Forget The Temptress Rep: Here's The Real Cleopatra

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Historian Duane Roller i

Historian Duane Roller is the author of Cleopatra: A Biography. Letitia Roller hide caption

itoggle caption Letitia Roller
Historian Duane Roller

Historian Duane Roller is the author of Cleopatra: A Biography.

Letitia Roller
Cleopatra: A Biography
By Duane Roller
Hardcover, 256 pages
Oxford University Press
List price: $24.95

Cleopatra was a tragic temptress who left a string of broken hearts up and down the Nile — or at least, that's what her enemies in Rome wanted you to think.

Now, a new biography of the Egyptian queen aims to set the record straight.

Historian Duane Roller is the author of Cleopatra: A Biography, and he tells NPR's Guy Raz that the most popular images of Cleopatra came from a smear campaign waged by Rome.

"You have to remember, the information that we have about her was written by the people who defeated her — her enemies," Roller says. "They saw her as a dangerous threat to the Roman Republic and [built] her up as this horrible woman who led men to their doom."

In fact, Roller says, while Cleopatra did have relationships with both Julius Caesar and his deputy Mark Antony, they were the only men in her life. "They were the two most important people in Rome in their era," Roller says, "so her connection with them was not purely a matter of physicality, it was a political decision."

When Cleopatra finally gained the throne of Egypt — after a lengthy struggle with one of her brothers — she took charge of a crumbling kingdom on the verge of being overwhelmed by the rising power of Rome. Forming a connection with the two most powerful Romans of the era was a sound political strategy.

Cleopatra was an able strategist and administrator, Roller says, renowned for her education. "She could read probably 10 or a dozen languages," he says. "She was famous for conducting her diplomatic business in the language of whoever she was talking to."

The queen was also a published author, writing treatises on medicine and weights and measures. "None of this would be unusual except for the gender factor. We don't have very many women in antiquity, at least as far as we know, who were this erudite," Roller says. "Except for her gender, she fits very much into the history of the period."

But Roller says her storied romance with Mark Antony was probably real. When they met, both had an agenda — Cleopatra wanted to keep Egypt strong, and Mark Antony needed the backing of all the eastern Mediterranean rulers in his fight against the assassins of Julius Caesar, who had fled east.

"So one thing Antony has to do is to summon all of the powerful people of the East to his headquarters in Tarsus, to make sure they're on board," Roller says. "Obviously one of those is Cleopatra. But clearly it goes into a personal level very quickly, and nine months later she has twins."

Now, if you've read Shakespeare or taken a history class, you know what happens next: Marc Antony breaks with Caesar's successor, Octavian, later known as Caesar Augustus, who declared war on Cleopatra. Octavian can't go after Antony directly, Roller writes, because that means civil war. So, Cleopatra proves a convenient target. Defeated at the battle of Actium in 31 B.C., Cleopatra tricks Antony into killing himself, and then joins him in death to avoid being dragged to Rome and paraded about as Octavian's trophy.

However, her famous death by asp bite is probably legend, Roller says. The bite of the asp isn't always fatal, and contemporary accounts seem to indicate that Cleopatra poisoned herself.

Ironically, once Cleopatra was gone, Caesar Augustus adopted many of her ideas about ruling. "Even the use of purple as the imperial color, because that was Cleopatra's personal color," Roller says. "So in a sense, she helped create the Roman Empire and brought about the fall of the republic. She's a central figure in all of this, there's no denying that."

Excerpt: 'Cleopatra: A Biography'

Cleopatra: A Biography

Few personalities from classical antiquity are more familiar yet more poorly grasped than Cleopatra VII (69–30 B.C.), queen of Egypt. The subject of a vast repertory of post-antique popular culture and also a significant figure in literature, art, and music, Cleopatra herself is surprisingly little known and generally misunderstood. Even in the years immediately after her death her memory was condemned by those who had defeated her, thus tainting the ancient sources.

Cleopatra VII was an accomplished diplomat, naval commander, administrator, linguist, and author, who skillfully managed her kingdom in the face of a deteriorating political situation and increasing Roman involvement. That she ultimately lost does not diminish her abilities. Yet her persona in popular culture and the arts often overrides her real self, and even scholarly accounts of her career may rely on information from early modern drama and art or the movies, which are interesting and significant in their own right but of no relevance in understanding the queen herself. Although she is the subject of an extensive bibliography, she can be unfairly represented as a person whose physical needs determined her political decisions. Some of the most unbiased evidence from her own era, the art and coinage produced while she was alive, is too frequently ignored.

Like all women, she suffers from male-dominated historiography in both ancient and modern times and was often seen merely as an appendage of the men in her life or was stereotyped into typical chauvinistic female roles such as seductress or sorceress, one whose primary accomplishment was ruining the men that she was involved with. In this view, she was nothing more than the “Egyptian mate”1 of Antonius and played little role in the policy decisions of her own world. Even into the twentieth century she could still be seen as a remarkably insignificant figure in Greco-Roman history. In the 1930s the great Roman historian Ronald Syme—without whom so much less would be known about the ancient world—astonishingly wrote: “Cleopatra was of no moment whatsoever in the policy of Caesar the Dictator, but merely a brief chapter in his amours,” and “the propaganda of Octavianus magnified Cleopatra beyond all measure and decency.”

Yet she was the only woman in all classical antiquity to rule independently—not merely as a successor to a dead husband—and she desperately tried to salvage and keep alive a dying kingdom in the face of overwhelming Roman pressure. Descended from at least two companions of Alexander the Great, she had more stature than the Romans whom she opposed. As a woman, her dynastic survival required personal decisions unnecessary to men. Depicted evermore as the greatest of seductresses, who drove men to their doom, she had only two known relationships in 18 years, hardly a sign of promiscuity. Furthermore, these connections—to the two most important Romans of the period—demonstrated that her choice of partners was a carefully crafted state policy, the only way that she could ensure the procreation of successors who would be worthy of the distinguished history of her dynasty.

Reprinted with permission from "Cleopatra" by Duane Roller, published by Oxford University Press, Inc. © 2010 Oxford University Press

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