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Queen on the Nile

Alas, no asp, but the real saga of Cleopatra.

May 3, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 31 • By DIANE SCHARPER
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Cleopatra

Queen on the Nile

A Biography
by Duane W. Roller
Oxford, 272 pp., $24.95

Cleopatra opted for suicide rather than submit to public humiliation at the hands of the Roman ruler, Octavian. An asp, hidden in a basket of figs, was brought to the imprisoned queen. She removed the snake from the basket, held it to her bosom, and with all due fanfare allowed it to insert its venom into her exposed breast. Although the image of the exotic queen in her death throes is iconic, it’s not necessarily true, according to Duane W. Roller. The latest among numerous Cleopatra biographies, Roller’s offers context to conflicting stories still swirling around the queen, whom many consider the world’s least known/most famous woman.

He explains, for example, that an asp is a type of Egyptian cobra too large to be hidden in a basket. Expert snake-handlers would have to be involved, and that would have destroyed any necessary secrecy. In addition, the Egyptian cobra’s bite is fatal only if injected into a vital spot; the only marks on Cleopatra’s body were pricks on her arm that seemed to be caused by a needle. Considering her extensive knowledge of cosmetology and pharmacology, it seems that Cleopatra injected herself with poison.

A thought-provoking if discursive account, Cleopatra provides perspective and could more accurately be subtitled Her Life and Times. Roller doesn’t try to get close to Cleopatra, as did Joyce Tyldesley (2008). Instead he adds a dose of historical accuracy to the romance of her life.

Last of the Ptolemaic line to rule Egypt, Cleopatra was not Egyptian. She was Macedonian Greek, and may have had blonde hair and blue eyes as artists like Tiepolo have depicted her. Then again, since no one knows her mother’s identity—except that she was probably a concubine of her father, Ptolemy XII—and since concubines were often Nubian, Cleopatra may have been dark-skinned. Many scholars (including Roller) opt for the darker complexion. 

Whatever her skin color, Cleopatra ruled Egypt from 51 B.C. until her suicide in 30. Born in 69 B.C. in Alexandria, she was the second of five siblings and the seventh Cleopatra in the Macedonian dynasty of the Ptolemies in Egypt. At 17 she ascended the throne after her father’s death and became co-ruler with her 10-year-old brother, Ptolemy XIII, whom she married (but probably did not sleep with). Cleopatra followed the example of her Ptolemaic forebears in killing her rivals (including her brother and sister) and seeking to curry Roman favor. Thanks to family feuds, internal unrest, and Rome’s rapacious empire building, her reign was tumultuous. That she could keep her kingdom together for 21 years attests as much to her brilliant tactical mind as to her feminine wiles.

Attracted to Julius Caesar because of his power rather than his looks, she broke up his marriage and bore him a son. After Caesar’s death, she married Mark Antony and bore him three children. Did she love either man? Or did she trick them into marriage to ensure the survival of her kingdom? A little of both, Roller suggests.
Whatever their exact nature, her relationships with two of the most powerful men in history fascinated Chaucer, Boccaccio, and Shakespeare. Enobarbus (Antony and Cleopatra, Act II, Scene II) enthralls audiences as he describes Cleopatra’s barge, “like a burnished throne” with sails “so perfumed that the winds were lovesick with them.”

With its drama, her life captures the popular imagination, even today. Yet the many, often conflicting, accounts tend to confuse rather than clarify. Part of Oxford’s Women in Antiquity series, Cleopatra aims to get it right. A retired professor of Greek and Latin, Roller traveled to Egypt, where he took most of the photographs here: Unfortunately, Cleopatra’s palace, burial place, and other significant sites in Alexandria, the city where she spent most of her life, are under water. He relies heavily on Plutarch who (writing nearly 200 years after Cleopatra’s death) suggested that she had a flair for pageantry but was not beautiful. She was charismatic with a pleasing voice. Her charm—not her looks—rendered her delightful, and images on Egyptian coins of the era confirm this. They show her with a hooked nose and a protruding chin. More than likely, she was of average height, perhaps shorter.

As portrayed here, Cleopatra wasn’t queen of the Nile; she was a Ptolemaic queen of Egypt. She wasn’t obsessed with sex and self-dramatization; she was a capable ruler bent on saving her territory. The image of the naked monarch or voluptuous woman who bears an uncanny resemblance to Sarah Bernhardt, Claudette Colbert, or Elizabeth Taylor is just that, an image.

Diane Scharper teaches English at Towson University.

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