Antony and Cleopatra by Adrian Goldsworthy
(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010)
CLEOPATRA VII—“the Female Horus,” “the Great One,” “the Mistress of Perfection,” “the New Isis,” “Father-Loving Goddess” (to give her at least some of her proper titles)—was Egypt’s queen. Cleopatra was not, however, an Egyptian, and she had no direct historical association with the Egypt of the pharaohs. In fact, she lived far closer in time to us than she did to the builders of the great pyramids. She was Greek, the last—as it turned out—of a line of monarchs descended from one of Alexander the Great’s most trusted generals, Ptolemy I, who after Alexander’s death moved to Babylon, invaded Egypt and appointed himself pharaoh in 305 BCE. The Ptolemies venerated Egyptian gods (many of whom, however, also existed in Greek mythology) and performed the religious rituals of the pharaohs who came before them. They also assumed pharaonic titles. But Cleopatra was the first of her dynasty to be able to speak Egyptian (and if Plutarch, the Greco-Roman biographer whose Life of Antony is almost the only source we have for the story of the two lovers, is to be believed, Mede, Ethiopian, Hebrew, Arabic, Parthian and “Troglodyte”—the language of the peoples of southern Egypt and northern Sudan—were part of her vast lexicon as well).
Still, as Adrian Goldsworthy tartly remarks in his latest offering on the fate of the Roman Empire, Cleopatra was “no more Egyptian culturally or ethnically than most residents of modern-day Arizona are Apaches.”