BMCR 2007.04.42

Cleopatra. Ancients in Action

, , Cleopatra. Ancients in action. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2006. 128 pages, 12 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, maps ; 22 cm.. ISBN 1853996734. $20.00 (pb).

In this series of short incisive books the general reader is introduced to events in the lives of some of the major figures of the ancient world. In the Preface to this volume the authors set out their agenda to “recount the major events of Cleopatra’s extraordinary life, setting her behaviour in the historic context of Ptolemaic Egypt and its relations with Rome, focusing on the major players in the fall of Egypt to Rome.” Last but not least the authors also explore the very positive image that Cleopatra VII has enjoyed since antiquity in Egypt. In their review of the major events in the life of Cleopatra, they discuss the various images created in antiquity by Greek and Roman historians tracing their later transmission into the art and literature of western culture.

Chapter 1, “From Heroic Suicide to Banknote Icon: Modern Views of Cleopatra,” sets the scene by examining the reception “of all things Egyptian during the early 19th century. It was Napoleon’s Egypt expedition that brought the ancient world of the Pharaohs to a western audience, who subsequently developed a liking for the exotic. Cleopatra was perhaps ‘unnaturally’ viewed as an eastern exotic temptress, and this early European image of the queen was to become the standard by which the west would subsequently evaluate her contribution to an axial period of history. The authors explore the theory propounded by the 19th century writer Hawthorne, and artist William Wetmore Story that Cleopatra had black African origins;1 a theory which has, in more recent times, received a great deal of attention from the modern black feminist movement. The final section in this chapter examines the image of Cleopatra in modern Egypt, where it appears she is regarded as a “national treasure.” The authors add that all of these images of Cleopatra are of considerable interest in exploring the attitudes that various societies have taken towards one of the most charismatic of all historical figures.

Chapter 2, “The Historical Cleopatra,” comprises the greater part of the work, and is divided into subsections which trace the major events in Cleopatra’s life. The chapter begins with a brief overview of the history of the Ptolemies and includes an informative, if condensed, family tree (pp. 30-1). The authors provide a very interesting section on the Ptolemaic Queens, including an important discussion centred on Cleopatra I (the wife of Ptolemy V) who significantly developed her role as Queen by elevating her status as mother of the pharaoh, to set a precedent for all future Ptolemaic queens. Cleopatra I was also was the first Queen to achieve the status of goddess during her lifetime, taking the title ‘Thea,’ and this resulted in greater autonomy and power for future Ptolemaic women.

However, it would be the two subsequent Queens Cleopatra II and III who paved the way for Cleopatra VII. Indeed the authors regard Cleopatra III as the role model for her great granddaughter.2 The major problem in this section is lack of dates, as reference to the family tree provides no timeline, and the inclusion of which would have been very useful, especially for those readers who are unfamiliar with this period.

There then follows a section on Cleopatra and her immediate family, dealing with Cleopatra’s early links with Rome, Caesar and Pompey, as revealed in a dedication made in Athens indicating Cleopatra accompanied her father, Ptolemy XII to Rome in 57 BC, during the period of his exile. According to the authors it seems highly likely that she co-ruled with her father on his return from exile up to his death in 51 BC; certainly it is clear she later adopted many of his policies, and implemented many of his proposed building projects. This is followed by a section detailing Cleopatra’s relationship with Julius Caesar. Here the authors give a brief yet very interesting discussion concerning the theory that Caesarion, the son of their union, may not have been born prior to Caesar’s assassination in 45 BC, hence the fact he was not mentioned in Caesar’s will despite being his legitimate heir. This omission of Caesarion by Caesar in his will has baffled scholars especially taking into consideration the divine honours Caesar granted Cleopatra by placing a statue of her, represented as the Egyptian goddess Isis, in the temple of Venus Genetrix in Rome. This act clearly implied that they shared a desire for recognition as divine rulers, and therefore Caesarion, who would, as an Egyptian ruler, be divine from birth, would be the natural successor to his father; whose attempts to establish his own divinity in Rome would have in part been responsible for his assassination.

On Cleopatra’s return to Alexandria, after Caesar’s assassination, she began to consolidate her rule as Queen of Egypt; it was during this period she developed a relationship with Caesar’s general, Mark Antony; recorded nearly two centuries later by Antony’s biographer, the Greek historian Plutarch. It is this source that William Shakespeare used upon which to base his play Antony and Cleopatra, which strongly influenced the image of the queen and her consort in western minds. The famous scene in Plutarch describing the meeting of Cleopatra and Antony, as Isis meeting the god Dionysus, (for Antony was already being associated with the god in the Greek world), cemented the impression of Oriental decadence

The story of Antony’s liaison with Cleopatra culminating in the fatal battle of Actium, needs little further comment. However, the authors add to the story by supplying a brief overview of Antony’s family history, including his first marriage to Fulvia and his second to the sister of Octavian, demonstrating in the process how Antony was seen by Rome to be a betrayer of all Roman virtues.

The ‘Ceremony of the Donations,’ which took place in Alexandria in 34 BC, is also covered in more detail. After Antony’s eastern campaign he chose to celebrate his triumph in Alexandria rather than Rome, and made generous gifts to his children and his queen, all of which was seen by the Romans as an affront to their gods. It was at this ceremony that Caesarion was given the title ‘King of Kings,’ and recognised by Antony as Caesar’s legitimate son. “All these actions could only be understood as an enactment of a Greek version of the Egyptian concept of divine kingship.” These actions by Antony gave Octavian all the justification he needed to go to war with Egypt.

There are two further sections worthy of comment, which add greatly to the book and give a fuller insight into the image of the queen propagated by the Romans. First “Antony as Victim,”in which the authors demonstrate how Octavian (later Augustus), presented Antony as a victim of the queen, and thereby deprived her of any individual identity; instead she represented an emblem of eastern monarchy, which in turn was associated with decadence and depravity. Through this subtle use of propaganda Octavian was able to exaggerate the threat of Cleopatra and make her a credible enemy worthy of defeat, even in a civil war.

Much of this propaganda survived for posterity in the works of Horace, Virgil and Propertius, as well as the works of Plutarch, and the authors demonstrate how Cleopatra became the ‘fatal monster’ to be chained by Caesar (Octavian) in Horace’s Odes (1.37). By contrast in the final section entitled “Octavian as a foil to Cleopatra’s integrity,” the authors make a credible case to demonstrate, despite Roman propaganda, one aspect of the relationship between Octavian and Cleopatra that showed Cleopatra in a favourable light, and that concerned her negotiation with Octavian after the fall of Alexandria. Cleopatra demonstrated more integrity than Octavian and for the authors this makes her death her ennoblement. The fact that she was capable of great personal integrity is a virtue even Horace could not help but celebrate in his Ode cited above.

Chapter 4, “Cleopatra as Queen of Egypt,” contrasts the Graeco-Roman image of Cleopatra with the image portrayed by the Egyptians. The authors examine how the Egyptian representational process for its rulers developed through antiquity, followed by an explanation of the representations of the early Ptolemaic queens. The section that follows comprises a review of Egyptian statues of Cleopatra placing them firmly within their Egyptian context. The temples of the Pharaohs performed a political as well as religious function and this can been clearly seen in the temples most associated with Cleopatra those at Denderah and Armant,3 especially where her dedications appear to be “quite deliberate and obvious choices reflecting her personal history.”

The temple dedicated to Caesar erected by Cleopatra in Alexandria also showed Cleopatra protecting the interests of her son Caesarion, by fostering his connection with Julius Caesar’s divinity. There follows a brief discussion of the Koptos crown which may or may not have been the type worn by Cleopatra, and a brief discussion of Cleopatra’s tomb, the location of which still remains a mystery.

Her fame lived on in Egypt into the late antique and early Arab/Muslim period. Her patriotism was called upon in the 3rd century AD by Queen Zenobia of Palmyra (Syria), in her revolt against Rome in AD 270, styling herself the ‘new Cleopatra.’4 Graffiti inscribed on a pillar at the temple of Philae at Aswan dated to the 4th century AD revealed that Cleopatra was being worshipped as a goddess. The 6th century AD Coptic Bishop John of Nikiou praised the queen as “the most illustrious and wise amongst women.” Four centuries later the Arab historian Al-Masudi characterised Cleopatra as “the last of the wise women of Greece.” There is a stark contrast between the eastern and western perceptions of Cleopatra; the east praises her intelligence and education, while the west mainly focuses on her sexuality and decadence.

The final chapter, “Coda: The Meaning of Cleopatra’s Death,” briefly examines the significance of Cleopatra’s chosen method of suicide by the bite of an asp, to ascertain whether or not there is any religiously symbolism inherent in this action. The authors take just over a page to reach the conclusion that as historians we are left with little tangible evidence about Cleopatra’s beliefs, and so can never find an answer to the question.

This is an extremely well written and well illustrated book, containing much relevant information on the life of this most intriguing of all the ancient queens, and an ideal source with which to begin any serious historical or archaeological study of the period. Unlike the majority of works on Cleopatra,5 this work also evaluates her role as an Egyptian ruler, the last of the Ptolemies, using a wide range of source material from the literary to the archaeological. The only drawback is lack of references for some of the evidence presented, for example the graffiti at Philae.


1. N. Hawthorne, The Marble Faun. 1860, rep. London 2000. This is a commentary on the marble statue of Cleopatra perceived by the artist William Story. He gave the Queen many Nubian features, so making her an icon for the white liberal movement in their struggle for black emancipation from slavery.

2. Cleopatra III died in 101 BC, murdered by her favourite son Ptolemy X.

3. This temple is also known as the Temple of Montu, the so-called birth house ( Mammisi) of Cleopatra VII.

4. Zenobia clamed she was related to Cleopatra, although there is no exact proof to this effect.

5. See my review of P. Jones, Cleopatra: A Sourcebook, BMCR 2006.11.39, for comparison.