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Cleopatra: A Biography

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Few personalities from classical antiquity are more famous--yet more poorly understood--than Cleopatra VII, queen of Egypt. In this major biography, Duane Roller reveals that Cleopatra was in fact a learned and visionary leader whose overarching goal was always the preservation of her dynasty and kingdom. Roller's authoritative account is the first to be based solely on pr Few personalities from classical antiquity are more famous--yet more poorly understood--than Cleopatra VII, queen of Egypt. In this major biography, Duane Roller reveals that Cleopatra was in fact a learned and visionary leader whose overarching goal was always the preservation of her dynasty and kingdom. Roller's authoritative account is the first to be based solely on primary materials from the Greco-Roman period: literary sources, Egyptian documents (Cleopatra's own writings), and representations in art and coinage produced while she was alive. His compelling portrait of the queen illuminates her prowess as a royal administrator who managed a large and diverse kingdom extending from Asia Minor to the interior of Egypt, as a naval commander who led her own fleet in battle, and as a scholar and supporter of the arts. Even her love affairs with Julius Caesar and Marcus Antonius--the source of her reputation as a supreme seductress who drove men to their doom--were carefully crafted state policies: she chose these partners to insure the procreation of successors who would be worthy of her distinguished dynasty. That Cleopatra ultimately lost to her Roman opponents, Roller contends, in no way diminishes her abilities. -Roller tells his tale smoothly and accessibly....The resulting portrait is that of a complex, many-sided figure, a potent Hellenistic ruler who could move the tillers of power as skillfully as any man, and one far and nobly removed from the 'constructed icon' of popular imagination.- --The New York Times Book Review -A rich account of late Ptolemaic culture.- --The New Yorker -Offers a superb panorama of the society and culture of late Ptolemaic Egypt, with vivid sketches of the (remarkably vigorous) intellectual life of Cleopatra's Alexandria and the structural instabilities of the late Ptolemaic state.- --Times Literary Supplement -Besides providing a compelling story and breathing fresh air into a heretofore two-dimensional caricature from history, Roller's 'Cleopatra' provides an interesting commentary on the attitudes still prevalent towards women who rule.- --Christian Science Monitor -Compulsively readable.- --Bookslut -A definitive account of a queen of remarkable strength.- --Publishers Weekly


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Few personalities from classical antiquity are more famous--yet more poorly understood--than Cleopatra VII, queen of Egypt. In this major biography, Duane Roller reveals that Cleopatra was in fact a learned and visionary leader whose overarching goal was always the preservation of her dynasty and kingdom. Roller's authoritative account is the first to be based solely on pr Few personalities from classical antiquity are more famous--yet more poorly understood--than Cleopatra VII, queen of Egypt. In this major biography, Duane Roller reveals that Cleopatra was in fact a learned and visionary leader whose overarching goal was always the preservation of her dynasty and kingdom. Roller's authoritative account is the first to be based solely on primary materials from the Greco-Roman period: literary sources, Egyptian documents (Cleopatra's own writings), and representations in art and coinage produced while she was alive. His compelling portrait of the queen illuminates her prowess as a royal administrator who managed a large and diverse kingdom extending from Asia Minor to the interior of Egypt, as a naval commander who led her own fleet in battle, and as a scholar and supporter of the arts. Even her love affairs with Julius Caesar and Marcus Antonius--the source of her reputation as a supreme seductress who drove men to their doom--were carefully crafted state policies: she chose these partners to insure the procreation of successors who would be worthy of her distinguished dynasty. That Cleopatra ultimately lost to her Roman opponents, Roller contends, in no way diminishes her abilities. -Roller tells his tale smoothly and accessibly....The resulting portrait is that of a complex, many-sided figure, a potent Hellenistic ruler who could move the tillers of power as skillfully as any man, and one far and nobly removed from the 'constructed icon' of popular imagination.- --The New York Times Book Review -A rich account of late Ptolemaic culture.- --The New Yorker -Offers a superb panorama of the society and culture of late Ptolemaic Egypt, with vivid sketches of the (remarkably vigorous) intellectual life of Cleopatra's Alexandria and the structural instabilities of the late Ptolemaic state.- --Times Literary Supplement -Besides providing a compelling story and breathing fresh air into a heretofore two-dimensional caricature from history, Roller's 'Cleopatra' provides an interesting commentary on the attitudes still prevalent towards women who rule.- --Christian Science Monitor -Compulsively readable.- --Bookslut -A definitive account of a queen of remarkable strength.- --Publishers Weekly

30 review for Cleopatra: A Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    Jan-Maat

    This is a careful and sober book and as a result considerably less fun than Asterix and Cleopatra, there is simply too much pearl in my vinegar. Roller discusses the sources, how we know, what we know about Cleopatra, his preferred source is Plutarch's life of Antonius (alias Mark Anthony etc) which was only written a hundred or so years after the events and as implied by that title it is about Antonius who eventually was Cleopatra's lover or husband, but she lived most of her life without him ev This is a careful and sober book and as a result considerably less fun than Asterix and Cleopatra, there is simply too much pearl in my vinegar. Roller discusses the sources, how we know, what we know about Cleopatra, his preferred source is Plutarch's life of Antonius (alias Mark Anthony etc) which was only written a hundred or so years after the events and as implied by that title it is about Antonius who eventually was Cleopatra's lover or husband, but she lived most of her life without him even though he was the father of her three youngest children. Apparently Cleopatra wrote her own memoirs too but these were lost in antiquity - both a Ptolemy family habit (it seems they were a careless bunch) (view spoiler)[nor were such losses particular to the Ptolemys, an autobiography written by Herod the Great is also missing leaving us for ever in the dark about how and why the High Priest of the temple that he didn't like, turned up mysteriously dead in the Herod's private swimming pool in his royal palace (hide spoiler)] , however Roller claims that seven fragments of a book about Cosmetics were written by Cleopatra, even though only one was attributed to a Queen Cleopatra (and it was not a rare name among royalty even outside Egypt where there were at least seven) and one fragment could not have been written before the time of Emperor Nero (pp50-1). The Cosmetics book included cures for baldness which made me smile as her first lover the Roman geezer Julius Caesar ,was famously folically challenged (although shown here with a good head of hair). Some time is spent on interesting dead-ends: Roller praises her ability as a naval commander, but of course her most famous action as an Admiral was fleeing with her fleet from the battle of Actium, making certain the defeat of Antonius. He stresses her education , Rhetorical skills, and the number of languages she knew, but he does not provide any examples of her actually using these skills - apart from the book on cosmetics. Roller opens with the family background of the Ptolemys. Their marriage habits led me to imagine the family tree as a dense scribble, it wasn't quite that bad, possibly because they made soap operas look tame, if they married one another freely, they were also uninhibited in having each other executed whenever they got a chance. Over time they were closely linked with Rome, although Egypt was a very wealthy kingdom with a royal income of between 6000 and 12000 talents (with one talent the equivalent of 35 kilos of silver) it seems to have been in financial troubles for some time, the currency was devalued over time, Cleopatra's father Ptolemy XII borrowed heavily from Romans to oust a brother and later his daughter from his throne, by the time Cleopatra VII became Queen there was still a debt of over seventeen million sesterces outstanding (each sesterce worth 10 grams of silver), indeed this debt was one of the reasons given by the Emperor Augustus for seizing the kingdom after Cleopatra's death. Ptolemy XII attempted to deal with the debt by making his Roman banker his finance minister, but his man was grossly unpopular and had to be bundled out of the country after a year. All of which really is simply the background to Cleopatra VII, her financial resources were variable and constrained, her siblings were rivals for power, foreign and internal policy were tied to Roman interests, government officials seem to have held there positions on a hereditary basis, the royal textile mill was run by a Roman senator (p.105), a sign of the integration of Rome and Egypt, maybe a suggestion of the limits of independence of both, that particular senator was executed by Augustus after the take over of the kingdom by Rome. Given the game she was playing and the cards she was dealt, it is hard to imagine things working out differently, she pursued the same policies as her forebears had done - concentrating on managing the relationship with Rome, and she did fairly well, she was not deposed in flavour of a sibling, she was awarded extensive territories which had in the past been held by the Ptolemys, but which had been seized by rival powers over time. Roller does not plainly state, but implies in places, that Cleopatra was not so tightly linked to Antionius politically or romantically as Shakespeare or Taylor & Burton played. This struck me as interesting but naive, Cleopatra's son and heir (otherwise know as Ptolemy XV), associated together as Isis and Horus on Egyptian temples, Caesarion was generally accepted as the so of Julius Caesar and so the cousin of Augustus, while her other children had been fathered by Antonius who at the same time had been married to Augustus' sister. Aside from the potential rival and the insult to family honour, Egypt was rich, a breadbasket that commanded a valuable trade route to India. In the end Augustus took the obvious course of action and made Egypt an Imperial province. Caesarion was persuaded to return to Alexandria from upper Egypt and was unsurprisingly killed before he got there, the other children were taken to Rome, Roller does not suspect foul play but two of them died there, the last child Cleopatra Selene was married to a Roman client king in North Africa, she died at a young age, but the two had a son, perhaps inevitably named Ptolemy. By which time Cleopatra and Antonius were both long dead by their own hands. All of which left me feeling that Cleopatra was a considerably less interesting person in history than I did prior to reading. I wondered about the points that made Cleopatra stand out from her peers and her ancestors. One was that she was said to be the first in her family to speak the Egyptian language, her mother may have been from the family of the priests of Ptah (although that family may also have been married into the Greek elite for generations) certainly she appeared on the walls of temple complexes as the Goddess Isis. We can't know how the different populations of Egypt at the time reacted to this, perhaps it did help to shore up her position against potential rivals. She did not marry (apart possibly from her brothers Ptolemy XIII & XIV, both children at the time) perhaps that suggests a certain independence and political astuteness as a husband presumably would have wanted to rule the kingdom. About one hundred of her officials are known by name from which it seems that government offices where inherited, some of the scholars active in Alexandria during her time are known by name but they generally seem, with apologies, to be an undistinguished bunch. The difficulty that this book has is that it has to find meaning and insight from books in which Cleopatra herself was never the main focus, as a result we get a competent but pedestrian story, Cleopatra maybe needs somebody else with different perspectives to be really brought to life, maybe to be appraised in terms of colonial and post-colonial societies and politics. This book is part of a series focusing on famous women in antiquity, a challenge to write as the evidence will I guess almost always come from works focused on men, perhaps Cleopatra is more difficult to write about because she was on the loosing side of a propaganda war and from a culture which was both viewed as the opposite of Rome - the decadent and effeminate east - and which in turn became the source for the politics of extravagant display seen in the late Republic and Empire.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Michael

    I finished Roller's biography of Cleopatra on Mother's Day, which is appropriate given the importance of her role as mother to her four children, the eldest fathered by Julius Caesar and the younger three by Marcus Antonius. The plans she had in mind for these illustrious offspring did not come to pass, but the scope of her vision was "global." In the Donations of Alexandria, she divided much of the known world not under Roman control among her children. Had she and Antonius played the game of R I finished Roller's biography of Cleopatra on Mother's Day, which is appropriate given the importance of her role as mother to her four children, the eldest fathered by Julius Caesar and the younger three by Marcus Antonius. The plans she had in mind for these illustrious offspring did not come to pass, but the scope of her vision was "global." In the Donations of Alexandria, she divided much of the known world not under Roman control among her children. Had she and Antonius played the game of Roman politics with a little more skill, the history of the world would have changed substantially. Roller's greatest contribution in this work is his understanding of Cleopatra as a Hellenistic monarch whose devotion to her kingdom and territorial acqusitions owed as much to Alexander's vision of a unified world as to her personal pride and ambition. He has done a credible job of mining the limited, suspect, and often blatantly biased sources for information about his subject. In the end, Cleopatra as a person remains forever beyond our grasp, but Roller manages to give quite a good portrait of Cleopatra as politician. That she failed in her confrontation with Octavian is less important than that she preserved her rule for such a long time in a world dominated by Rome. Another mother cared for Cleopatra's three younger children after their mother's suicide -- Octavia, the sister of Cleopatra's nemesis, Octavian, who was also the wife of Antonius, the father of Cleopatra's children. Cleopatra failed in implementing her vision of a new world order, but in so doing she influenced the creation of the Roman Empire. Her daughter, Cleopatra Selene, created her own version of an enlightened Hellenistic kingdom while ruling Mauretania with her scholar husband, Juba II. Cleopatra will continue to inspire our imaginations, but we should be grateful to Roller for his careful research that has shown us how little we truly can know about the woman whose coins bore the imposing inscription, "CLEOPATRAE REGINAE REGUM FILIORUM REGUM."

  3. 4 out of 5

    Olishka

    In "Cleopatra: A Biography", Duane W. Roller beautifully explores and contextualizes the life of Cleopatra VII, the last Macedonian Greek Queen of Egypt. The biography, substantiated by myriad sources, attempts to liberate Cleopatra from five hundred years of mythos and popular culture depictions. Roller ultimately holds that Cleopatra “did not approach Caesar wrapped in a carpet, she was not a seductress, she did not use her charm to persuade the men in her life to lose their judgement, and sh In "Cleopatra: A Biography", Duane W. Roller beautifully explores and contextualizes the life of Cleopatra VII, the last Macedonian Greek Queen of Egypt. The biography, substantiated by myriad sources, attempts to liberate Cleopatra from five hundred years of mythos and popular culture depictions. Roller ultimately holds that Cleopatra “did not approach Caesar wrapped in a carpet, she was not a seductress, she did not use her charm to persuade the men in her life to lose their judgement, and she did not die by the bite of an asp.” (7) He notes that two known relationships (with Julius Caesar, followed by Mark Antony) is “hardy a sign of promiscuity” (2) and that her choice of partners was an example of statecraft. Cleopatra, that is, intended to procure heirs that strengthened Ptolemaic Greek governance of Egyptian peoples. Roller also addresses the debate over her allure, averring that Plutarch was often misquoted in describing her as unattractive. Rather, Plutarch observed that Cleopatra’s magnetic personality eclipsed her physical beauty. Roller argues that “yet other important elements of her career have been bypassed in the post-antique recension: she was a Skilled naval commander, a published medical authority, and an expert royal administrator who was met with adulation throughout the eastern Mediterranean, perhaps seen by some as a messianic figure, the hope for a future Eastern Mediterranean free of Roman domination.” (7) Previous studies that focused on sexuality and physical beauty had obscured the triumphs and tragedies that embodied the life of Cleopatra. This is the latest full scholarship on Cleopatra and is simply a must-read and necessary reading for one who wants to learn more about the famous Greek queen. Cleopatra is vividly bought to life, and Roller meets his goal of portraying the true queen. A rough equal, equally incredible, comes in the form of Roller's brilliant book Cleopatra's Daughter and Other Royal Women of the Augustan Era.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer de Guzman

    I appreciated that Duane W. Roller was committed to using historical sources about Cleopatra, deftly elucidating the point of view and possible prejudices of these sources, and largely ignoring subsequent cultural embellishments of the queen's life and character. He spends a chapter on the possible intellectual and scholarly influences on Cleopatra -- as well as her own influences and accomplishments in these areas -- which is something that other biographies I've read don't address in any great I appreciated that Duane W. Roller was committed to using historical sources about Cleopatra, deftly elucidating the point of view and possible prejudices of these sources, and largely ignoring subsequent cultural embellishments of the queen's life and character. He spends a chapter on the possible intellectual and scholarly influences on Cleopatra -- as well as her own influences and accomplishments in these areas -- which is something that other biographies I've read don't address in any great depth. Cleopatra lived in and ruled from the center of scholarly life in the ancient world, after all, and was recognized in her time for her intellectual brilliance. Roller also places Cleopatra in the context of her position as the most powerful of Roman-friendly monarchs, which include Herod the Great of Judea, as well as Cleopatra's relatives in the Seleucid Empire. Cleopatra was determined to restore the Ptolomaic Empire to its greatest historical boundaries, and she nearly succeeded. Roller paints her as a ruler intensely focused not just on her personal legacy but on maintaining the power of her lineage to safely pass her kingdom on to her children. The deaths of her sons after her suicide, so matter-of-factly reported by Roller are nevertheless infused in the text with a sense of tragedy. Roller recognizes Cleopatra as a devoted mother who wanted to ensure her children's futures. (Her role as mother was also politically helpful, he points out, as it strengthened her ties to the Egyptian deities Isis and Hathor.) The continuance of her line, through her daughter Cleopatra Selene, who became queen of Mauritania, is also placed with in this context. (Roller writes unsentimentally about Cleopatra Selene's obvious emulation of her mother, which makes the details he includes all the more touching.) Roller also asserts that Cleopatra's cultural influence on Rome is palpable -- from her style of governance to her style of mausoleum. The weakness of this biography lies in the somewhat dry writing (there is a weird over-reliance on the transition "yet" that I found distracting, too). And Roller may be committed to those historical sources, but for some reason he never quotes them within the text of the book. He has some in the appendices, but I found some of his choices strange. For example, he writes that Cicero intensely disliked Queen Cleopatra. But why? And how does he know? I know that there exists a letter in which Cicero writes to a friend, "How I hate the queen!" but Roller does not quote from it or even mention it. It is not sensational to include this -- it is simply good scholarship and writing to quote a strong primary source document. In fact, it seems that Roller assumes that his reader is familiar with the relevant primary sources -- he does not quote from Plutarch, but the way he writes about Plutarch indicates that he anticipates that his reader knows the passages and works he refers to. He also assumes that the reader has knowledge of the history, culture, and politics of Cleopatra's time. None of this is unreasonable, but I mention it to point out that this is not a really a biography to begin in learning about Cleopatra. Still, this is a strong biography with a point of view that adds to the library of strong biographies of Cleopatra.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Elevate Difference

    Cleopatra is a cipher, an enigmatic and historically remote figure reimagined until she has become, for much of the world and for much of modern history, the apotheosis of desire, representative of the potency of feminine allure. As with the search for the historical Jesus, separating the real figure from the myth is complicated not only by our fascination with all the artistic interventions and the millennia of (mis)representation but also by the paucity of hard evidence. The slender record tha Cleopatra is a cipher, an enigmatic and historically remote figure reimagined until she has become, for much of the world and for much of modern history, the apotheosis of desire, representative of the potency of feminine allure. As with the search for the historical Jesus, separating the real figure from the myth is complicated not only by our fascination with all the artistic interventions and the millennia of (mis)representation but also by the paucity of hard evidence. The slender record that remains is complicated by the bias of her contemporary observers (mostly suspicious and resentful Romans) and the tangle of political agendas that surrounded her reign. Distinguishing reality from the myth is Duane Roller’s project in his new biography of Cleopatra. He marshals the modest amount of fairly reliable biographical information, supplemented by a helpful sketch of the political and social world of Ptolemaic Egypt in the first century BCE. But was Cleopatra, well, Cleopatra? Sources disagree about her physical attractiveness, although it seems likely that she was relatively short. The book offers an array of physical images from statuary and contemporary coinage, but there is little commonality among the images, so her actual appearance remains mysterious. The record of her ascent to the throne and involvement in Roman politics would seem to confirm her reputation as ruthless and Machiavellian, although her supposed suicide by snakebite is almost certainly fictional, as Joyce Tyldesley, who covers much of the same ground in her new book Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt, has convincingly demonstrated. Readers hoping to find some account of the controversy over Cleopatra’s racial identity, that has been such an exciting and often public part of contemporary academic discussion, will be disappointed. Further, Roller’s diction seems dated (“the marriage produced no issue” and his use of B.C., for example). What would solidly justify this project is a “new” Cleopatra, one firmly rooted in newly discovered or reinterpreted documentary evidence and grounded in the historical context in which she moved. The same constraint that excludes the mythic elements from this study also seems to prevent a newly and sharply imagined Cleopatra from emerging here. The closest the author comes to a revisionary portrait is in his account of Cleopatra’s public oratory, and particularly in her apparent authorship of treatises on stunningly banal subjects such as treating dandruff or curing baldness. In 'The Cosmetics,' a collection of writing attributed to her, we see a leader not exclusively concerned with war and geopolitics, but also with the everyday welfare of her people. Roller’s approach can tell us the types of boats that sailed on the Kydnos River and the apparel Egyptian queens would have worn. But it misses the spiritual force of that figure still resplendent and still threatening two millennia later. Review by Rick Taylor

  6. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    I am quickly becoming addicted to this series of biographies about ancient women. Some of them describe women who often overlooked by scholars of antiquity, but this one is clearly not that kind of book. Most of what we think we know about Cleopatra from antiquity is shrouded in myth and skewed by Roman propaganda and the seemingly omnipresent sexism that arises any time a woman has power. Roller aims to cut through the myths and give Cleopatra a fair viewing. This biography avoids unjustified s I am quickly becoming addicted to this series of biographies about ancient women. Some of them describe women who often overlooked by scholars of antiquity, but this one is clearly not that kind of book. Most of what we think we know about Cleopatra from antiquity is shrouded in myth and skewed by Roman propaganda and the seemingly omnipresent sexism that arises any time a woman has power. Roller aims to cut through the myths and give Cleopatra a fair viewing. This biography avoids unjustified speculation or overly dramatic story telling. There may be more interesting biographies of Cleopatra out there, but they aren't better. The picture of Cleopatra that emerges is a pragmatic, powerful ruler who also happened to be a woman. Cleopatra had 4 children from three pregnancies, and while most historians have focused on the potential paternity of her progeny, Roller points out that it must have taken careful planning in order to maintain a stable rule and bring these pregnancies to fruition. This is all the more impressive given how unstable things were all over the Mediterranean at this time. As with many of the other biographies in this series, this book spends a lot of time describing the world that Cleopatra lived in. The book paints a picture of a crumbling Ptolemaic empire, a Roman republic in constant upheaval, and the rise and fall of small warlords in the Levant. It was a wild time, and Cleopatra's consistent presence at the forefront of events is enough to prove that she was a canny leader. The book offers pictures of other important figures from the period, including Ptolemy XII, Caesar, Marc Antony, Octavian/Augustus, and Herod "the Great," and Cleopatra's daughter, Cleopatra Selene. After reading this book, I am eager to dig into Roller's other books about Juba and Herod. Roller is careful to scrutinize what his sources say abut Cleopatra and about events in general, because the victors wrote the histories, and those victors had a vested interest in blackening the picture of Cleopatra. Still, sometimes he seems to accept a fact that is hard to believe or hard to trust, such as Antony moping for 3 days on the prow of Cleopatra's ship after their escape from Actium. I found myself wanting Roller to explain the historiography and his choices a bit more. There is an appendix with selections from a few sources, but an overview of the sources and their reliability would have been welcome. But I am probably in the minority in wanting this. If you are looking for a concise, balanced biography of this famous queen, this is your book.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Erika

    The Ptolemaic era of Egyptian history is one that usually holds little interest for me, and I've never really had much of an interest at all in Cleopatra, but I am very glad I checked this book out on a whim. In the authors introduction he describes how hard it is to write about or even really know about Cleopatra since so much that we think if as "facts" about her are based on the writings of her enemies, who of course vilified and marginalized her for their own purposes, and the pop culture leg The Ptolemaic era of Egyptian history is one that usually holds little interest for me, and I've never really had much of an interest at all in Cleopatra, but I am very glad I checked this book out on a whim. In the authors introduction he describes how hard it is to write about or even really know about Cleopatra since so much that we think if as "facts" about her are based on the writings of her enemies, who of course vilified and marginalized her for their own purposes, and the pop culture legend that has risen about her based on those writings. Beyond that, very little was ever written about her directly as women were very rarely considered important enough to write about, even if they were influencing and shaping the events around them. Considering the limited sources available, the author does a very credible job of bringing Cleopatra, the events and the world around her to life, and the author is very upfront and direct about the parts of the book where he has had to make assumptions or inferences about a moment in history based on what is known in other cases to fill in the blanks due to the lack of historical coverage on her life. I wish more was honestly documented on Cleopatra as she seems like a fascinating and strong leader who did the best for her country (and her own rule) that she could, she just had the misfortune of becoming its leader at the time that Rome was starting to spread its influence and control of the world around it. And it was very interesting to see the ascendancy of Rome from a different perspective, from how it influenced, created and even destroyed other cultures and dynasties based on the needs of whoever was in charge at the time. As stated above this has been a time period that never really interested me much, but after reading this book I think I will track down other sources, though I think I'll try to stick to the ones that deal with the other cultures of the time, not just Rome.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Bob Finch

    This is an excellent look at a fascinating historical figure. The author has done a great job of sorting through myth and fact, a difficult task, as the former seems so much more abundant. He has also done so succinctly and in eminently readable fashion. Few names in history evoke recognition the way Cleopatra does, and yet, so much of what we have come to "know" is based on dubious sources (most recently popular movie depictions, never a reasonable source for historical accuracy anyway). Prof. This is an excellent look at a fascinating historical figure. The author has done a great job of sorting through myth and fact, a difficult task, as the former seems so much more abundant. He has also done so succinctly and in eminently readable fashion. Few names in history evoke recognition the way Cleopatra does, and yet, so much of what we have come to "know" is based on dubious sources (most recently popular movie depictions, never a reasonable source for historical accuracy anyway). Prof. Roller eschews most modern treatments (though with the occasional nod), but must still sort through a plethora of Roman propaganda written during and well after Cleopatra's reign. It is remarkable to me how few contemporary Egyptian sources seems to have been available, many of those being fragmentary stella, temple carvings, and coinage; none of these contain narrative histories. Like most propaganda, there are kernels of truth, which Roller does a nice job of trying to sort out and separate from the more obvious lies. And he does so with clarity by explaining his reasoning in coming to many of his conclusions. In the end, the reader is left with some doubts and maybe a little confusion. But that is certainly not Roller's fault, as there seems little hope of ever knowing many intriguing details of and surrounding Cleopatra's life with certainty. Some readers might find the scholarly style a bit dry, and may be frustrated with leaving so many questions unanswered, or at least uncertain. Such readers might prefer a more compelling narrative with uncertainties either glossed over or ignored. I am not in that camp. I really appreciate Roller's honest approach. Cleopatra comes off as a believable ruler with certain clear motives - primarily to maintain her dynasty, at which, in the end, she failed. But her impact on history is unmistakable and indelible (though doubtfully as she would have wished).

  9. 5 out of 5

    Bonnie_blu

    Forget everything you think you know about Cleopatra. She was not an evil seductress who led men to their destruction. As Roller makes clear, Cleopatra's reputation in the centuries after her death was formed first by Augustus who sought to vilify her for his own political goals, and then by Shakespeare and Hollywood, both of which took their cues from Augustus. Cleopatra was a brilliant, extremely well educated, talented ruler who wanted to preserve Egypt as an independent kingdom. She first al Forget everything you think you know about Cleopatra. She was not an evil seductress who led men to their destruction. As Roller makes clear, Cleopatra's reputation in the centuries after her death was formed first by Augustus who sought to vilify her for his own political goals, and then by Shakespeare and Hollywood, both of which took their cues from Augustus. Cleopatra was a brilliant, extremely well educated, talented ruler who wanted to preserve Egypt as an independent kingdom. She first allied with Julius Caesar and then Marcus Antonius in an effort to keep Rome from conquering Egypt. And as for the sex, well that was (and in some cases still is) the norm for cementing an alliance by producing an heir. For anyone who wishes to pierce the layers of propaganda about Cleopatra and see the woman, I highly recommend this book. BTW, I would have liked to give the book four and a half stars if Good Reads allowed it.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jackie

    one of the best and most fascinating books written about cleopatra (in my opinion). the book paints cleopatra as she is and dispels much of the myth and fantasy surrounding the last great ruler of egypt. The narrative sucks you in until you are fully intrigued and confused by the twisted branches that make up the ptolemy. We start with such a great account of the birth of this dynasty...from the death of alexander the great himself. (im a total history nerd). What i loved about this book is that one of the best and most fascinating books written about cleopatra (in my opinion). the book paints cleopatra as she is and dispels much of the myth and fantasy surrounding the last great ruler of egypt. The narrative sucks you in until you are fully intrigued and confused by the twisted branches that make up the ptolemy. We start with such a great account of the birth of this dynasty...from the death of alexander the great himself. (im a total history nerd). What i loved about this book is that it is so matter-of-fact about cleopatra's extreme intelligence in places where history has painted her as a ruler able to succeed based on sexual cunning alone. This book was also great because it extends in the fall of the greek empire and the rise of the roman empire...better explaining why egypt was so indebted to rome. loved it. def recommend it to anyone interested in knowing more about cleo and the insertion of the ptolemy family in egypt.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Leigh-ann

    There's not a lot of "book" to this title. It's 251 pages, but the body ends on page 156. The remaining third is comprised of footnotes, additional indexes, and short articles on topics like "Cleopatra in literature", "Cleopatra on currency", etc. It's unfortunate that ancient historians didn't pay much attention to the roles of women (even important ones) so there isn't much information to draw from, and Cleopatra doesn't come across as having much of a specific personality. I think the book co There's not a lot of "book" to this title. It's 251 pages, but the body ends on page 156. The remaining third is comprised of footnotes, additional indexes, and short articles on topics like "Cleopatra in literature", "Cleopatra on currency", etc. It's unfortunate that ancient historians didn't pay much attention to the roles of women (even important ones) so there isn't much information to draw from, and Cleopatra doesn't come across as having much of a specific personality. I think the book could have benefited from having colour photos, and seeing as it was just published in April 2010, I'm surprised it didn't feature any images from the excavations at Alexandria.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Lee

    I thought the reviews of this book that said it was accessible to lay people etc were misguided. This is a very scholarly work (albeit short) and many in my bookclub did not find it at all accessible. Nevertheless, we did have a great discussion about it precisely because Roller does explode many myths about Cleopatra. I learned a LOT from reading this. Before the meeting, I would have given it two stars. I had about 20 pages to go when I went to the discussion and I have to say I read those aft I thought the reviews of this book that said it was accessible to lay people etc were misguided. This is a very scholarly work (albeit short) and many in my bookclub did not find it at all accessible. Nevertheless, we did have a great discussion about it precisely because Roller does explode many myths about Cleopatra. I learned a LOT from reading this. Before the meeting, I would have given it two stars. I had about 20 pages to go when I went to the discussion and I have to say I read those afterwards with deepened interest. The new popular book about her is getting great press but this one is the real deal in terms of scholarship.

  13. 5 out of 5

    João Pedro

    “Cleopatra: A Biography” is a marvelously written book that grabbed me from page one until the very end of the appendixes. The author kept both the language and the way of going about historic events, some of them very complex in their political nuance, in a very educational, but never bellitling manner to the reader's intelligence. Its major flaws, in my opinion, reside in an external problem to the book itself. Given the very scarce legitimate sources from the time period that could give us a m “Cleopatra: A Biography” is a marvelously written book that grabbed me from page one until the very end of the appendixes. The author kept both the language and the way of going about historic events, some of them very complex in their political nuance, in a very educational, but never bellitling manner to the reader's intelligence. Its major flaws, in my opinion, reside in an external problem to the book itself. Given the very scarce legitimate sources from the time period that could give us a more complete understanding of not only the queen herself but also her royal persona, the author does what he can with context and speculation. The book has a great deal of information on the generations of kings and queens that ruled Egypt the couple of centuries before Cleopatra got to the position and the political environment surrounding her when she did — especially what was going on in Rome, leaving Cleopatra’s life to a sort of secundary place in her own biography. There's also a lot of supposition when it comes to not only her personal life — something already to be expected, but also her more public and regal life, and even though these speculations were always well researched and very well argued, it left something more to be desired. In conclusion, it is a very good book if you’re looking for information on the last generations of royals of the Ptolomeian dynasty of Egypt and their relationships with the kingdoms that ruled the Mediterranean, but unfortunately lacks in presenting Cleopatra’s full story. And maybe the problem is that I expected too much and this is the fullest we can get, but honestly, I’m very okay with that.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Eileen

    3 stars (liked it) Well-paced, clear, and clinically academic but approachable. However, quite a bit of time is spent addressing those connected to Cleopatra versus Cleopatra herself.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Stephanie Kohler martindale

    Very informative & interesting.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Susan

    Boring. Boring. Boring. I wish Joyce Carol Oates would take on Cleopatra :-/

  17. 5 out of 5

    Marc Kohlman

    One of the best biographies on Egypt's last pharaoh! Cleopatra VII has fascinated and intrigued me since boyhood beginning with my interest in Ancient Egypt. Roller truly conducted excellent research to tell the true astounding story of this great queen. Far from the legendary seductress; Cleopatra was very ambitious, brave, dominant, salubrious, witty, devoted, outspoken, proud, resourceful, methodical, confident and passionate figure. Extremely strong, focused and daring- Cleopatra was bold bo One of the best biographies on Egypt's last pharaoh! Cleopatra VII has fascinated and intrigued me since boyhood beginning with my interest in Ancient Egypt. Roller truly conducted excellent research to tell the true astounding story of this great queen. Far from the legendary seductress; Cleopatra was very ambitious, brave, dominant, salubrious, witty, devoted, outspoken, proud, resourceful, methodical, confident and passionate figure. Extremely strong, focused and daring- Cleopatra was bold both as a leader and a human being. While her image and reputation has been rewritten and interpreted across history- she was not the diabolical witch Roman writers portrayed her as. Ruthless for her own safety, her children and kingdom- Cleopatra was one of the most successful Ptolemies. She reconstructed Egypt and was able to bring the nation prosperity and peace after bankruptcy and vicious civil war. Even though she failed to crush the emerging Roman Empire, Cleopatra left a timeless and influential mark on its culture and politics. I do personally believe she was both Greek and Egyptian based on DNA examinations of Arsinoë IV's bones and her family's connection with the priesthood of Ptah. On the subject of her legendary suicide, I am convinced given the inconsistent secondary accounts that Octavian likely killed her. While it is still possible for her to have used poison. Suicide was not in her repertoire, Cleopatra was a survivor and fighter who took every chance available to her. Over time the image of the Asp (Cobra) as the instrument of her end has been repeatedly shown in art, literature and film whereas the truth is different yet still a mystery. The day her and Mark Antony's mausoleum is uncovered, the questions and myths which have defined and depicted her for 2,000 years will be answered and resolved. This book is a 100% eye-opening and insightful scholarly work. History Buffs, Cleopatra enthusiasts especially, will enjoy this and learn new facts not only on the queen herself but also her dynasty, world, changing incarnations and immortal impact on the imagination since her death to the present day.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Jukka

    Cleopatra - Duane W. Roller Academic -- a history book, and yet very aprroachable. The subtitle is "A Biography" yet how do you make a biography with ancient history when so little of the every day is really known. Despite that i was completely involved with my read, a credit to the author. Cleopatra is so entirely different from our modern understanding. Much of the myth that survives to today is based in the Roman propaganda when they went to war against her. So picture this: Cleopatra in her mid Cleopatra - Duane W. Roller Academic -- a history book, and yet very aprroachable. The subtitle is "A Biography" yet how do you make a biography with ancient history when so little of the every day is really known. Despite that i was completely involved with my read, a credit to the author. Cleopatra is so entirely different from our modern understanding. Much of the myth that survives to today is based in the Roman propaganda when they went to war against her. So picture this: Cleopatra in her mid twenties on a ship commanding her navy in battle. Or picture her travelling on diplomatic missions in throughout the eastern Mediterranean, and to Rome. Lots of surprises in this book. It's really astounding to me how quickly things happened back then, how mobile people and armies were and how quickly information flowed even then. (I suppose there was a lot less distraction.) I am also amazed how similar things are to today in particular with commerce, personal motivation, and political life. Highly recommended. Added Later: There is a short article in the December 2010 issue of Smithsonian Magazine that touches on a lot of the topics in this book.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Alice

    I have mixed feelings about this book - I'm glad I read it and enjoyed learning more about the "real" Cleopatra; but I didn't think it was very well written. Why? 1. Oi! It's repetitive. By the time I got to the point where she killed herself, he had already told the reader about it at least five times. 2. He assumes the reader is very familiar with the legends of Cleopatra. He kept talking about the contrast with her reputation, but unless you're intimately familiar with that, you really don't I have mixed feelings about this book - I'm glad I read it and enjoyed learning more about the "real" Cleopatra; but I didn't think it was very well written. Why? 1. Oi! It's repetitive. By the time I got to the point where she killed herself, he had already told the reader about it at least five times. 2. He assumes the reader is very familiar with the legends of Cleopatra. He kept talking about the contrast with her reputation, but unless you're intimately familiar with that, you really don't know what he's talking about. I am not that steeped in Cleopatra's legend, so these references were lost on me. A quick outline at the intro would have been really useful.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Jamie

    I liked that he admitted that there isn't much really known about Cleopatra... although it made it difficult for him to say anything useful. There were whole chapters on who worked in her palace because it's all he had.... not so interesting there. But, I was bothered that he assumed I knew the general story of her life. I didn't, that's why I picked it up. So, when he would discuss her death, without telling me how it happened, I found that troublesome. Interesting, easy, and not too long.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Whitney

    This was a great non fiction account of a famous historical figure. I absolutely love learning about women who ruled in a man's world. I love Egyptian history too. This was a very detailed account of everything "Cleopatra" and I felt like I was back in a college class, learning straight from the experts on her life and times. Duane Roller is very thorough, provides all sides of an issue but then isn't afraid to give his own opinion. Not a "thrilling" non-fiction book, but this book is seeped in This was a great non fiction account of a famous historical figure. I absolutely love learning about women who ruled in a man's world. I love Egyptian history too. This was a very detailed account of everything "Cleopatra" and I felt like I was back in a college class, learning straight from the experts on her life and times. Duane Roller is very thorough, provides all sides of an issue but then isn't afraid to give his own opinion. Not a "thrilling" non-fiction book, but this book is seeped in facts and I feel like I got to know the famous Cleopatra on a personal level.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Adrian

    Not bad for what I wanted, which was to learn more about Cleopatra. (My interest was piqued by an article in the Smithsonian magazine which was high on drama and low on detail.) I know more than I ever have about Cleopatra and the world she moved in. This was a good fit for me because it wasn't so heavily detailed that I lost interest (I'm not a really good nonfiction reader) but had enough in it to satisfy my curiosity.

  23. 4 out of 5

    B. Rule

    I really liked this short little book. It's a no-nonsense look at the historical record related to Cleopatra, which is quite sparse in places and fairly well developed in others. The author gives a very light interpretive touch to the material. For its brevity and concision, it gives a good account of the importance of Hellenizing influences on Egypt through the Ptolemies and on Rome through Egypt and the other Eastern client states.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Laurie

    This was kind of an interesting book, but the background and genealogies made it tedious reading at times. Cleopatra comes across as more then just a siren. She was an educated, smart and strong individual. I knew she had an affair with Julius Caesar, but didn't understand her relationship with Mark Antony. The book helped me understand where the Ptolemys and Seluekids came from. it was a real work of scholarship for the author to keep everything straight.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Lucia Csaszar

    This book was very helpful to me as I read it before going to the Cleopatra Exhibit in Philadelphia. I had a much better understanding of Cleopatra's life and the artifacts I was viewing. Very glad to have read it.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Amber

    It was interesting and conflicted somewhat on a few details from Memoirs of Cleo, which I read just prior. Of course there is little surviving information from her time that can be trusted and verified so it's no surprise as there can't be a definitive bio of her life.

  27. 5 out of 5

    Torgny

    This short biography is one of the best I have read. It separates what we know of the real Cleopatra (Cleopatra the 12th) from the myth. Highly recommended.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Xarah

    A very approachable summary of the life and times of Cleopatra. Such a fascinating person, yet so little is really known about her. It's amazing how her mythology is still carried on to today.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth

    As heard on the New Yorker Out Loud podcast.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Lisa Berger

    The barrage of names throughout this book was more like a who's who of first century BC Rome than a biography of Cleopatra. A good cure for insomnia.

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