princess, Roman prisoner, African Queen
Jane Draycott (336pp. Bloomsbury. £27.99).
history, her myth
Francine Prose (216pp. Yale University Press. £15.99).
name “Cleopatra” conjures images of a seductive siren – sailing in an opulent
barge, dissolving a pearl in vinegar to convince Mark Antony of her fabulous
wealth, or pressing a phallic asp into her billowing cleavage after Octavian,
the future emperor Augustus, defeats her at the battle of Actium in 31 BCE. The
picture of Cleopatra as mother-of-four does not quickly spring to mind. But she
bore four living children between her mid-twenties and her mid-thirties. The
first was her son by Julius Caesar, Ptolemy XV, known as Caesarion, “Little Caesar”;
he reigned over Egypt jointly with his mother from the age of three. Her other
babies were fathered by Mark Antony – the twins Cleopatra “Selene”
(Moon-Goddess) and Alexander “Helios” (Sun-God), born in 40 BCE, and Ptolemy
Philadelphus, born four years later.
Selene soon lost her father, her mother and all three brothers produced by her
famous mother (most of her five half-siblings, the children of Mark Antony,
fared better). Caesarion, as Julius Caesar’s son, was killed by Octavian in 30
BCE, to remove a potential rival. The other three children, not yet in their
teens, were taken to Rome, at which point both boys mysteriously disappear from
the historical record. But their sister, the last known survivor of the
Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt, was taken in by Octavian’s older sister Octavia.
Octavia had once been married to Mark Antony, and looked after her large
“blended” family in the imperial residences on the Palatine Hill.
about fifteen, Cleopatra Junior was married off to King Juba II of Numidia. He,
too, had been raised in Rome after his father’s kingdom had been annexed, and
he became a loyal henchman of the Roman emperor. The couple moved to Juba’s
newly expanded realm, at that point retitled Mauretania. They named their
capital Caesarea (now Cherchell, Algeria) to acknowledge Juba’s status as
Augustus’ client. Juba was a keen supporter of intellectual, cultural and
architectural endeavours; their kingdom prospered. They had two children, a
girl and a boy; Cleopatra died in her mid-thirties.
That is virtually all that the surviving written sources have to say about her, but Jane Draycott has wrestled dauntlessly with the little evidence there is about this intriguing figure, producing the only modern full-length biography to stand alongside the dozen or more novels in which Cleopatra Selene appears, from Robert Graves’ I, Claudius (1934) onwards.
is skilled at bringing ancient social environments to life. Her reconstructions
of the physical conditions in which the royal offspring lived, and Cleopatra’s
emotional responses to her dramatic early life, are plausible and vivid. When
only six, Cleopatra sat with her parents and siblings on an elaborate public
platform in front of the assembled Alexandrian masses, to be declared queen of
Cyrenaica and Libya. After her parents’ suicides, she was forced to march with
her twin in Augustus’ Roman triumph in chains of gold, escorting an effigy of
their mother holding that asp. She was bombarded with vicious caricatures,
produced by the Augustan propaganda machine, of Cleopatra VII as a barbarous
is writing for the general reader, and needs to make her narrative exciting.
She is sometimes seduced by the sensationalism of her sources – Plutarch,
Suetonius, Cassius Dio – into presenting their claims without sufficient
scepticism. Elsewhere, she is forced, by the nature of her project, to rely on
painting imaginative word-pictures or on compiling detailed accounts of the
convoluted genealogies and shifting political alliances of her era. Much of the
book is written in the subjunctive: Cleopatra Selene “might have” felt sad, or
“would probably” have been present at an event. But, with the help of
fascinating illustrations, Draycott does an excellent job in recreating the
culture and febrile atmosphere of the early years of Augustus’ reign, observing
it from the perspective of a politically important pawn in his imperial game.
Cleopatra, she reminds us, was also a vulnerable child and teenaged girl. Her
gender may have saved her life (in contrast to what very likely happened to her
brothers), but it compromised her every freedom. And her complicated ethnic
identity – as a member of the Macedonian royal family of the Ptolemies, born in
Egypt, partly raised in Rome and reigning as queen in North-West Africa – can,
as Draycott shows, illuminate modern debates on immigration, acculturation and
Prose’s reappraisal of Cleopatra Selene’s mother, Cleopatra VII, is much
shorter and less satisfactory. There have been innumerable studies of this more
famous Cleopatra, both as a historical figure and as a cultural icon
refashioned by every succeeding age. Prose is not a classical historian, and it
shows. The first six chapters consist of an impressionistic historical
narrative, divided respectively, and very conventionally, into the Ptolemaic
background into which Cleopatra was born around 70 BCE, the politics of Rome in
the 50s, Cleopatra’s dealings with Julius Caesar, her relationship with Mark
Antony, Actium and the suicide. There is confusion about the intended audience;
accounts of complicated diplomacy sit alongside vaguely feminist generalizations;
some sources are given precise references, while others are not. The
scandal-peddling ancient sources are sometimes treated as hopelessly misogynist
and unreliable fictions, sometimes as unassailable truth.
Prose’s real enthusiasm seems to be the more recent reception of Cleopatra. She frequently refers to films about her heroine even in the “historical” chapters, and the second part of the book is entitled “The Afterlife of Cleopatra”. It would better be called “Selected Afterlives of Cleopatra”. It offers a few comments on Renaissance and Early Modern representations of the dissolving pearl anecdote, a sketchy discussion of Shakespeare’s debt to Plutarch in Antony and Cleopatra and Dryden’s All for Love, and a cursory overview of three films about Cleopatra, the main focus inevitably being on the 1963 extravaganza starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton – although there have actually been dozens of other films, beginning in the earliest days of silent cinema.
A controversy has been raging about the casting of the Israeli movie star Gal Gadot, rather than an actress with some Arabic or African ancestry, as Cleopatra in a biopic to be directed by Kari Skogland. The latest such debate is over the casting of Adele James as Cleopatra in a Netflix docudrama, African Queens: Queen Cleopatra, produced by Jada Pinkett Smith, whose maternal ancestors are Jamaican and Bajan (from Barbados) and African-American in her paternal line. James is British and mixed-race, but understandably private about her precise heritage.
Yet, after a trailer for the four-part programme, an Egyptian lawyer has filed a request that the public prosecutor take steps to prevent access to it in Egypt, claiming without any evidence (because there is none) that Cleopatra was light-skinned.
is where Draycott shows a sensitivity unknown to Prose towards by far the most
important aspect of the reception of Cleopatra over more than a century: her
ethnicity. Despite some harshly worded disputes, in which eminent classicists have
unwisely expressed uncompromising views, we have absolutely no idea of
Cleopatra’s precise genetic make-up: she was descended from Macedonians (whose
claim to be Greeks was disputed), but in the course of the Ptolemies’ 260
years’ residence in Egypt, it is difficult to believe that no local genes
entered the bloodline. The important point is that to people of African and
Arabic heritage worldwide it matters that Cleopatra was “Egyptian”, culturally
In 1927, for example, the Egyptian author Ahmad Shawqi’s play The Death of Cleopatra challenged the classical sources in arguing that Cleopatra had been falsely maligned, a victim of European imperial propaganda.
A vast sculpture of “The Death of Cleopatra” by Edmonia Lewis was the sole major work of art by an African American at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876: Nathaniel Hawthorne had already drawn satirical attention to the eroticization by white men of Cleopatra as a smouldering Nubian in The Marble Faun (1860). More recently the Philadelphian artist Barbara Chase-Riboud, who is African American, has returned over twenty times to depictions of Cleopatra in sculpture, wall art and poetry. Ever since abolition, “Cleopatra” has in the USA been a “speaking name”, bestowed by Civil Rights campaigners on their daughters and on the action heroine of the blaxploitation movies Cleopatra Jones (1973) and its sequel. Prose’s attempt to chart the significance of Cleopatra’s afterlife, without properly exploring this aspect, is a missed opportunity indeed.