Scholia Reviews ns 19 (2010) 5.

Sally-Ann Ashton, Cleopatra and Egypt. Blackwell Ancient Lives. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2008. Pp. xii + 219, incl. 44 black-and-white illustrations. ISBN 978-1-4051-1390-8. UK£19.99, US$29.95.

Szerdi Nagy
Classics, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa

Following closely behind Ashton’s co-authored 2006 book on the same topic, Cleopatra: Ancients in Action, Cleopatra and Egypt from the Blackwell Ancient Lives Series seems to be aimed similarly at an audience largely unfamiliar with Cleopatra and with the world she lived in. It aims to be both engaging and accessible. Considering the numerous publications on both Cleopatra and Egypt that have come before Ashton, including the 2002 translation by David Lorton of Michael Chauveau’s 1998 Cleopâtre au-delà du mythe and Diane E. E. Kleiner’s Cleopatra and Rome,[[1]] the book seems to be little more than a summary of contemporary research and archaeological investigation. Ashton’s book promises from the offset to rely little on Roman sources for Egypt, instead constructing a picture of both Cleopatra and Ptolemaic Egypt from primarily archaeological evidence. This is only partially achieved as eventually Ashton realises that Greek and Roman sources cannot be completely discounted and she proceeds to use them quite thoroughly.

The first chapter, 'Cleopatra -- Black and Beautiful?' (pp. 1-13), deals with the controversial issue of Cleopatra’s race, a topic that has for some time been a contentious one for both Classicists and Afrocentrists alike. What promises to be an engaging reassessment of the evidence, proves to be little more than a superficial retelling of the existing scholarship[[2]] regarding the race of Cleopatra. She mentions in passing the Greek reference to Egyptians as Ethiopians (p. 8) but does not expand at any stage on the implications of this. What redeems this chapter is Ashton’s analysis of coin portraits as a way of reassessing the beauty of Cleopatra within the terms of a fluid concept of beauty (p. 11).

Chapter Two, simply entitled 'Sources' (pp. 14-24), claims to ‘consider the queen within an Egyptian context’ (p. 15), but proceeds to highlight in some detail the predominantly non-Egyptian sources on the queen. This chapter does end with the promise of favouring statues, coinage, and temple reliefs over the above-mentioned written sources (p. 23) and in the following chapters Ashton does to some degree manage to make good on this promise. Her establishment of Cleopatra within her political and ideological framework in Chapter Three (pp. 25-60) is a thorough analysis which takes into consideration the precarious position that Cleopatra found herself in after the death of Ptolemy XII in 51 BCE and shows her to have been an extremely astute political leader. This chapter is very dense, covering the entire Ptolemaic dynasty, which at times can be overwhelming to a general reader who may be unfamiliar with Ptolemaic history. This is remedied to some extent by the inclusion of detailed family trees (pp. 32f.). By looking at Cleopatra as a daughter, a sister, and wife, Ashton manages to provide a well-rounded picture of the various roles Cleopatra fulfilled. Cleopatra’s realization that the survival of her dynasty would only be guaranteed with the support of Rome shows her to have had a shrewd understanding of contemporary politics, though with a degree of naïvety, as can be seen in her inability to understand the ruthless ambition of many of the Romans in the ruling class.

Chapter Four, 'Ruler, Regent, and Pharaoh' (pp. 61-114), makes the distinction between Cleopatra, who ruled Egypt alone, and the women who had power through their roles of royal wife, mother of the king. Asthon goes on to draw parallels between Cleopatra and earlier women who enjoyed relative power (usually with their male consort) such as Hatshepsut, Tiye, and Nefertiti, including a comparison of Ptolemaic iconography (which is validated by visual sources) and the representations of these earlier queens (pp. 62-71). This chapter evolves into a discussion of the development of Cleopatra as a ruler and contains a detailed and thorough analysis of her various titles, names, the imagery specifically associated with her, coinage, and the various temples that were dedicated to her. This section includes a brief but insightful section on Cleopatra's occasional depiction as a male pharaoh. Ashton makes short mention of Cleopatra as a Hellenistic queen as she feels there is too little evidence to support this argument substantially.

Chapter Five (pp. 15-125) deals with Cleopatra's capital and court, Alexandria, focusing on the importance of the queen’s capital. In this chapter Ashton uses recent archaeological evidence well, detailing the shift from the depiction of the Ptolemies as Hellenisitc royatly to Egyptian pharonic rulers, Ashton highlights this by makeing reference to a number of temples and reliefs. She uses this alongside more traditional sources such as classical authors to construct an idea of the opulent Alexandria during the reign of Cleopatra.

Chapters Six, Cleopatra as a Goddess (pp. 126-46) and EightDeath of a Queen, Rebirth of a Goddess (pp. 169-89) fit together well as both deal with the divinity of the queen and would appear to have been better suited alongside each other for smoother continuity -- Ashton in her foreword does acknowledge the difficulty she had with the ordering of the chapters (p. xi). Chapter Six deals primarily with Cleopatra aligning herself with Isis and shows through examinations of various statues clearly how this closer than normal affiliation was achieved and how closely this was tied in with her religious policies. Ashton then concludes with a brief but interesting examination into Cleopatra being represented as a goddess at Rome and being associated with the Roman goddess Venus. Chapter Eight relies a great deal on the accounts of the deaths of Antony and Cleopatra in both Plutarch and Dio. The chapter then turns to the various views on suicide in the ancient world, choosing to focus on those in Horace, Josephus, and Velleius Paterculus (pp. 178- 82). At this point, Ashton turns away from the literary sources and turns to a discipline in which she seems more comfortable -- archaeology. Ashton follows with a comprehensive description of the process of Egyptian burial and the manner in which Cleopatra’s own mausoleum was constructed.

Chapter Seven Cleopatra, Mark Antony, and the East (pp. 147-68) is a concise and attractive summary of scholarship on the events that occurred from the first meeting of Cleopatra and Mark Antony in 55 BCE, through their ‘Association of Inimitable Livers’ (pp. 121f.) and concludes with the Battle of Actium and both their deaths. By removing the romance often associated with this story, Ashton’s account is a neat, factual, and concise one. This chapter includes reference to a number of ancient sources such as Appian, Plutarch, Josephus, Suetonius, and Athenaeus -- it seems that Ashton realised that Greek and Roman sources could not be entirely discounted.

The final chapter entitled The Legacy of Cleopatra (pp. 190-96) accompanied by the 1917 poster of Theda Bara in the silent film Cleopatra promises much in the vein of the reception of Cleopatra but unfortunately focuses only on the period immediately proceeding the death of the queen and does not explore the vast array of source material available for the reception of the legends surrounding her.

Overall, Ashton’s book is a good and informative general introduction to Cleopatra, it tends to focus on a wide variety of sources that provide interesting angles from which to examine this infamous queen.


[[1]] Michael Chauveau, Cleopatra: Beyond the Myth. Translated from the French by David Lorton (Ithaca 2002); Diana E. E. Kleiner, Cleopatra and Rome (Cambridge, Mass. 2005).

[[2]] Ashton makes mention of the influence of Bernal's Black Athena Volumes 1 and 2 (London New Brunswick); Mary Lefkowitz and Guy MacLean Roger(edd.), Black Athena Revisited (Chapel Hill 1996) 119f. Cf. also Jacques Berlinerblau, Heresy in the University: The Black Athena Controversy (New Brunswick 1999) 2; John H. Clarke's 'African Warrior Queens' in Ivan Van Sertima (ed.), Black Women in Antiquity (New Brunswick 1984) 123-34, esp. 126-28; and Shelley Haley's 'Black Feminist Thought and the Classics: Re-membering, Re-claiming, Re- empowering', in Nancy S. Rabinowitz and Amy Richlin (edd.) Feminist theory and the Classics (New York and London 1993) 23- 43.