The propaganda presenting her as a seductress spread during her downfall, so are we in the 21st century victim of ancient history’s machinations?
Publisher: Oxford University Press
First Published: 2010
Date Reviewed: 21st January 2012
Roller gives us a biography of Cleopatra formed solely of information gathered from primary sources, in an attempt to give a true picture of the queen.
This is a very academic text, the sort that is useful for quoting in essays. As Roller presents only the information available to us from primary sources there isn’t all that much to record (indeed the page count is a reflection of this – don’t assume it’s a case of little effort), but the upshot is that you know the vast majority of the book is factual. What speculation there is is based on different interpretations by historians, and problematic passages in the ancient sources. Roller discusses why and how sources are likely to be biased or unbiased.
She was said to take an almost sensuous pleasure in learning and scholarship, an intriguing variant on her best-known alleged attribute.
Roller’s goal is, in fact, twofold. One is to present the story of Cleopatra as shown through the ancient sources available. The second is to debunk the “myth” of Cleopatra as a seductress, by showing what she was really like. The first he does brilliantly, in fact an element of the book that might otherwise be considered an issue – the lack of information for some parts of the queen’s life – is accounted for simply by Roller’s admission that there is no information to be had. It is very sobering and rather refreshing to read a book dedicated to providing the facts. Indeed the only speculation Roller provides is speculation based on biased sources, which is interesting, and sometimes quite fun, to read.
However the second goal is, ironically, not as well met. Roller’s goal is to dispel the myth of the seductress, but through the content he examines, both those written by her admirers and those biased against her, one can’t help but see a queen who was, yes, very intelligent and a good politician, but who also knew how to use the charms available to her as a female to get what she wanted.
And, in the case of the legendary carpet episode, Roller says quite firmly that Cleopatra did not enter Caesar’s presence in a bed sack, yet later on speaks of it as a great possibility, including precedents of its having happened before.
From page 7:
She did not approach Caesar wrapped in a carpet.
From page 61:
There is a certain credibility… because a name is provided… On the other hand, it is almost a demeaning way for the queen of Egypt to appear before the consul of the Roman Republic… Yet the bedsack device may have been common at the time…
While Roller’s determination to portray the truth is admirable, saying one thing without leniency and then saying something later that makes it possible, however great or small a possibility, isn’t very good.
There is a lot of information that isn’t about Cleopatra so much as her court, but considering the scant source material available to Roller, this is excusable, and it aids Roller in showing us who she was when the source material is silent.
Anyone interested in reading this book, which would form a very good basis for further study, should note that the appendices after the last chapter are well worth the read. One wonders why they were not included in the main text, especially as the last chapter ends without a proper conclusion.
There are flaws in this biography, and you are likely to feel slightly under whelmed by the lack of knowledge, but as factual history books go, Cleopatra isn’t bad at all.
Duane W. Roller
January 28, 2012, 4:19 pm
The reviewer missed the point about Cleopatra approaching Caesar. She did not come wrapped in a carpet, for it was actually a bedsack. But the incident is possible. I did not deny the incident on one page and admit its possibility on another; I only corrected the details of the technique.
Also I am baffled at the statement “the last chapter ends without a proper conclusion.” I am not certain whether the reviewer means the last chapter (ending with her death, burial, and the end of her dynasty), or the epilogue (ending with her legacy). Both seem pretty decent conclusions.
The average reader is not going to note down the word carpet and then bedsack before pondering on how similar they are. Indeed the difference is trifling given that the overall effect of the queen’s arrival would be the same. The author should note that there have been various issues cited about the book, which is going to happen when there is a wide audience for it, and that responding, in such a way, to reviewers is not the best idea – especially when he chooses to do so to someone who has pointed out both positives and negatives before telling the potential reader that the book is well worth reading.