Forget The Temptress Rep: Here's The Real Cleopatra Most of what we know about Cleopatra was written by her enemies. A new biography aims to set the record straight, highlighting her achievements as a ruler, diplomat and author.
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Forget The Temptress Rep: Here's The Real Cleopatra

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Forget The Temptress Rep: Here's The Real Cleopatra

Forget The Temptress Rep: Here's The Real Cleopatra

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

If you ever caught the HBO series "Rome," you'd have seen the Egyptian queen Cleopatra portrayed as a strung-out, sex-crazed seductress who helps tear the Roman Republic apart.

(Soundbite of television program, "Rome")

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. LYNDSEY MARSHAL (Actor): (As Cleopatra) If I must prostitute myself for the good of my country and my family, I will. Customer pays first, does he not?

RAZ: Now, many classical historians actually appreciated the HBO series for its moments of authenticity, and if you were to read any of the accounts written about Cleopatra shortly after her suicide in 30 B.C., then indeed, this Hollywood portrayal would be a fair one.

It was her enemies who told us the most about her, which is why a new biography of the ancient queen hopes to set the records straight. It's called "Cleopatra," and the author is Duane Roller. He is professor emeritus of Greek and Latin at Ohio State.

Duane Roller, welcome to the program.

Professor DUANE ROLLER (Greek and Latin, Ohio State; Author, "Cleopatra: A Biography"): Well, it's very nice to be here, thank you.

RAZ: Let's start with the mythology. Was Cleopatra the notorious seductress who, you know, led a string of men into her bedroom and to their demise?

Prof. ROLLER: Well, you could hardly say a string of men. She had only two known relationships in 18 years, and I don't think that's promiscuous by any standard. We have to remember that the information that we have about her was written by the people who defeated her, her enemies, and they saw her as a dangerous threat to the Roman Republic, and to try to build her up as this horrible woman who led men to their doom was part of the dialogue.

RAZ: You write in the book that she became the product of male-dominated historiography, in both ancient and modern times seen merely as an appendage of the men in her life or stereotyped into typical chauvinistic female roles. She is, of course, best and most closely associated with Julius Caesar, one of her lovers, and then, of course, Mark Antony.

Prof. ROLLER: Yes, that certainly is true. Those were the two men in her life, and I emphasize again, those were the only two men in her life as far as we know, and they were the two most important people in Rome in their era. So her connection with them was not a matter purely of physicality, it was a political decision.

She was a very skilled and articulate and intelligent person who used every means at her disposal to keep her kingdom operating.

RAZ: I was surprised to read in your book at the extent of her education, I mean, to the point where you describe her as a scholar.

Prof. ROLLER: Yes, we know that she could read probably 10 or a dozen languages. She was famous for conducting her diplomatic business in the language of whomever she was talking to. If an ambassador came from Syria or someplace like that, she would talk to him in Syrian.

And she was a very well-educated person. She lived in the world's greatest intellectual center. The Great Library at Alexandria was part of the palace she grew up in, and she, like many of her predecessors, became educated and also became a notable scholar, writing a number of treatises on medicine and on 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.

RAZ: Was it regarded at the time as a curiosity to see a strong woman leading an empire and essentially an empire that stretched right up to modern-day Syria?

Prof. ROLLER: Well, yes and no. In one sense, this was one of the reasons that she was a threat, because she didn't fit standard gender roles. On the other hand, except for her gender, she fits very much into the history of the period: the powerful monarchs of the East who were trained in not only the art of ruling, which would include commanding a fleet and going into battle and things like that, but also were educated people who were scholars and wrote treatises. But the thing that's unusual about Cleopatra is that no woman had ever done these things before.

RAZ: Now Duane Roller, most of us know the love story of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. He was the senior Roman military commander in the East. He fell in love with Cleopatra. He spent a great deal of time with her in Alexandria. Was it a real romance, or was it more of a strategic partnership, at least from her perspective?

Prof. ROLLER: I think it was both. I think when they first came into contact, they both had an agenda. She, as I've said, wanted to keep her kingdom strong. Here's the most important Roman. It's a good person to be connected to.

He, as the senior Roman commander in the East, was very busy untangling the mess that had occurred after the assassination of Julius Caesar, when Brutus and Cassius, the assassins, had gone to the East and had disrupted everything.

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. And obviously, one of these is Cleopatra. But clearly, it goes into a personal level very quickly, and nine months later, she has twins. I think it was a genuine romance.

RAZ: Duane Roller, how profound, do you think, was Cleopatra's role in the collapse of the Roman Republic, which, as you know, many historians date to the defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra at Actium in 31 B.C. and then, of course, the rise of the Roman Empire?

Prof. ROLLER: I think she was very profound. I think history probably would've gone in slightly different directions had it not been for Cleopatra because she became the catalyst for Roman comprehension of a need to control all the Mediterranean.

But ironically, when the Roman Empire is established, and Augustus becomes the first emperor, he adopts many of the characteristics of Cleopatra, even the use of the color purple as the imperial color because that was Cleopatra's personal color. So in a sense, she helped create the Roman Empire and also brought about the fall of the Republic. She's a central figure in all of this, there's no denying that.

RAZ: That's historian Duane Roller. He is professor emeritus of Greek and Latin at Ohio State University. His new book is called "Cleopatra: A Biography."

Duane Roller, thank you so much.

Prof. ROLLER: Well, thank you very much.

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