CJ Online Review: Cleopatras (Review Essay)

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Antony and Cleopatra. By Adrian Goldsworthy. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010. Pp. vii + 480. Hardcover, £25.00/$35.00. ISBN 978-0-297-84567-6 (Weidenfeld); 978-0-300-16534-0 (Yale).

Cleopatra: A Biography. By Duane Roller. Women in Antiquity. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. xi + 272. Hardcover, $29.95/£14.99. ISBN 978-0-19-536553-5.

Cleopatra: A Life. By Stacy Schiff. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2010. Pp. 368. Hardcover, $29.99. ISBN 978-0-316-00192-2.

Reviewed by Prudence J. Jones, Montclair State University

In popular media, Cleopatra has long been one of the most compelling figures from the ancient world. From Cecil B. DeMille’s epic to the Monty Pythonesque “Carry on Cleo,” the Egyptian queen embodies the fascination we feel for the ancient and the mysterious.[[1]] Modern biographies of Cleopatra, directly or indirectly, must engage with Cleopatra’s considerable mystique. Rare is the work that does not delve, however briefly, into Cleopatra’s afterlife in art and literature. Lucy Hughes-Hallett made Cleopatra’s reception a focus of her book, Cleopatra: Histories Dreams, and Distortions (Harper-Collins, 1991). Even biographers who claim to eschew the image of Cleopatra as the femme fatale may not be able to resist the allure of legend. Michel Chauveau’s concise biography, Cleopatra Beyond the Myth (Cornell University Press, 2004; French orig., Paris, 1998), in which the author presents his task as uncovering the facts about Cleopatra, concludes with a section on later portrayals of the queen.

Three recent biographies of Cleopatra, Adrian Goldsworthy’s Antony and Cleopatra, Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life, and Duane Roller’s Cleopatra: A Biography—all well written and researched books that rely on much of the same evidence—present three distinct assessments of Cleopatra and her place in history. Goldsworthy and Roller appeal to a more scholarly audience than does Schiff. Goldsworthy and Roller also aim to debunk some of the popular ideas about Cleopatra (but do so with different aims), while Schiff strives to flesh out Cleopatra’s story by adding context.

Roller directly challenges the popular perception of Cleopatra as first and foremost a seductress. This approach is consistent with the context in which the book appears. Written as the first entry in a series on women in the ancient world, Cleopatra: A Biography presents Cleopatra as a female head of state.[[2]] By beginning with a chapter on Cleopatra’s ancestry, Roller emphasizes her political role. As a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, Cleopatra was born to rule. Roller’s second chapter, “The Ptolemaic Heritage and the Involvement with Rome,” details the pharaonic customs the Ptolemies adopted, including sibling-spouses ruling jointly (36). These chapters, along with a third, “Cleopatra’s Youth and Education,” introduce a series of chapters on Cleopatra’s political career (“Becoming Queen,” “Consolidating the Empire,” “The Peak Years,” and “The Operation of the Kingdom”).

Roller’s final two chapters, “Scholarship and Culture at the Court of Cleopatra” and “Downfall,” give insight into the cultural context in which Cleopatra reigned and offer some more personal anecdotes, such as Cleopatra consuming a pearl after destroying it using vinegar, and Antony massaging Cleopatra’s feet in public (132–3). An epilogue describes the fate of Egypt and of Cleopatra’s children after the queen’s suicide. Appendices contain useful information, such as a timeline and genealogy of the Ptolemies, as well as topics that spark debate, including the identity of Cleopatra’s mother and the possibility that Cleopatra may have been granted Roman citizenship. In addition, there are selected literary descriptions and portraits of Cleopatra.

In sum, Roller presents a fairly concise account of Cleopatra’s life—the main text is 150 pages—that is accessible to the general reader. Resources like extensive endnotes, an index of passages cited, and a substantial bibliography add value for Classics scholars.

Like Roller, Goldsworthy assumes the role of debunker. A major part of what he wants to debunk, however, is Cleopatra’s importance as a politician. The title of Goldsworthy’s book, Antony and Cleopatra, reflects this view of Cleopatra. Not only is this biography/history not devoted to her alone, her name is not even first. Indeed, Goldsworthy’s introduction reveals that he feels a more personal connection to Antony than Cleopatra: a coin of Mark Antony that had belonged to Goldsworthy’s grandfather reinforced an early fascination with all things Roman (1).

Goldsworthy’s attention to Antony produces a fascinating book nonetheless and brings much-needed attention to periods of Antony’s life that are often overlooked, such as his early life and career before he became involved with Cleopatra. Still, Goldsworthy concludes that Antony, with or without Cleopatra, did not have the impact Julius Caesar and Augustus had on history: “Antony and Cleopatra did not change the world in any profound way” (3); “Whether we like it or not, Cleopatra was not really that important” (10). It is worth noting that Goldsworthy has written a book on Caesar and is in the process of writing one on Augustus.

Just as Antony and Cleopatra are key figures in one another’s stories, the cultural and political background also is essential to understanding their lives. Goldsworthy elucidates Republican Rome and Ptolemaic Egypt admirably, while acknowledging the partial nature of the evidence with which ancient historians must work. Chapters on Egypt and Rome are interspersed with chapters on the lives of Antony and Cleopatra.

Antony and Cleopatra is a beautiful volume with a generous number of color plates showing the major historical figures discussed in the book as well as relevant locations and works of art. Several coins, including Goldsworthy’s grandfather’s Antony coin, also are included. Other supplementary materials, such as family trees, a chronology, a glossary, and, most interestingly, diagrams of major battles, help to orient readers and place Antony and Cleopatra in context. The glossary will be a great resource for students, as will the bibliography, which is concise, relevant, and up to date. The endnotes are unobtrusive to the general reader, yet extensive enough to be useful for scholars.

Of the three authors, Schiff most clearly targets as her audience the general reader. For Schiff, Cleopatra is unquestionably a key player in the politics of her day and Schiff is not afraid to indulge the fascination readers feel for Egypt’s last queen. The book’s first page contains the statements, “For a fleeting moment, she held the fate of the Western world in her hands,” and “She has lodged herself in our imaginations ever since.” After introducing Cleopatra as “among the most famous women to have lived,” (1) Schiff briefly summarizes her life. As all biographers must, Schiff confronts the deficiencies of the evidence concerning Cleopatra’s life. Unlike other biographers, Schiff expresses the historian’s eternal frustration in colorful metaphors: “The end result is a nineteenth-century British life of Napoleon or a twentieth-century history of America, were it to have been written by Chairman Mao” (6). Schiff’s approach to this uncertainty leaves room for the embellishing of Cleopatra’s story that characterizes this biography: “I have not attempted to fill in the blanks, although on occasion I have corralled the possibilities. … The irreconcilable remains unreconciled. Mostly I have restored context” (8).

In restoring context, Schiff incorporates details for which there is no direct evidence but are based on other information about the culture, time, and place. For instance, in describing banquets held by Caesar and Cleopatra, Schiff gives herself license to embellish: “Save that written by a poet who demonized Caesar and had less affection for Cleopatra, we have no account of her actual postwar banquets. We do know what a Ptolemaic feast looked like” (64). Schiff seems to want more than for the reader to understand Cleopatra; she wants her audience to be able to picture the people and places she describes. Rather than simply mention that Cleopatra met with Antony in Tarsus, Schiff sets the scene: “She could not have asked for a better stage set. Tarsus was surrounded on all sides by craggy, forested mountains, lush with wildflowers” (165). Some readers may prefer a more concise approach, like the one Roller takes, but a biography that reads a bit like a novel appeals to many readers, as evidenced by Cleopatra: A Life reaching number three on the New York Times best-seller list.

Schiff’s book is an attractive volume with many color plates and several maps. A genealogy of the Ptolemies or a glossary of names would have been helpful to the general reader, but perhaps would have interrupted the narrative. Endnotes and a selected bibliography provide resources for readers who wish to learn more. Interestingly, the notes reveal that Schiff conducted interviews with Classics scholars as part of her research (e.g. 309 n. 15). This thoroughness makes the fact that Schiff relies on translations of the Greek and Latin sources less of an issue. All in all, her book is well researched and a good read.

That three biographies of Cleopatra have been published recently and that one is aimed at a popular audience (and is being made into a movie starring Angelina Jolie) is a positive sign for the field of Classics. Topics like gladiatorial combat, the journey of Odysseus, and the life of Cleopatra capture the imagination and offer accessible entry points into the study of the ancient world. They also provide opportunities for community outreach by scholars—Schiff’s book is a popular book club selection—and a chance to bring Classical studies to a broader audience.


[[1]] Cleopatra (1934), Dir. Cecil B. DeMille; Carry on Cleo (1964), Dir. Gerald Thomas.

[[2]] The series is Women in Antiquity, edited by S. Pomeroy and R. Ancona, and published by Oxford University Press.

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