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 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

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In the first volume of Oxford's series Women in Antiquity, historian and archeologist Roller (Through the Pillars of Herakles), professor emeritus at Ohio State University, debunks the myth of Cleopatra (69–30 B.C.E.), offering a straightforward, reader-friendly biography of this intriguing and powerful ruler. Drawing on ancient sources, he portrays not a seductress who used her charm to blind men to their better judgment but a powerful naval commander during the Battle of Actium and a savvy royal administrator, “who skillfully managed her kingdom in the face of a deteriorating political situation” and Rome's increasingly intrusive presence. Roller also reveals her for the first time as an author—of Cosmetics, a medical and pharmacological treatise for such conditions as hair loss and dandruff. Tracing her life from her birth and her extensive education as a young girl to her ascension to the throne in 51 B.C.E., her consolidation of the Egyptian empire, and her strategic alliances with Rome, Roller provides a definitive account of a queen of remarkable strength (she compared herself to Alexander) who was a leader of her people. 18 b&w illus. (Apr.)
Tracy Lee Simmons
In Cleopatra's case, the word 'biography' strikes a strange modern note, suggesting the existence of more historical information about her than we in fact have to draw from. But as a historian, classical scholar and archaeologist, Roller brings the full apparatus of what we do know to bear—a tricky task given how Cleopatra's reputation was officially propa­gandized into oblivion after her defeat and death. The result is an authoritative, amply footnoted yet brisk account not only of her life but also of its rich backdrop, featuring a cast extending backward through almost three centuries of the Ptolemaic dynasty.
—The New York Times
Library Journal
The end of the Roman Republic has inspired a lot of good recent biographies, but did we really need another scholarly life of Cleopatra after Joyce Tyldesley's Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt (2008)? Surprisingly, the answer is yes. While Tyldesley probed deeply into Ptolemy family history and iconography, classicist Roller (Greek & Latin, emeritus, Ohio St. Univ.) focuses on Cleopatra (69–30 B.C.E.) as a ruthless and learned queen in a time when female rulers were practically unknown. The first of the Ptolemys to speak Egyptian (the family was Greek in origin), Cleopatra used her many languages to help her achieve her goals of holding on to her throne and restoring to Egypt territory lost by her ancestors. Her shrewd liaisons and childbearing with Julius Caesar and Marcus Antonius supported her on her throne for 20 years as Roman dominance of the Mediterranean world grew. But there were limits to what a proud queen would do to survive. "I will not be led in triumph," she told her conqueror Augustus Caesar. Then she killed herself. VERDICT Cleopatra reclaims her stature as a significant monarch of her era in this unsentimental corrective to the romantic legend. Recommended for all who study her era.—Stewart Desmond, New York
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195365535
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 4/1/2010
  • Series: Women in Antiquity Series
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 1,257,883
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Historian, archaeologist, and classical scholar, Duane W. Roller is Professor Emeritus of Greek and Latin at The Ohio State University. The author of eight books, including Through the Pillars of Herakles and The Building Program of Herod the Great, he has excavated in Greece, Italy, Turkey, and the Levant.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1. Cleopatra's Ancestry and Background
2. The Ptolemaic Heritage and the Entanglement With Rome
3. Cleopatra's Youth and Education
4. Becoming Queen (51-47 BC)
5. Consolidating the Empire (47-40 BC)
6. The Peak Years (40-34 BC)
7. The Operation of the Kingdom
8. Scholarship and Culture at the Court of Cleopatra
9. Downfall (34-30 BC)
List of Passages Cited

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 14 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 13 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 14, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Queen of Kings

    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 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 26, 2012


    This book was very informative, yet it was very difficult to find the information I was looking for. I was using Cleopatra as the subject of my biography. I gotta say, she had a pretty twisted life. I was originally using this book, but I had about 3 days to finish it so I went with a picture book. I'm going into 7th grade and I'm in Academy la/lit. I could read a Harry Potter book in a day or two if I was focused. I read for at least a few hours each night, but this book was so bland, I couldn't make myself dedicated to reading such a factual and advanced book. I definetely do not recommend this book to kids of any age. For adults, it should be okay to read.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 3, 2012

    Ghfgggcggghtffder nfcccfxc


    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 5, 2011

    An excellent source for the true story

    Duane Roller does a very good job in sticking to the facts of what happened, or may have happened in the life of Cleopatra. He stuck to only primary sources, and pointed out areas in which they have differed. An excellent read, although not a light read.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 9, 2012

    light and brezy

    Fun to read. was Cleopatra that good? or lucky?

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 29, 2012


    Fhhvdryjvdty hffjbhgtyhhggtyyjj

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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