Antony and Cleopatra, by Adrian Goldsworthy, Weidenfeld and Nicholson RRP£25, 496 pages
Cleopatra: A Biography, by Duane W Roller, Oxford University Press RRP£14.99, 272 pages
What happens to the story of Cleopatra if you strip away all those glamorous legends told and re-told over the past 500 years? What picture of the queen emerges if you look beyond Shakespeare, Taylor and Burton and the Carry on Cleo team, back to the ancient evidence itself? Do we still find the femme fatale, the oriental seducer not only of Mark Antony, but before him of an even more notable Roman statesman – Julius Caesar?
These are the questions posed by two new books: Adrian Goldsworthy’s Antony and Cleopatra and Duane W Roller’s Cleopatra. Both are serious exercises in debunking, designed to quash most of the popular myths about one of the best-known figures of the ancient world – and certainly the best-known ancient Egyptian, with the possible exception of Tutankhamun.
For a start, she was not actually Egyptian at all – or at the very most, to follow Roller’s speculation, only about a quarter ethnically Egyptian. Though queen of Egypt, she was a member of a Greek-speaking Macedonian dynasty, which had taken over the country in the wake of the conquests of Alexander the Great, almost 200 years earlier. She was, so it was said, the first of her dynasty even to speak the Egyptian language and was (as Goldsworthy nicely puts it) “no more Egyptian culturally or ethnically than most residents of modern-day Arizona are Apaches”. As he also points out, in the vast timescale of Egyptian history, she is closer to us in time than she was to the glory days of the Pharaonic pyramids.
Disappointingly, perhaps, there is almost no foundation for the image of the queen as a glamorous seductress, or for the story of the exotic suicide with the asp. Goldsworthy, in fact, thinks it more likely that she was a virgin when she met Julius Caesar, and that “he and Mark Antony were the only two lovers she ever took”. If so, it shows a degree of sexual continence not characteristic of the male members of her unprincipled, much-married and often incestuous family.
As for the asp, both Goldsworthy and Roller agree (as many others have before) that it would be a decidedly impractical weapon of self-destruction. The only local snake likely to have sufficient venom to kill Cleopatra and her two maids is the Egyptian cobra, which at 6ft long would hardly have fitted easily into the basket of fruit in which it was supposed to have been brought to her.
But it is one thing to bust the myths of Cleopatra; quite another to construct a new and more accurate story in their place. One big problem is that the ancient sources on the queen are, at best, very patchy. There are decades in her early life when we have almost no evidence at all for what she was doing. Even later, when she was already queen and embroiled in Roman politics, we do not always have much more to go on. The years between 40 and 37 BC, for example, in the middle of their affair but when Antony was in Italy, are an almost total blank. “Presumably”, writes Roller, unconvincingly, “she was devoted to running her kingdom and raising her three children.”
By and large, Roller’s Cleopatra belongs firmly to the “would have” tradition of ancient biography. That is to say, it fills the gaps in our evidence by describing, say, what we know of the education of Macedonian children, the usual conditions of travel across the Mediterranean or the cityscape of first-century BC Alexandria – and then saying that Cleopatra “would have” experienced and enjoyed all this. If the book has a strong thesis to replace the worn-out myths, it is that Cleopatra has to be understood as a hard-headed Macedonian dynast, her aim being to re-establish her control over territory that had been lost – and to manipulate her Roman lovers into helping her to do this.
Goldsworthy in Antony and Cleopatra has a more constructive approach to the absence of evidence. He puts Cleopatra back together with Mark Antony, about whom we know more, from a wider range of ancient writing. This gives him a good starting point for some even more ambitious debunking. He is excellent in puncturing the myth of Antony as a great Roman military tactician and an experienced soldier. In fact, Goldsworthy paints a disconcertingly plausible picture of the inexperienced, inefficient bungling that must have formed the background to many glorious Roman victories. He is also refreshingly frank about the unimportance of Cleopatra herself. This was a world, he argues, in which the power of Rome ruled: all the bit-part players (petty monarchs such as Cleopatra) could do was try to win Roman favour. Far from the glamorous queen manipulating the gullible or love-struck Romans, the queen’s position depended on Roman support.
Goldsworthy also faces the myth of Cleopatra more subtly and more directly than Roller, even if occasionally he worries rather too much about quite how much in love Antony and Cleopatra were (“love may well have been genuine on one or both sides” – well, yes, but … ), or quite how beautiful she was. For the truth is that, however historically correct it might seem, you cannot separate Cleopatra from her myth, which is not merely modern. The myth-making process started even before she was dead, when Octavian, the future emperor Augustus and the Roman rival of Mark Antony, started to paint Antony as the dupe of an Egyptian queen, devoted to a life of luxury and sexual excess. And later, the spin-doctors of Augustus’ imperial regime were keen to demonise the couple as a pair of dissolute drunkards, determined to turn Rome into an oriental monarchy.
And as for that story of the asp – if it was myth, it grew up very quickly. As Roller acknowledges, some of the earliest descriptions of Octavian’s triumphal procession, celebrated just a couple of years later for his victory over Cleopatra, featured the asp. We read in ancient accounts that the model of the queen paraded through the streets (in the absence of the dead Cleopatra herself) included the snake round her arm. It certainly was not Shakespeare who invented Cleopatra’s asp.
Mary Beard is the author of ‘It’s a Don’s Life’ (Profile)