Another break, another book!
Last week, I finished reading Cleopatra: A Biography, Duane W. Roller’s comprehensive biography of the last queen of Egypt. I had finished a book while home for Thanksgiving break and discovered this one in a bookcase while on my quest for something new to read. I don’t usually read historical books, but I figured I’d give it a shot.
To start off, reading this book was quite taxing. It is straight nonfiction– no fluff, no entertainment, just facts. It took me quite a while to read it simply because it was so dry and humorless. However, I do understand the author’s reasoning in presenting her life story this way. First of all, the author is a professor of Greek and Latin, not a memoirist or a storyteller. I presume that much of his other written work is presented in such a way: as historical research. Second, in the Introduction, Roller points out that a strong motivator for him when writing this book was to share the story of Cleopatra as it (probably) really happened, not as the media has portrayed her to be. He wanted to provide a totally stripped down, factual account of the life of Cleopatra without the misconceptions about her attitudes and promiscuity that are reinforced by movies and fictional tales. In this mission, he was definitely successful.
I didn’t know much about Cleopatra when I first began reading her biography, other than that she was a queen of Egypt in ancient times and was a renowned figure of female leadership. Still, I’ve always had a fascination with the ancient Egyptian civilization and longed to learn more about it. This book was certainly a good place to start, and I learned a great deal from Roller’s detailed biography.
First of all, I didn’t even know that Cleopatra was not the only Cleopatra; in fact, her title was Cleopatra VII, and her daughter was named Cleopatra Selene. She was not purely Egyptian, either. To the contrary, she had mostly Greek blood, as the Greeks, namely the long line of Ptolemies, ruled Egyptian territory during the rise of the Roman Empire.
Cleopatra grew up in a diverse, cultural society and was very well educated, especially for a woman at that time. She was a noted linguist and contributed to the Egyptian body of work on medicine. Many people know that she was also noted for her experimentation with poisons, which would come in handy later in her life when she needed to… rid herself of some of her enemies (even if one was her own brother).
Not only was Cleopatra highly intelligent, but she also was power-hungry–a dangerous combination. Her sole goal throughout her life was to rule her kingdom better than any man had before and to maintain her family’s line of power. For this reason, she chose to have her children with men of immense power; she bore the only known heir of Caesar and three other children by Marcus Antonius (popularly known as Mark Antony), a politician in the second triumvirate that led to the formation of the Roman Empire. Though many paint her as a vain seductress, her real motivation was being an effective ruler, by any means necessary.
Cleopatra also made great strides for women as a leader of her country. Few women at that time had held a ruling position alone; Cleopatra, however ruled Egypt as a single mother. (Talk about overcoming adversity!) She was a female naval commander, which was almost unheard of at that time. And she did not sit back and let other people rule for her. Rather, she took matters into her own hands in order to expand Egyptian territory and undo the damage done by the Ptolemies who came before her.
Unfortunately, her personal and political lives eventually became too entangled, which can only lead to ruin. The Romans’ power and territory grew by the day, and her beloved Marcus Antonius sank into a deep depression. Still, she remembered her goal; in an attempt to keep her kingdom afloat, she played on Antonius’ suicidal tendencies and convinced him to kill himself. But when she realized there was no hope for her either, she refused to be paraded around in a celebration of the victory of Octavian, the ruler of the Roman Empire. Maintaining her pride, she and her ladies in waiting mysteriously committed suicide in her tomb– some say by poison, others say by snake bite. It cannot be denied that Cleopatra would not go down without a fight.
Though Cleopatra was certainly a difficult book for me to read (surely a classics major would have had an easier time with the countless Greek names and references to various ancient wars), I think it was worth reading. I have a much clearer image of who Cleopatra (probably) really was, and, viewing her within the context of her era), I think she was a pretty badass lady. She had her faults (killing off your own brother is a little disconcerting), but she was as effective a ruler as any male would have been during the fall of Egypt. Maybe she’s not a role model for young women or anything, but she’s certainly a symbol of the view that women are much more capable than many people claim they are.
Have you ever read anything about Cleopatra? What do you think about her? Let me know in the comments!
Thanks for reading!!