ï~~Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 46 (2009) 263-266
Sally-Ann Ashton, Cleopatra and Egypt. Oxford: Blackwell, 2008. xiii
+ 219 pages. ISBN 978-1-4051-1389-2 (cloth), 978-1-4051-1390-8
Books about Cleopatra are like London busses: for a long time there are
none, then a whole lot come by in convoy. Obviously in such a crowded market
an author has to have some individual take on the subject. Ashton (hereafter
A.) accordingly makes clear in her Author's Foreword (p. xi) her intention to
give the Egyptian evidence priority as a foundation rather than trying to approach her subject from a classical historian's point of view and making the
archaeological evidence fit the text. She also notes that her aim has been to try
to find the "real" Cleopatra, but she admits, as any biographer must if they are
honest, that "what I have subsequently realized and accepted is that by 'real' I
meant 'my' Cleopatra."
In Ch. 1, "Cleopatra - Black and Beautiful?" A. begins by reviewing the
problematic modern concept of a Black Cleopatra. She notes that while many
contemporary Egyptians do not think of themselves as part of Africa, nonetheless they do think of Cleopatra as an Egyptian queen. The evidence for
Cleopatra's role in Egypt suggests that she deliberately promoted herself as
an Egyptian in her home country, perhaps even to the extent of neglecting
her Greek heritage in favour of the native tradition (p. 3; although "neglect"
is surely too strong). This would perhaps have been a good place to introduce
W Huss's hypothesis ("Die Herkunft der Kleopatra Philopator," Aegyptus 70,
1990, 191-203) that Cleopatra, her sister Arsinoe, and her brothers Ptolemies
XIII and XIV were all Ptolemy XII's children by an illegitimate union with a
woman from the Egyptian priestly elite. This theory is not alluded to until p.
32 in ch. 3, and then only in passing.
Ch. 1 ends with a brief discussion of Cleopatra's beauty, or rather lack of it
to modern Western eyes. This is particularly so in the case of the coin portraits.
It may well be that, given the doubts raised about the identification of several of
the supposed portrait statues of the queen by several contributors to S. Walker
and S.-A. Ashton (eds.), Cleopatra Reassessed (London 2003), the coins may be
our only secure guide to what Cleopatra might have looked like.
In Ch. 2, "Sources," A. briefly reviews modern biographical studies of
Cleopatra, then the Roman sources of different periods, followed by Appian
and Athenaeus who are characterized here as "Egyptians and Africans," then
early Christian and Moslem Egyptian historians, and finally alternatives to the
literary and historical sources. There are a couple of oddities here which could
have been edited out. For example, the statement that Caesar's Alexandrian