Cleopatra: A Biography Book Review
The life story of Cleopatra is one which has become increasingly embellished throughout history. To some, the Elizabeth Taylor version of her is enough to satisfy any and all curiosity. For others, however, it is events like those portrayed in that movie which create a deeper desire to know who she really was during her lifetime. It is not simple to find an answer to this question, but Duane W. Roller attempts exactly that in the 2010 first edition of his book, Cleopatra: A Biography.
A former Professor of Classics at Ohio State University and current Professor of Greek and Latin, it seems the potential for Roller to focus solely on the available Greek and Roman sources is overwhelming. However, he takes a much deeper and much more thorough approach to uncovering the true Cleopatra. He makes continual note of the lack of information available from this time period, but nonetheless states the purpose of his book as attempting to “create a portrait of Cleopatra based solely on information from the ancient world” (x).
To draw upon as much of that information that is available, Roller includes maps, figures, and pictures within the biography—some of which are provided by his own courtesy—as well as using art, architecture, and official documents for his own research. Roller’s intentions in writing on Cleopatra and her life as his theme, therefore, seem worthwhile. He aims his thesis at going beyond the Cleopatra who has become more of a historical figure, and uncovering Cleopatra, the real person. To do this, he compiles his research into a narrative, in which he uses a third person point of view.
He quickly adopts a fairly formal writing style, including several references to specific years and fitting numerous facts onto one page. The dramatized myths which so often are associated today with Cleopatra seem absent. In fact, to a general reader, the consistent mention of years and similarly named members of the Ptolemaic family within the first few chapters may be enough of a reason to stop reading if it were not for Roller’s commentary on the events mentioned. He comments in a subtle way with the careful placement of certain adjectives, which also eventually reveal his personal opinion towards Cleopatra.
His personal view of Cleopatra as an influential leader during her queenship and his admiration of her impact after her death become overly clear, although he is careful to mention all relevant facts to Cleopatra’s life, whether they be favorable or unfavorable towards her. As a result of his personal view and commentary, it seems that Roller creates a kind of theoretical, personal relationship with Cleopatra, which the reader is able to share in. This relationship blossoms from the beginning, when the reader is introduced to Cleopatra’s life events in a chronological approach.
This approach also provides a way for him to immediately and consistently consider his thesis. With each subsequent significant event in Cleopatra’s life, Roller creates relevant exposition, being certain to include details related to Cleopatra and how she fits into her surroundings. For example, he provides the reader with Cleopatra’s ancestry and the fact that “the Ptolemaic Empire was collapsing, and Rome was ascending,” (16) a reality which Cleopatra would have to deal with once she became queen. Noticeably absent from his thesis argument, however, is any description which may appeal fully to the reader’s five senses.
Unlike the dramatized stories which surround Cleopatra’s life today, Roller lets the facts, pictures, and other relevant artifacts provide the only information available. He does not embellish these by creating a hypothetical situation, but does attempt to create as accurate a picture of her surrounding kingdom as possible. Of course, none of this is truly important unless Roller did succeed in ‘uncovering’ Cleopatra. His extensive research, which went far beyond previously written books and focused heavily on primary sources, immediately suggests Roller’s success.
Moreover, he takes his discovered Cleopatra and accurately places her within her culture, fully describing the late Ptolemaic kingdom atmosphere. He presents this information in an easily readable manner through his narrative, but credibly uses an appendix, bibliography, index, and notes as his support. Included in his bibliography is one of Roller’s own books, The Building Program of Herod the Great. Although focused on an earlier time period, this particular book, which is one out of a total eight the author has written, reveals the author’s knowledge of this larger period in history and this particular region.
Adding even more credibility to the author’s literary works is his being an archaeologist, having excavated in locations such as Greece and Turkey. Credibility, however, does not suggest universal opinions. Immediately in the first chapter, for example, Roller states, “Yet it was her Ptolemaic heritage that Cleopatra valued the most, inherited through both her parents, a tradition steeped in Greek culture” (15). Such a definitive statement about Cleopatra’s heritage and culture seems extreme and even illogical considering the extensive debate about whether she portrayed herself as Greek or Egyptian.
At times, the author also seems to drift away from Cleopatra, focusing more on other Ptolemaic family members or the overall kingdom. While this is beneficial as supplemental material, it would be more helpful if the information provided was to relate directly to Cleopatra. When mentioning Ptolemy IX and “his son Ptolemy XII” (43), for example, it would be more relevant to refer to Ptolemy XII as Cleopatra’s father. This drifting can also be seen in Roller’s description of Cleopatra as Isis.
Despite vaguely mentioning Isis in various chapters, it is not until his chapter detailing “The Operation of the Kingdom” that Roller finally dedicates a separate section to Cleopatra’s role as Isis. His details, however, focus more on the role of Isis and Dionysos within Ptolemaic rule than they do on Cleopatra’s choice to portray herself as Isis. Despite these few controversial opinions, it seems evident that Roller has presented a valuable and, in some ways, new representation of Cleopatra, absent of the myths usually associated with her.
He makes carefully note, through the words of Plutarch, that “no one knows the truth” (149). Nonetheless, Roller makes as accurate a depiction as possible of Cleopatra within her own kingdom, focusing on her ancestry, her heritage, her short youth, and the full length of her queenship. Through careful analysis, he presents her as a dynamic woman with a noticeable presence. Mostly, he focuses on her power within and outside of her kingdom, allowing her to make an impact in history—and significant enough that she is still frequently mentioned and studied in modern times
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