This week on the blog we’re going to talk about Cleopatra or to be more specific, we’re going to talk about Cleopatra VII Philopator, who is the only Cleopatra you’ve likely ever heard of, but that ‘seven’ after he name should signal that she’s not the only Cleopatra. 1 One of the trends in scholarship over the years towards larger than life ancient historical figures – Caesar, Alexander, Octavian, etc. – has been attempts to demystify them, stripping away centuries of caked on reception, assumptions and imitation to ask more directly: who was this person, what did they do and do we value those sorts of things? 2
Cleopatra, of course, has all of that reception layered on too. In antiquity and indeed until the modern era, she was one of the great villains of history, the licentious, wicked foreign queen of Octavian’s propaganda. More recently there has been an effort to reinvent her as an icon of modern values, perhaps most visible lately in Netflix’ recent (quite poorly received) documentary series. A lot of both efforts rely on reading into gaps in the source material. What I want to do here instead is to try to strip some of that away, to de-mystify Cleopatra and set out some of what we know and what we don’t know about her, with particular reference to the question I find most interesting: was Cleopatra actually a good or capable ruler?
Now a lot of the debate sparked by that Netflix series focused on what I find the rather uninteresting (but quite complicated) question of Cleopatra’s heritage or parentage or – heaven help us – her ‘race.’ But I want to address this problem too, not because I care about the result but because I am deeply bothered by how confidently the result gets asserted by all sides and how swiftly those confident assertions are mobilized into categories that just aren’t very meaningful for understanding Cleopatra. To be frank, Cleopatra’s heritage should be a niche question debated in the pages of the Journal of Juristic Papyrology] by scholars squinting at inscriptions and papyri, looking to make minor alterations in the prosopography of the Ptolemaic dynasty, both because it is highly technical and uncertain, but also because it isn’t an issue of central importance. So we’ll get that out of the way first in this essay and then get to my main point, which is this: