BMCR 2008.09.11

Cleopatra and Egypt. Blackwell Ancient Lives

, Cleopatra and Egypt. Blackwell ancient lives. Malden, MA/Oxford: Blackwell Pub, 2008. xii, 219 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm.. ISBN 9781405113892 $29.95 (pb).

There has been a plethora of books on Cleopatra lately and Sally-Ann Ashton’s Cleopatra and Egypt is neither the best nor the worst. It promises well, with a cover showing a still photograph of the silent film star Theda Bara as Cleopatra. The film itself which was produced in 1917 is lost, but some still photographs survive to show the popular conception of Cleopatra a century ago. The last chapter of Ashton’s Cleopatra deals with the queen’s legacy, but it is the weakest in the book and does not mention Theda Bara. Ashton’s main theme is what we know about Cleopatra and how we know it and Ashton provides her readers with a very useful summary of the latest research and archaeological finds.

The first chapter is titled Cleopatra—Black and Beautiful. The question of her beauty raises two further issues: what was the color of her skin, and did her nose help to shape history, if, in fact, we know what its shape was. Blaise Pascal’s quotation from his Pensées is often cited: he contended that, had Cleopatra’s nose been shorter, the whole history of the world would have been changed. However, Cleopatra’s representations do not exhibit a consistent nose. Some portraits show a hooked beak that she seems to have been inherited from her father Ptolemy XII Auletes. There is a good example of it on a coin in the Fitzwilliam Museum, which is illustrated in Ashton’s book. Not all of Cleopatra’s representations show it. Quite possibly, like the Bourbon nose, it signaled her family resemblance to the Ptolemaic royal line, and hence her legitimacy. And perhaps authority too: Queen Elizabeth I of England had an equally aquiline nose, though with less of a hook. Other portraits of Cleopatra straighten her nose, but none make it small. We cannot refute Pascal by arguing that Cleopatra’s nose needed no shortening, but nonetheless his famous observation is bizarre: Cleopatra’s nose was the least of all the causes for the shift in the progress of world history in the last half of the first century BCE.

The question of her skin color is more problematic. Cleopatra has as much right to be called an African as King George I of Greece, a prince of Denmark, had to be called Greek, but if we are to determine her origin by her DNA, then the Ptolemaic royal house to which Cleopatra belonged was Macedonian. But her father, Ptolemy Auletes, was the son of Ptolemy IX Lathyrus and an unknown concubine. The first edition of the Cambridge Ancient History, published before Cleopatra’s ancestry became controversial, noted this detour in the royal stemma, and suggested in a footnote that, if the mistress of Ptolemy IX was not Greco-Macedonian, given what we know of his career, she may have been Syrian. But recently, G. Höbl, in his History of the Ptolemaic Empire 1 has put forward a hypothesis that adds a new element to the discussion. He argues that Ptolemy XII Auletes had only one legitimate child, Cleopatra Berenice, and that his other four children, including Cleopatra VII, were born to an unknown mother who could have belonged to an Egyptian priestly family. Ashton mentions the hypothesis without endorsing it. There is some circumstantial evidence in its favor, inasmuch as Cleopatra seems to have taken native Egyptian religion more seriously than earlier Ptolemaic kings, and she was the first Ptolemaic monarch who could speak the demotic of her Egyptian subjects. That, however, proves little, for Cleopatra learned languages effortlessly, and given the number of languages she mastered, it would have been worthy of remark if demotic Egyptian were not among them. It is best to accept the fact that Cleopatra’s ancestry is not an open book. In any case, the color of her skin is relevant only to the modern political scene in the United States.

Ashton’s third chapter is an immensely informative essay that seeks to put Cleopatra in her political and ideological milieu. She was in a weak position when Ptolemy XII died, making her elder brother and herself his heirs. Ptolemy XII had played the politics of survival well, but he left Ptolemaic Egypt heavily in debt. Cleopatra learned from him not only ruthlessness and cunning, but also the realization that the muscle that the Ptolemaic house needed to survive could come from only one place: Rome. Exactly how long she spent in Rome in 46 BCE as Julius Caesar’s guest is not clear, though it was long enough for Caesar to dedicate a statue of her in the temple of Venus Genetrix, but Cleopatra was a quick learner: no doubt she made a shrewd assessment of power politics in Rome. But it was an outsider’s assessment. She probably never quite understood the resentments and ruthless ambition of Rome’s ruling class, and the depth of its prejudice against what she represented as a Hellenistic queen. Her son by Caesar, young Ptolemy Caesar XV, would become, if anything, an encumbrance. He would live a little longer than Alexander the Great’s son, Alexander IV, but neither was allowed to reach adulthood.

Next Ashton devotes a chapter to Cleopatra’s role models, which takes her back to Hatshepsut, Tiy, the mother of Akhenaton, and Nefertiti, but there were better models closer to hand within the Ptolemaic dynasty itself, such as Arsinoe II and Cleopatra III. Macedonian women were never stay-at-home wives sequestered in women’s quarters. Then there are chapters on Cleopatra’s court in Alexandria, with its reputation for luxury (we should remember that pomp and circumstance has always been a weapon of royal propaganda) and on Cleopatra’ religious policies. Like all the pharaohs of Egypt, Cleopatra was divine, and she was still receiving worship, Ashton notes, as late as 373 CE, when a demotic inscription mentions her cult. Finally we reach the love story of Mark Antony and Cleopatra, which is the queen’s chief claim to fame. Ashton squeezes the romance out of it, but her assessment of the sources is valuable. It all ends with Cleopatra’s suicide and the various versions of the story. In Octavian’s triumph, Cleopatra was represented by a statue with an asp, which Ashton suggests may have been an Egyptian-style royal statue with a uraeus on its brow, which could have given rise to the snake-bite story. But all the authors closest in time to the event thought that Cleopatra did, in fact, use a venomous snake to kill herself, and her statue in Octavian’s triumph seems to me to indicate that that was the official version.

What would have happened if Cleopatra had not ended her own life by suicide? Could Octavian have displayed her in his triumph and then retired her to a country villa Italy? His propaganda campaign in the years before Actium had been directed in particular against Cleopatra who was depicted as a kind of female Saddam Hussein, not wielding WMDs, to be sure, but something worse, the poison of moral corruption and degeneration of an imagined Orient which, if not stopped, could contaminate the virile West. If Octavian had taken her to Rome to display in his triumph, could he have allowed her to live? He had made her a symbol of decadence and self-indulgence that knew no limit. Horace ( Odes, 3.6) managed to link Cleopatra with the Parthians, the Dacians, Rome’s close call with annihilation at Actium, moral decay and the iniquity of women who educate themselves in Ionian dances and the arts of seduction. Ashton mentions briefly Walker’s recent interpretation of the scene on the Portland Vase in the British Museum which shows a reclining woman seducing a man on one side and on the other, a woman lying on the remains of a fallen structure. Walker2 suggests that the seduction scene shows Cleopatra and Mark Antony, and on the other side there is Octavia, Octavian’s sister and Antony’s discarded wife, who chose the role of a loyal, virtuous, and truly Roman matron and played it with more sensitivity for Roman prejudices than Cleopatra played hers, as an oriental queen. If the Portland Vase can be dated securely to the Augustan period, Walker’s interpretation is at least plausible. Ashton mentions another example of the sexual indulgence motif used in art to denigrate Antony and Cleopatra: a relief showing a Nile scene with a pygmy steering a boat with a canopy, and beneath it, a man and woman having sexual intercourse. The woman’s hairstyle suggests Cleopatra. That the sexual motif could be used so effectively in anti-Cleopatra propaganda in mid-first century BCE Rome may seem odd, but this was a stressful period when antique Roman virtue became the symbol of what the Roman Republic stood for, and sex was, after all, a universal language, available for the art of denigration.

Octavian could not have let Cleopatra live. Yet her death meant that her legend would live on. She became the Princess Diana of Roman history. Was Octavian complicit in her suicide? Contemporary sources did not think so, but what would you expect? Did Cleopatra suffer from Narcissistic Personality Disorder? An article appearing in Psychopathology 3 in 1990 suggested as much. Ashton turns the firepower of feminist doctrine against this hypothesis and sinks it. Most historical leaders display NPD symptoms, she points out, quite correctly, and adds “I cannot help but suggest that the fact Cleopatra was a woman makes personality traits that she displayed, and that are encouraged in male figures, unacceptable or objectionable.”

One of the best features of Ashton’s book is its assessment of the evidence, literary as well as archaeological. In her foreword, Ashton says that she began this book determined not to rely on Roman literary sources, but to find the real Cleopatra, relying on her strength as an historian of classical art and as an Egyptologist. She soon discovered what every ancient historian learns eventually: all sources must be used. In fact, Ashton largely omits one source: papyrology, which could have illuminated contemporary society in Egypt. Under Cleopatra, Egypt seems to have been administered efficiently and profitably. Antony came to depend on her subsidies.

The last chapter deals with Cleopatra’s legacy, and here I must express disappointment. Ashland mentions briefly Egyptian influences in Roman art and architecture that she connects with the queens’ influence, the fate of her children and the religion of Isis. Yet for those who accept the “Clash of Civilizations” and the “Rise of the West” interpretation of ancient and medieval European history,—I do not—the age of Cleopatra is pivotal. Orientalism may have begun with the Persian Wars in the early fifth century BCE, but Octavian’s propaganda against Cleopatra gave it its shape. The effete East, corroded by fanatic religion was opposed to the virile and prudent West. One can find variations of the theme in Montesquieu and Edward Gibbon, and the late Edward Said. But that takes us beyond Ashton’s book, which, within its limits, is a valuable contribution to the literature on Cleopatra.


1. London, 2001, p. 223.

2. S. Walker, The Portland Vase, London, 2004, pp. 44—63.

3. R. Orland et al., “Psychiatric assessment of Cleopatra: a challenging evaluation,” Psychopathology, 23, 1990, pp. 169-175.