rcReview: The Murder of Cleopatra

[editor’s note: I purchased the Kindle edition, which explains the lack of page references in what follows]

Brown, P. (2013). The murder of Cleopatra: History’s greatest cold case. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

This is not a scholarly book. The author — Pat Brown — is a noted criminal profiler who has authored several books germaine to that subject and has appeared on assorted news programs. In trying to turn the death of Cleopatra into a “cold case”, however, she is clearly out of her element. Although her book has a very impressive bibliography of secondary sources, she seems to be either padding heavily, or is deliberately choosing to ignore quite a bit of Classical scholarship which has gone before. Indeed, when this blog mentioned a hypish piece written by the author in the Huffington post a couple of weeks ago (Cleopatra Murdered? Hmmmm ….) , she carried on a conversation with me in the comments in which she clearly either has no idea or is unwilling to acknowledge that pretty much all the questions she raises have been dealt with before by professionals in the field, and they did it without resort to speculation being built upon circularity built upon speculation supported by arguments e silentio  built upon sentences beginning with the word “surely” and overuse of the first person singular pronoun. The book is, however, somewhat unique in that it appears to have arisen out of a documentary of the same name from a couple of years ago (rather than the other way around, which is more usual). Indeed, if you want a good TL;DR version of the book, you can still see the German version on Youtube, although for how long is impossible to say:

Outside of the lack of a scholarly approach, Brown’s chief  ‘sin’, as it were, is in looking at Cleopatra’s death almost solely through the eyes of a 21st century criminal profiler who seems to think the ancients were “just like us” and that ancient historians like Plutarch were writing about events in such a way that they could substitute for a modern police crime scene report. What’s worse, is she seems to think that the ‘Hollywood’ or Shakespearean view of Cleopatra’s demise is the one which is generally accepted by “historians”, who are held up as nameless strawfolk on a fairly regular basis. More than that, she spends an awful lot of time not believing anything Plutarch says, sometimes for good reasons, but more often for questionable ones to paradoxically bolster her own baseless speculations.

Enough of generalities, however, let’s examine some specifics. I really don’t want to do a chapter-by-chapter critique (which this thing actually deserves) because I really don’t have an attention span long enough to write such a thing.  We are fortunate, however, that brief excerpt of The Murder of Cleopatra has been put up at The Scientist, as it includes what might be called Brown’s Credo – a list of all the things she believes.  I won’t deal with all of these, but fittingly, it begins with one of Brown’s more outlandish claims:

I believed Cleopatra was tortured.

This comes following chapter eighteen, which is entitled “The Unforeseen Murder of Antony”, which begins with a long digression about how Egyptian temples were designed — it later turns out — to argue that Cleopatra couldn’t possibly have dragged the dying Antony up to a window, as portrayed by Plutarch (a very long excerpt from Plutarch is also included here). Eventually her head is “spinning at Plutarch’s contorted logic” and so she decides it makes more sense that Antony was actually murdered by his own men. In the next chapter, “The Capture of Cleopatra”, the focus is on another section from that excerpt, in which Cleopatra tears her breasts and garments in grief over Antony. Brown doubts that Cleopatra would have done such things to herself because of her high levels of narcissism and the fact that she didn’t ‘fall apart’ when Julius Caesar was murdered or when she and Antony escaped from Actium (although I don’t know how that last one fits in). She does acknowledge that this was the sort of thing one might do for a loved one, but another part of her credo is:

I believed Cleopatra never loved Antony.

… the arguments presented for which I really won’t get into, but it’s all part of trying to find an alternate explanation for Cleopatra’s “self abuse”. To further cast doubt on Cleopatra engaging in what is a well-known traditional act of mourning,  Brown decides to ‘role play’ to see if Cleopatra could inflict “the level of harm” that various sources claim for such actions. She tried beating her own breasts and decided it would require “hysterical grief to keep up such a ridiculous activity”. To tear clothes and lacerate one’s breasts would require “a crazed emotional haze.” Adding to her evidence is a typical bit of e silentio — Plutarch’s report of Proculeius intervening when she was attempting to stab herself with a knife. She suggests (through questions) that if Cleopatra was already bloodied from these grieving actions, that Proculeius would have believed she had already stabbed herself. Brown further thinks that Proculeius would have checked for such wounds and/or would have informed Octavian of all the bruises and gashes.

Yet he apparently notices none of these things, nor does he call for medical assistance. He also never notes that she has exposed either of her breasts for examination.

Note to Brown: Plutarch ain’t writing a police report. He is drawing on other sources and they aren’t dealing with a prosecutor and a judge. That women in the ancient world could rip garments and lacerate themselves is a common enough idea in the ancient Mediterranean world, as Brown does seem to know. The fact that it — and even Proculeius’ actions —  doesn’t fit with her own world view is the problem here, not Plutarch’s description of it.

Another item from the ‘Credo’:

I believed Cleopatra was strangled.
To get to this is incredibly convoluted and there is much criticism of Plutarch based on the traditional ‘asp’ story. Indeed, a major segment of the documentary version was designed to demonstrate that there weren’t a lot of snakes capable of killing a human so quickly, and even if the cobra were successfully smuggled in as suggested, it wouldn’t be sufficient to kill Cleopatra and her two slaves. The book actually opens with a long section all about temples which, it later turns out, is designed simply to stress that the blocks that temples were made from were so close together that the snake — which was never found — could not possibly have escaped from whatever room Cleopatra was in. It then goes on to present the accounts of the death from Plutarch, Dio and Suetonius. Then Brown puts on her profiler hat and tells what she does when she deals with a crime scene and then applies it to Cleo:
The queen’s physician, who visited the scene of the crime and pronounced the ladies dead, did not state the deaths were natural, so we can determine that their deaths were at least suspicious.
Hmmm … I don’t recall any mention of a ‘queen’s physician’ … ancient folks don’t need to call in a doctor to declare someone dead.
She goes on to question the asp story, and does not seem to acknowledge that the asp story has been questioned for quite a long time, both by ancient historians (as seen in the alternate accounts in Dio and Plutarch) and in modern accounts. Readers with access to JSTOR, e.g., might want to check out the exchange between Griffiths and Baldwin in the Journal of Egyptian Archaeology on the snake (or snakes) involved and the likelihood that the slaves took poison (J. Gwyn Griffiths, “The Death of Cleopatra VII”, The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 47 (1961), pp. 113-118; B. Baldwin, “The Death of Cleopatra VII”, The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology 50 (1964), pp. 181-182 ; J. Gwyn Griffiths, “The Death of Cleopatra VII: A Rejoinder and a Postscript”, Journal of Egyptian Archaeology,  51 (1965), pp. 209-211). We might also note that Brown’s claim that Plutarch is first to mention the story underscores her shaky handling of all the ancient attestations of Cleopatra’s death (Horace, Carmina 1.37 anyone?).  Brown also rejects the suggestion that simple poison was involved — which, I suspect, most modern scholars at least mention, if not endorse. Brown’s objections are based solely on there being no mention of a ‘bottle’, as if a bottle was the only means of carrying poison in the ancient world. She ignores, it seems, Dio’s account of the poison hairpin. Even if we don’t buy into that, we have to point out that Cleopatra was renowned for being able to hide poison, as an account from Pliny (21.9 via Perseus) reveals:

At the time when preparations were making for the battle that was eventually fought at Actium, Antonius held the queen in such extreme distrust as to be in dread of her very attentions even, and would not so much as touch his food, unless another person had tasted it first. Upon this, the queen, it is said, wishing to amuse herself with his fears, had the extremities of the flowers in a chaplet dipped in poison, and then placed it upon her head. After a time, as the hilarity increased apace, she challenged Antonius to swallow the chaplets, mixed up with their drink. Who, under such circumstances as these, could have apprehended treachery? Accordingly, the leaves were stripped from off the chaplet, and thrown into the cup. Just as Antonius was on the very point of drinking, she arrested his arm with her hand.—”Behold, Marcus Antonius,” said she, “the woman against whom you are so careful to take these new precautions of yours in employing your tasters! And would then, if I could exist without you, either means or opportunity of effecting my purpose be wanting to me?” Saying this, she ordered a man to be brought from prison, and made him drink off the potion; he did so, and fell dead3 upon the spot.

A ‘chaplet’ is a garland for the head (I had to look it up) … this too is not mentioned by Brown, but it’s obviously important. If Cleopatra wanted to use poison, she knew how to hide it. Whatever the case, we can turn to the evidence presented for Cleopatra being strangled. Brown doesn’t present any … the whole strangling thing is the culmination of her “reconstruction” (Chapter 20). This is a chapter which is essentially a work of bad fiction, with painful dialogues and descriptions, most of which would be hard to support with any evidence at all.
If I haven’t lost you yet, I’ll deal with the culminating bit of her Credo as a sort of conclusion:

I believed Cleopatra may have been one of the most brilliant, cold-blooded, iron-willed rulers in history and the truth about what really happened was hidden behind a veil of propaganda and lies set in motion by her murderer, Octavian, and the agenda of the Roman Empire.

I don’t think anyone would disagree that Cleopatra was, to some extent, the victim of a propaganda campaign (although Antony was the major target of such), but we might be hesitant to see Octavian as a “murderer” (I won’t get into the section where she decides he was gay as well). Even here, however, Brown isn’t breaking new ground — Michael Grant suggested such things back in 1972 in his tome dedicated to the Egyptian Queen. But it is very difficult for those who are familiar with the ancient sources — and not just translations of Plutarch and Dio — and the historical and cultural milieu in which Cleopatra et al were living, to see the death of Cleopatra as having any real advantage for Octavian. Indeed, the current ‘party line’ — that exhibiting her in his triumph and then allowing her to live in some other place — would be an amazing exhibition of his own clementia. To emphasize this, we can note (along with Adrian Goldsworthy, p. 384 and in a discussion with Dorothy King which she mentioned to me a few weeks ago), the precedent had already been set by Julius Caesar who sent Cleopatra’s sister Arsinoe into exile in Ephesus … we won’t get into that story again, though.

As can possibly be surmised from the foregoing — which was incredibly difficult to write because there are so very many things to object to in this book — this isn’t the sort of book which should be gracing the shelves of scholars. If you feel you must purchase it, get a Kindle edition so at least trees don’t have to suffer … if you must have a print version, wait a month or so. This is destined to be filling the remaindered bin very soon.

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