BMCR 2010.09.40

Cleopatra: A Biography. Women in Antiquity

, Cleopatra: A Biography. Women in Antiquity. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. xi, 252. ISBN 9780195365535. $24.95.


Cleopatra is a familiar name today for one reason above all: Shakespeare. But so memorable is the character that he created, it is hard, even for historians, to escape his influence. And to a large degree they must anyway rely on the same source that Shakespeare did, the Antony of Plutarch, whose Cleopatra is perhaps less paradoxical than Shakespeare’s, but still surprising. It was not, for instance, Cleopatra’s beauty (Plutarch writes) that was so striking, as one might have expected, but her conversation. A master manipulator, she can trick the reader almost as much as she does the simple-minded Antony. But the biggest surprise is the deep love that Cleopatra does finally feel for Antony at the end of her life. She comes to his grave and laments over it—a lament probably made up by Plutarch himself on the model of Greek tragedy. She wants to be with Antony in death.

Certainly there was a relationship between Antony and Cleopatra, as there had been earlier between Cleopatra and Caesar, and these were defining events in her life. But there were two very practical aspects to them that later accounts, including Plutarch’s, underplay or neglect altogether. First, there is Cleopatra’s side of the story. She was born in 69 BC to Ptolemy the Flute-player, who, having bribed Caesar and Pompey in 59 BC in exchange for Roman recognition, was driven out for a time by his own subjects and was only reinstated by further bribery. He died in 51, leaving Rome arbiter of Egypt’s affairs; Cleopatra acceded to the throne with her younger brother, to whom (in accord with Ptolemaic custom) she was married; behind him lay powerful influences, the minister Pothinus (the ‘eunuch’) and the general Achillas, who drove Cleopatra out. They hoped to impress Caesar by killing Pompey, but the plan failed. And then, with Caesar’s help, Cleopatra was reinstated, leading Pothinus and Achillas to wage war against Caesar. Caesar prevailed, and installed Cleopatra permanently on the throne.

It was all an important lesson for Cleopatra; men of the court and generals, playing on nationalist feelings, might try to thwart her again. She was compelled by Caesar to marry her younger brother—her other brother had died, under mysterious circumstances, in the Alexandrian War—and she wisely got rid of him in due course, and essentially made her co-regent her own son by Caesar, Caesarion (shown with Cleopatra on a famous relief from the Temple of Hathor at Dendera). All of this worked very much to Cleopatra’s advantage: with a brother alive, she was much more vulnerable, while her connection to Caesar would insure Rome’s support. Viewed in this context, the relationship she formed with Antony makes perfect sense. She famously sailed to meet him on the Cydnus in 41 BC, and he wintered with her later that year in Alexandria. In 40 BC twins were born (a boy and girl), and then a final son in 36 BC, further heirs whom Cleopatra must have hoped would prove acceptable to the Romans in power, even as she preserved and strengthened her ancestral kingdom, satisfying the proud people of Alexandria and Egypt.

Turning to Antony: what did he get out of this relationship? At first glance, it seems easy enough to imagine it all to have been a dalliance, at least initially. But in fact there was something else at play. For decades now, Romans had been cultivating rulers of foreign kingdoms as allies, especially to help them in civil war. Pompey, in particular, had done this very shrewdly. During the civil war of the 80s BC, members of the defeated Marian party fled to Hiarbas, king of Numidia in Africa, and Pompey was able to defeat Hiarbas by promising to prop up his brother Hiempsal, who in turn helped Pompey defeat the Marians. Examples multiplied—for instance Deiotarus, ruler in central Anatolia, who first fought with Pompey, and then on behalf of Caesar. Caesar himself already as a young man sought to cultivate a relation with King Nicomedes of Bithynia,an overture cast by his enemies as an erotic interlude. There was really much more at stake, as everyone knew, especially during civil war. “From Hiempsal and Hiarbas,” as Ernst Badian wrote over 50 years ago in his classic study of foreign clients, “the road leads straight to Deiotarus, Juba and Cleopatra.”1

Now part of why Pompey fled to Egypt in 48 BC (the trip that ended with his execution) was his hope to gain help there. The plan badly misfired, and Caesar won the support of Egypt, and used it against his lingering foes. After his death, a new contest ensued for Cleopatra’s help. We know that she stayed in Rome some time after his death in 44 BC, trying to shore up her position; but as the prospect of civil war loomed, she became of more value to the Romans. Caesar’s assassins tried to use her, as did the Caesarian Dolabella, and also Antony. She could offer ships, of especial value, and grain, and other supplies, and also cash; in civil war all of these were most useful. And so, when Antony restored to Cleopatra old Ptolemaic territory in Cilicia, Koile Syria, Cyprus, and Phoenicia—areas rich in timber and major ports—she “may have had a particular task…to replenish A[ntony]’s fleet.”2

There are reports of other amours between Roman politicians and foreign queens. Caesar is said also to have had an affair (among other queens) with Eunoe, wife of a king of Mauretania, who supported him. Antony is alleged to have slept with Glaphyra, the wife of the king of Cappadocia, before Cleopatra. Initially, there was nothing terribly untoward about his relationship with Cleopatra, which was useful to him. The irony was that in the hands of the master propagandist Octavian it proved a golden opportunity to twist public opinion against Antony in the buildup to their final showdown. Antony could only counter, less sensationally, that Octavian betrothed his daughter Julia to Cotiso, king of the Getae, and also sought a marriage for himself to Cotiso’s daughter (Suet. Aug. 63).

It is one of the many virtues of Duane Roller’s new no-nonsense biography of Cleopatra—part of the series “Women in Antiquity” edited by Ronnie Ancona and Sarah Pomeroy—that much, though not quite all, of this historical context is fully presented to the reader. With studies of Herod the Great’s building program and the Mauretanian court of Cleopatra’s daughter Selene and Selene’s husband Juba II under his belt, Roller is sensitive to Cleopatra’s position as a client-ruler, and relates her situation to that of her peers, including Herod (what could be expanded is coverage of client-rulers earlier in the first century BC). Commendable, too, is the economical sketch of the Egypt of Cleopatra and of earlier Ptolemaic history essential for understanding her achievement. As the fate of her elder sister, Berenice, who briefly ruled in the absence of Ptolemy XII shows, holding onto power as long as she did was itself an accomplishment, to which Cleopatra added the acquisition of old Ptolemaic territories from Antony. Roller well shows the particular challenges that Cleopatra faced as a female ruler: it was not just that there were few if any precedents for her to appeal to, but producing heirs was more complicated than for a king. “Unlike a king, with his several wives and consorts,” Roller crisply notes, “Cleopatra could not discard herself if a problem developed in the production of an heir.”. During pregnancy, her health was potentially at risk, and she was “vulnerable to usurpation” (81). Timing mattered. At the same time, Cleopatra shrewdly took advantage of the special opportunity to cast herself as an earthly counterpart to Isis, the beloved goddess being a single mother of sorts too.

The “Women in Antiquity” series aims to provide “compact and accessible introductions” to the figures it treats, and Roller succeeds admirably on this front. Short, well-written chapters trace the main events of Cleopatra’s life, with stops along the way for the Egyptian backdrop; endnotes provide essential documentation; and a series of appendices provide useful reference material such as a Ptolemaic genealogy and discussion of controversial points (including Roller’s hypothesis that Cleopatra was a Roman citizen). The main criticism one might make is that even—or perhaps especially—a general reader would benefit from more discussion of how exactly scholars go about reconstructing episodes or individual lives from ancient history, given the evidence on which they must rely. One opportunity is missed with the recently discovered so-called “Cleopatra Papyrus” (P.Bingen 45), by which, Roller states, Cleopatra “approved granting certain tax exemptions” to Antony’s general Canidius Crassus (134); in 2002 Klaus Zimmerman re-identified the beneficiary as an (otherwise unattested) Cascellius and argued that the text was in form a letter to Caesarion, and therefore an important document of their shared rule.3 Another, when Roller remarks that Cleopatra told Augustus in 30 BC, “I will not be led in a triumph”—”a rare case where her actual spoken words survive” (147). Can one be so sure that the fragment of Livy cited gives her “actual…words”? What is certainly remarkable is that the words are given in Greek—an extraordinary departure for the historian.

This new Cleopatra begins with a brief account of the so-called “Donations of Alexandria” of 34 BC, at which Cleopatra was confirmed in her territories and her children designated “to create a network of allied monarchies that would extend as far as Armenia and Parthia” (ix). Roller concludes, “[i]f all had gone to plan, most of the eastern Mediterranean world would have been under Ptolemaic rule, with Rome and a few small kingdoms reduced to scattered territories” (ix). Returning to the affair more fully in his narrative (99-101), he affirms that interpretation, with only a few lines on the evidence for this (Plutarch and Dio), and no guidance in the notes. A reader would not learn how vexatious modern scholars have found interpreting what Plutarch and Dio record. Good reasons have been put forward for imagining their accounts of Antony’s “distribution” of territories exaggerated, if not distorted—a spectacle, in other words, rather than a serious “vision of the future that Cleopatra and Antonius had conceived” (100).4 Yet if one does follow Roller’s interpretation—or even, as I prefer, the view that sees the gifts of 34 BC more as ‘gestures’ on Antony’s part—it raises the important question of what Antony thought he was doing. Love for Cleopatra is the ancient line. “Cleopatra may have given Antonius estates in Egypt,” Roller suggests (100). A better guess still is that it was Cleopatra and Egypt’s continuing material support Antony was seeking, crucial after his defeat in Parthia and as war with Augustus loomed.5 It would be no surprise if our sources, inspired by Augustus’ version of events, buried this rather less discrediting version of events.


1. Ernst Badian, Foreign Clientelae (264-70 B.C.) (Oxford, 1958), 272.

2. C. B. R. Pelling, Plutarch: Life of Antony (Cambridge, 1988), 217.

3. Klaus Zimmermann, “P.Bingen 45: Eine Steuerbefreiung für Q. Cascellius, adressiert an Kaisarion,” ZPE 138: 133-39.

4. Pelling (n. 2), 249-50 gives a good discussion.

5. See now Kathryn Welch, ” Maiestas regia and the donations of Alexandria,” Mediterranean Archaeology 19/20 (2006/07) 181-92, who also discusses the contemporary contest in the east over such titles as “King of Kings.”