As the author points out in her introduction, Cleopatra VII is one of the most well known of ancient Egyptian Pharaohs. This book written for the general reader is another attempt to tell the story of her life and judge her historical importance.
Cleopatra VII, a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, ruled Egypt as a joint ruler with other family members for over 20 years from 50 to 30BCE, with her fame now far overshadowing theirs. She was,among other things, a talented linguist who was also worshipped as an incarnation of the goddess Isis, by her subjects. Her most important achievement was to maintain an Egypt that had a strong degree of independence from Roman dominance. Her diplomatic and personal relationships with those two prominent Roman generals,Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, allowed her to do this effectively. Her alliance with Antony in his civil war with his rival Octavius,brought about her downfall. The dynasty itself came to an end a few days after her death, with Egypt being absorbed into the rest of its Empire by the Romans,under Octavius later named Augustus. It is unfortunate for history that most of the architectural legacy of her reign is sunken in the Mediterranean, buried by the earthquake that destroyed the ancient city of Alexandria.
Therefore,Tyldesley relies mainly on ancient written sources, as primary archaeological sites related to Cleopatra, such as her tomb and her royal palace, are now inaccessible. The two most important are the ancient Graeco-Roman writers Plutarch and Cassius Dio, who wrote long after her death, and therefore cannot be considered eye witnesses or primary sources. Plutarch in particular, is responsible for many of the popular myths surrounding Cleopatra's life, and was Shakespeare's inspiration for his version of her life. It is Shakespeare's imaginative view of the queen,derived from Plutarch, that currently dominates western culture, but Tyldesley also points outs that lesser known Arabic sources offer alternative perspectives in relation to her.
Whether or not,Cleopatra was a great beauty is open to question The authenticity of most of the statues or busts supposedly portraying her likeness has been challenged, and given the highly styilised and generic nature of most of the other artwork related to the portraits of the Egyptian pharoahs, little can be concluded from these. Her portrayal on Roman coins suggests she possessed an over prominent nose, and whether she was fair skinned or dark cannot be determined. Initially, the Ptolemies were foreign invaders from Macedonia, and it may be that she was more European than Egyptian in appearance. The Romans, notoriously misogynist about any female involvement in politics,can hardly be considered to offer unbiased views, given that Cleopatra was an enemy of the Roman empire for the last years of her reign. The role of her sexuality in captivating Caesar and Antony may well be overstated in that regard, and intelligence and personality may well have played a stronger part in her conquests,than Roman propaganda suggests.
As this book makes clear,Caesar and Antony had other more pragmatic reasons, apart from the sexual or romantic,for their relationships with Cleopatra. Antony, in particular,needed access to the Egyptian monarch's great wealth, to pay his men,given his civil war against the rest of the Empire and Octavius. From Cleopatra's perspective there was need to preserve her kingdom from invasion, and her original encounter with Caesar was presumably designed to achieve just that. The famous story of her arrival at Caesar's feet, unwrapped from a carpet, is derived from Plutarch, and is regarded as an unlikely occurrence in Tyldesley's view. Alternatively if it occurred, it must have been extremely carefully stage managed, so that no threat against Caesar' s life would be perceived. The Ptolomies had already murdered his rival Pompey,so Caesar would have had good reason to be cautious.
Similarly the author challenges the reliability of Plutarch and Dio's account of Cleopatra's suicide by snakebite. It would have been far easier for her to have just taken poison, rather than as the story states, to have organised a recalcitrant reptile to bite her and two servants to death. Cleopatra's learning is said to have included a knowledge of poisons, and a day or two before her death, she had been wounded by Octavius's men forcing entrance to her quarters. These two factors would seem to be the more likely cause of her demise.
Joyce Tyldesley is the author of several previous books on ancient Egyptology including biographies of Nerfertiti and Hatshepsut. This book is as as scholarly and as thoughtful as its predecessors.