Bad teeth and shrewd politics

Paul T. Nicholson on a lucid summary of the Queen of the Nile's historical context and eternal allure

April 10, 2008

Over the past few years, Joyce Tyldesley has established herself as perhaps the foremost popular writer on the rulers of Ancient Egypt, with books on Hatshepsut, Nefertiti and Ramesses II, as well as numerous other works on ancient Egypt. Her latest offering, Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt, is rather different, as Tyldesley herself points out, since for most Egyptologists Cleopatra (the seventh to bear that name) is not an Egyptian queen, but a Ptolemy, a descendant of one of Alexander the Great's generals. As a result, her life has more often been reviewed by Classicists, but she is seen in this present work through the eyes of an Egyptologist.

One of the hallmarks of Tyldesley's work is that while it is intended for a broad readership (indeed this latest book has been serialised on Radio 4, something not common for Egyptological publications), she does not ignore her sources. As a result, each chapter is accompanied by a series of end notes giving the original source of quotations or expanding on views given in the text.

This has the effect of not only making the book more interesting, since not everything is clear cut, but also making it of some value to undergraduate students wanting to get an outline of the topic and to find an easy route into original sources. While one might occasionally wish for more notes, the balance is probably about right for a book of this kind.

What Tyldesley is particularly good at is setting the scene and historical context of her figures and outlining the evidence for the period with a broad brush. Thus we learn early in the book that the reign of Cleopatra VII is known mainly from texts rather than from monuments, and that many of these belong to a time after her death.

It follows, then, that we know little about how she looked. As a queen in Egypt she was depicted by Egyptian artists in a fairly traditional Egyptian style, with features idealised and in the guise of deity, while for her Greek subjects she appears in Classical mode, different but once again idealised. Tyldesley surmises that she "was probably short by modern standards and she probably, like almost everyone of her time suffered from bad teeth. Her coins ... suggest a prominent nose and chin and a rather thick neck."

This is an image somewhat removed from the glamorous figure portrayed by Elizabeth Taylor (or indeed Amanda Barrie!), but Tyldesley suggests that while we may regard the famous Berlin bust of Nefertiti as an ideal of beauty "few have found her in any way sexy", whereas Cleopatra, perhaps in manner, was evidently "attractive enough to sleep with" - at least for Caesar and subsequently Anthony.

The history of the Ptolemaic period is a complicated one, made more so by the recurrence of the same names among the royal family, and readers here are given only the most relevant parts of that history, enough to set Cleopatra in her historical context. To this end, the "who was who" appendix to the book is useful, as is the family tree of the Ptolemies at the start. However, Tyldesley tends to refer to the Ptolemies by their epithets - thus Ptolemy XII is Auletes, "the flute-player" - but these are not given in the chart. Similarly, Cleopatra Tryphaena appears in the family tree but without the suggestion that she is Cleopatra VI.

We are also given a very clear picture of Alexandria and its relationship to the rest of Egypt, and how its inhabitants held themselves separate from the Egyptians as a class apart. The city was truly Alexandria ad Aegyptum - Alexandria-next-to-Egypt, almost a state within a state. This identity apart from Egypt surely makes it unlikely - as Tyldesley perceptively points out - that Cleopatra was in any way influenced by the reign of the Egyptian queen Hatshepsut some 1,400 years earlier. The works of this native ruler were desecrated after her reign and her name removed from the records, so it is unlikely that a queen of foreign descent, living in Alexandria, would even have known of her existence.

The political machinations between the Ptolemaic court and Rome, both before and after Caesar, are well and clearly summarised by the author. This goes some way to redress the popular view of Cleopatra VII merely as seductress and shows her in a role whereby she might have preserved and strengthened the Ptolemaic empire. Tyldesley's Cleopatra is a politically shrewd and intelligent woman who used her intellect and personal charms to good effect.

In summary, this is a very readable account of the life of Cleopatra VII, and one that goes some way to redress the way in which she is often viewed. It also provides intriguing insights into life and society in the Egypt of the Ptolemies and the position of Egypt in the world-system of its time.

Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt

By Joyce Tyldesley

Profile Books, 320pp, £20.00

ISBN 9781861979650

Published 24 January 2008

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