Woman of influence whose mystique reveals a great chink in the historian's armour

Cleopatra and Rome
January 6, 2006

Like the denizens of ancient Rome, art historians are both tortured and tantalised by the "lure of the East". After Alexander the Great, who transformed himself from Macedonian soldier-prince to Eastern warrior-king, the opulent courts of the Hellenistic world showed good Romans such as Pompey and Julius Caesar how much fun could be had outside the strictures of the Republic. Pompey even styled his hair like Alexander, but a Roman had to tread Eastern waters with care.

Through military might and political machination, the Roman Republic saw off the Hellenistic monarchs one by one and absorbed their kingdoms. As Caesar must have realised on the Ides of March, there was a subtle difference between apeing a Greek hero and becoming an Eastern despot.

We historians of ancient art like to think of ourselves as less fallible than Roman generals, at least in some respects. Armed with postmodern whatsits and post-processual whatnots, the contemporary scholar calmly analyses and rigorously self-critiques, impervious to peacock feathers, leopard skins, bare breasts, gratuitous gilding and Dionysian revelry. But Cleopatra is the chink in the historian's armour. That final, female Hellenistic despot reaches out from the deathbed that Dio Cassius and Plutarch made for her and pulls the innocent scholar into her world.

What a world it was, too. In Cleopatra and Rome , Diana Kleiner describes the unique convergence of individuals and events that shaped the period. She brings the world of the Ptolemies and ancient Rome vividly to life and offers candid sketches of the people involved in Cleopatra's complex story.

In addition to the usual suspects - Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and Octavian Augustus - we meet the Roman women who wielded as much influence at home as Cleopatra did in Egypt: Livia Drusilla, who married Octavian while pregnant by her first husband, and Octavian's sister Octavia, a widow who agreed to a political marriage with Antony and stuck by him almost to the bitter end. We also meet the unsung thousands of slaves and freedmen who kept this society ticking along, and the squabbling heirs, spares and aristocrats who were more of a concern to Octavian than any Egyptian queen.

For the life of Cleopatra herself, Kleiner acknowledges the work of historians such as Erich Gruen, who has argued that incidents from Cleopatra's life, as recorded in ancient sources, cannot be taken as fact or at face value. (We must learn to live without the rolled-up-in-a-carpet scenario.) Kleiner proposes a way around the ancient authors by examining Cleopatra and her contemporaries through the art and architecture they created. Such visual communication, she argues, "permeated a wide variety of cultural activities in the age of Augustus and continued after Cleopatra's death - a dialogue much more important for understanding the age of Augustus than the fine points of chronology or whether Cleopatra was wrapped in bedlinens or a carpet".

Kleiner is a respected scholar of Roman art and is at her best discussing the classical-style portraits of Cleopatra, Octavia and Livia, or the building programmes that turned Rome into a city of marble befitting its new imperial status.

Her arguments are let down, however, when she broaches the Egyptian evidence. She embraces the contentious identification as Cleopatra VII of several Egyptian royal statues sporting three cobras (the "triple uraeus"), although this theory has been almost unanimously rejected elsewhere. The "dialogue" between Cleopatra and Rome eventually becomes a one-sided harangue, as the influence of Cleopatra is spotted everywhere from the Athenian Acropolis to the funerary monuments of the Roman bourgeoisie.

Kleiner even sees Cleopatra's influence in the Ara Pacis ("altar of peace") that Augustus dedicated at Rome in 13BC. Her theory that Egyptian temple decoration inspired the altar and the comparisons she draws between the Ara Pacis and the temple of Hathor at Dendera reveal simple misunderstandings about the role and function of Egyptian temples.

When in Egypt, savvy foreign rulers did what the Egyptians did, which generally involved lots of stone carving and hieroglyphs. Thus, Cleopatra decorated one free wall at Dendera, representing herself and her son Caesarion on an equal scale before Hathor and the child-god Ihy. Augustus added himself to this and almost every other temple in southern Egypt, which had fruitlessly rebelled against him in the 20s BC. It is doubtful that Augustus knew much about the Egyptian temples his image adorned, much less took inspiration from them for his building projects back home.

Cleopatra and Rome is an attractive book with more than 70 illustrations, ranging from tetradrachms to Tiepolo. It also benefits from an annotated bibliography, including selected works of fiction and film studies, a list of Cleopatra films and a handy website guide. Whether or not "one inimitable person can change the world", she certainly makes for a good story.

Christina Riggs is curator of Egyptology, Manchester Museum, Manchester University.

Cleopatra and Rome

Author - Diana E. E. Kleiner
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 340
Price - £18.95
ISBN - 0 674 01905 9

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