Cleopatra: A Biography (Women in Antiquity)
Duane W. Roller
Oxford University Press   252pp   £14.99
ISBN 978 0195365535

Duane Roller is Professor Emeritus of Greek and Latin at Ohio State University. It therefore comes as no surprise that his Cleopatra is primarily set against a non-Egyptian background, as the final Greek ruler of Egypt. His biography is relatively short – almost 100 pages are taken up by detailed appendices, copious notes, a bibliography and index – but is written with a deft touch and is extremely accessible. This is Cleopatra laid bare without any distractions: a good beginning for readers who know little about her and want to learn more. Roller is one of the few historians who does not feel the need to explore modern treatments and perceptions of Cleopatra, or to divert down the ultimately fruitless path of speculating about her sensuality and beauty (or lack of it). His straightforward approach allows the queen to emerge from his narrative as an intelligent and complex character: a linguist and scholar who became a worthy political rival to the men who dominated and ultimately defined her life.

By its very nature this brisk treatment raises some questions destined to be unanswered. Can we really write the ‘biography’ of anyone living in dynastic Egypt? Just how reliable are our main sources of evidence, the Classical historians Plutarch and Cassius Dio? What do we know of Egypt outside Alexandria during Cleopatra’s reign? But this is a minor quibble and it is no bad thing that this readable book leaves the reader wanting to know more about its subject.

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