Three Cleopatras

Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety. Other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes me hungry
Where most she satisfies. – Antony and Cleopatra, Act 2, Scene 2

Roller's Cleopatra biography I’m working my way through three recent biographies of Cleopatra, the last Ptolemaic ruler of Egypt. As a specialist in early modern history, I’m struggling to get past my reliance on superficial readings I’d done long ago or the considerable cultural legacy she’s evoked. Yes, I know Shakespeare and Taylor’s version, but for this project, I need to leave that kind of distant imagining behind and try to approach her story more directly.

The first biography I snagged was Tyldesley’s from 2008. Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt is, not unexpectedly, very “Egypt-focused”. Coming from a scholar who’s published noteworthy books on Hatshepsut and Egyptian women, that was exactly what I hoped to discover. Tyldesley does a great job of putting Cleopatra’s rule into the perspective of Ptolemaic Egypt’s relatively open avenues for women to exercise economic and political power. She also does the best job of evoking the urban history of Alexandria, the great city that was her primary residence. This isn’t to say that the biography doesn’t also give a good sense of the Hellenistic dynasty of which the queen was a part. It’s simply that Tyldesley does the best job of highlighting the Egyptian as well as the Greek elements in her queenship.

The second biography I read was Stacey Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life. Being as it’s marketed as a popular biography, I was a bit leery but Schiff has done a good job with her research in citing both classical and modern sources. Of course, she’s an accomplished biographer, so this was a flowing, easy read, full of dozens of pithy observations and commentaries from the author. That’s probably what struck me the most and not always for the best. As a historian, I remain just a bit suspect at her willingness to suggest motives for the various historical actors and come up with sweeping statements. But I have to admire her deft hand at taking the raw material (much of it out of Plutarch) and turning it into a compelling life story.

The last book, which I’m still halfway through, is Duane Roller’s Cleopatra: A Biography. Roller is a scholarly classicist and he uses his background in the Hellenistic period to paint a picture of a queen who’s part of this international, cutthroat politics. A few choices grate for anyone not steeped in the classics. For instance, his insistence on referring to Antonius instead of the more familiar modernization, Antony, will throw off some readers. (I know it’s classically correct, but so would be writing the work all in capital letters, with no spacing and so forth!) Despite my quibble, this thematically structured study of the queen is the most useful for my needs. It’s also, unmistakably, a work of a classicist who’s focused on the Hellenistic queen.

Am I done with Cleopatra? Not quite. I have a few other works on her life, reign and works still to consult for my project. But I’m amused that for all the sameness of key details, Shakespeare’s assertion about her infinite variety still holds true in the snapshot created by reading these three different studies. There’s as many Cleopatras, I suspect, as there are histories of her.

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2 Comments

Filed under history, review

2 responses to “Three Cleopatras

  1. I’m actually listening to an audiobook of the second Cleopatra book. I know absolutely NOTHING about Cleopatra except what I read in Shakespeare and from the Elizabeth Taylor moive and from the miniseries Rome (which did not do her right in any way whatsoever!). What I like about it — from this limited frame of reference — is that she points out this very same thing, and specifically that the traditional sources are mostly Roman.

    All of which is to say that my conclusion was the same as yours: there are a lot of Cleopatras out there.

    For my own subject, I find that the motive issue is not uncommon in his biographers — to the point of near fiction!

    • jliedl

      I imagine the audiobook would be a good way to take in the story. It flows well on the page and would read beautifully aloud.

      I had to smile with your comment about her in Rome. While I love the actress, I found the miniseries’ portrayal disappointing. Rome’s Cleopatra was a petulant dilettante: none of the near-contemporary sources paint her so clueless as the miniseries did!