who loves her father), a title she would have adopted on her accession to the throne. There then follow extracts from Appian’s Civil War, PJ says she chose this work primarily for the connections Appian had with Alexandria, and, although he was writing on Roman topics, he was writing for a Greek-speaking audience. According to PJ, ‘events concerning Egypt receive particular emphasis’ (38). The passages selected concern the support given to Pompey by Egypt during his conflict with Caesar. The choice of source is somewhat questionable. Appian may have had Egyptian connections but as a historian he is often inaccurate.1 There then follow two extracts on the flight of Pompey the Great to Egypt and his subsequent murder at the hands of Cleopatra’s brother, Ptolemy, one from Appian and one from Cassius Dio.

This is followed by selections from the Sybilline Oracles (3.350-80 and 3.75-92), both written in Egypt. One was composed shortly before, and one shortly after the battle of Actium in 31 BC, which render them out of context here. PJ appears more concerned with emphasizing the Egyptian connection rather than the context, although the chapter is supposed to be dealing with Cleopatra’s early career: it would have been much better to include these oracles later, where they would have had far more impact for the reader.

Chapter 3 concerns the life and exploits of Julius Caesar, with seven pages devoted to the description of Caesar given by the historian Suetonius. This is followed by the rather insulting poems written about Caesar by the poet Catullus (57, 93). The extracts from Caesar’s own work Civil War, and from the Alexandrine War, which circulated under his name but most probably written by Aulus Hirtius, one of his generals, give added insight into a pivotal moment in Cleopatra’s life, indeed a moment that would radically affect the course of history, her meeting with Caesar. The next source is Lucan, which again seems rather inappropriate here. The work is fictitious, not an actual account of ‘the wonders Caesar experienced in Alexandria’. PJ does not explain this clearly to the reader, and this oversight could cause some confusion about the use of such material as a source of historical information, especially as the passage follows the accounts of historians such as Suetonius, Cassius Dio and Caesar. In all, thirteen pages of Lucan are quoted (lines 1-192), which seems overlong, and not necessarily relevant.

Caesar’s death on the Ides of March is finally addressed, on page 85. Two pages supply some useful source material on Cleopatra. These are extracts from the writings of Cicero ( Letters), some of the most important documents for this crucial period in late Republican Roman history. Cicero deals with the flight from Rome by Cleopatra, as well as giving his opinion of the queen on more than one occasion. The passage from Ovid on page 88 concludes the section on Caesar and once again seems slightly out of context.

The next two chapters 4 and 5 deal with Antony and Octavian, and in these chapters we are given more of a sense of the historical Cleopatra. However, page 117 has an extract from the Aeneid concerning Dido and Aeneas—the author intends to indicate a connection between them and Antony and Cleopatra, but once again it might have been better placed in the chapter, Cleopatra and Actium in Roman Poetry. In some respects this chapter would have provided a more suitable vehicle for utilizing literary source material; the extracts from Ovid cited earlier would also have had more impact if placed here. These works represent contemporary source material, written with hindsight and under an Augustan agenda, facts which need to be borne in mind.

The final chapter of part 1 is concerned with Cleopatra’s final days, for which the only source material available comes from Plutarch, Dio Cassius, and a short extract from Florus on Cleopatra’s suicide. This section ends with a papyrus bearing Cleopatra’s signature. As PJ says for all the histories, legends and rumors about Cleopatra, it is difficult to uncover her voice. We do however, have some of her handwriting. The papyrus is a declaration of tax exemption of a Roman citizen, dated February 23rd 33 BC, Cleopatra’s signature consists of one word γινέσθω (let it be done).

The final third of the work is perhaps the most interesting section of the book and deals with the reception of Cleopatra in antiquity and modern times. The section begins with the chapter entitled Good Woman or Bad? and begins with the portrayals of Cleopatra in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. For the artist Boccaccio she is the epitome of vice, while Chaucer sees her as a martyr of love. Chapter 9 reviews the transformation of the traditional historical sources for Cleopatra from the Augustan period in the works of Shakespeare and Dryden. However, as PJ notes, the erotic aspects always take precedence over the political issues.

In Chapter 10 PJ explores the reception of Cleopatra by women writers where gender issues are at the heart of their work. In Charlotte Brontë’s novel Villette Brontë dramatically juxtaposes Cleopatra with contemporary women. In Sarah Fielding’s work The Lives of Cleopatra and Octavia, the two characters represent the two extremes of female experience.2

Chapter 11 reviews the period when ‘all things Egyptian’ suddenly became fashionable in Europe. Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 brought in its wake a resurgence of interest in Egypt’s ancient past. Many scholars, scientists and explorers visited the country, often removing its ancient treasures in a frenzy of acquisition. The twenty-one volume Description of Egypt published from 1809-1829, opened the way for European research into Egyptian history. This new world also caught the imagination of poets, like Shelley and O’Shaughnessy.

It appears that Cleopatra’s image took on its more modern form during the Romantic period, when her sexuality and apparent cruelty merged to create the femme fatale with which we are so familiar. The catalyst for this transformation was a neglected 4th century AD anecdote by Sextus Aurelius Victor, given fresh voice in the work of Alexander Pushkin (1825) in his Egyptian Nights. This theme was elaborated on by Swinburne (1866) in his work Cleopatra. Here the two forces of poetry and morals collide: Cleopatra is no more than a prostitute for whose charms men pay with their lives.

Chapter, 13 Cleopatra in Arabic cites the traditions surrounding Cleopatra from another perspective, that of a national heroine. The sources range from 6th century AD writings of John, Bishop of Nikui and those of Al-Mas’udi (10th century AD) to Ahmad Shawqi (1929), whose play The Death of Cleopatra elevates her to the status of an Egyptian national heroine. The political agenda of this play is obvious, for he attributes motives and strategies to Cleopatra that support his pro-Egyptian perspective. For Shawqi the conflict between Egypt and Rome was particularly resonant, as Egypt had just gained independence from another Imperial power, Great Britain.

The theme of national icon is continued as PJ explores the sources for an Afrocentric Cleopatra. Afrocentrism aims to reclaim lost African achievements and recognize Africa as the true source of European culture. PJ cites several passages that are concerned with this debate. Ancient sources show that Cleopatra considered herself a Ptolemy. Clearly on the paternal side she was descended from Macedonian Greek ancestry, but there has been much speculation on the nationality of her mother and maternal grandmother, with some scholars favouring the tradition that Cleopatra was of African descent. The debate became especially prominent during the second half of the twentieth century.

The concluding chapter Modern Cleopatras concentrates on receptions of the post-antique tradition of Cleopatra. PJ selects passages from George Bernard Shaw’s political Caesar and Cleopatra to Thornton Wilder’s human portrayal of Caesar in Cleopatra and Antony, played out through their imagined correspondence. In this work Cleopatra emerges as a much more refined and intelligent woman. The chapter closes with a prose and verse passage from Barbara Chase-Riboud, Portrait of a Nude Woman as Cleopatra (1987), inspired by Rembrandt’s drawing of the same title. Riboud refers to her work a meditation on History, but we could ask whose history?

In this work PJ sets out to address the question: Who was Cleopatra? Who is Cleopatra? This sourcebook does not provide an answer, but what it does do is to provide the reader with a foundation from which to pursue a variety of research projects into the nature of the infamous queen. The sources used are not exhaustive, and there are some omissions—for example archaeological material from the excavations in Alexandria, the Temple at Dendera (dedicated to her and her son Caesarion as joint rulers), and the sources for her other extensive building works, especially at Mammisi (Hermonthis)—which would have given another perspective on Cleopatra as the divine Hellenistic ruler with her own political agenda. Nowhere are we presented with a glimpse of how Cleopatra saw herself, either through her divine role as Isis, or through her practical achievements for her country. Part two is by far the better section, containing some interesting and thought provoking extracts, and for this reason will be a welcome edition to the plethora of material available concerning Cleopatra.3 The maps and tables at the back are well presented, and a useful aid for students.


1. Grant says Appian has brought together some useful material but ‘he was too devoted to Rome and is unreliable about Republican institutions and conditions’. Grant, M. (1955) Greek and Roman Historians (London: Routledge) 104. Quoting the Loeb edition of Appian’s work, Schwartz says Book 3 of the Civil Wars was not history but novel writing. This needs to be stressed when taking sources out of context.

2. Octavia was the sister of Octavian, and second wife of Antony, whom he divorced in favour of Cleopatra. She was the epitome of Roman womanly virtue.

3. In particular Michael Foss (1997) The Search for Cleopatra (published in association with the BBC) containing relevant selected passages from ancient sources as well as recent archaeological evidence.