Friday, September 24, 2010

Book Review: Cleopatra: A Biography

Bryn Mawr Classical Review (Reviewed by Josiah Osgood)

Duane W. Roller, Cleopatra: A Biography. Women in Antiquity. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Cleopatra is a familiar name today for one reason above all: Shakespeare. But so memorable is the character that he created, it is hard, even for historians, to escape his influence. And to a large degree they must anyway rely on the same source that Shakespeare did, the Antony of Plutarch, whose Cleopatra is perhaps less paradoxical than Shakespeare’s, but still surprising. It was not, for instance, Cleopatra’s beauty (Plutarch writes) that was so striking, as one might have expected, but her conversation. A master manipulator, she can trick the reader almost as much as she does the simple-minded Antony. But the biggest surprise is the deep love that Cleopatra does finally feel for Antony at the end of her life. She comes to his grave and laments over it—a lament probably made up by Plutarch himself on the model of Greek tragedy. She wants to be with Antony in death.

Certainly there was a relationship between Antony and Cleopatra, as there had been earlier between Cleopatra and Caesar, and these were defining events in her life. But there were two very practical aspects to them that later accounts, including Plutarch’s, underplay or neglect altogether.

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