cleopatra: a biography by michael grant

This incredible, informative, enduring work is considered the definitive book and scholarship on Cleopatra VII, the gold standard biography for those that came after. Originally published in 1972 (later updated in the 1990s), this book was the first modern biography of Cleopatra by the acclaimed classicist, numismatist and academic historian Michael Grant.

Grant has a way of storytelling without inserting unnecessary frivolous commentary like popular history books. He has an excellent eye for contextualization of the true queen of Egypt with a sole reliance on ancient sources. His scholarship dismisses several misconceptions of the queen that pervaded her long afterlife in popular culture of the last five hundred years, such as being Egyptian, and her alleged promiscuity:

“On the other hand, the princesses of the house of the Ptolemies had always apparently been very much averse to taking casual lovers, especially from outside the royal house…. They were murderous and chaste. The same pride in their families which caused these royal Ptolemaic women to enter into brother-and-sister marriages deterred them from promiscuous associations. Cleopatra’s relationship with Caesar was adulterous in a purely technical sense, since she had gone through marriage ceremonies with her juvenile half-brothers. But her extra-marital associations seem to have been very far from casual, since, as far as we know, there were only two men in her life, Caesar and Antony.”

“Though queen of Egypt, she possessed not a drop of Egyptian blood in her veins. The last ruler of the dynasty of the Ptolemies, she was of wholly Greek upbringing, and to a very considerable extent of Greek race. She was consumed with perpetual ambition to revive the former glories of her Greek kingdom and house… Cleopatra VII would have described herself as Greek. Whatever the racial ingredients of her Macedonian ancestors, her language, like theirs (though they had spoken a dialect), was Greek, and so was her whole education and culture.”

Grant, instead of studying Cleopatra through the lens of the late 20th century, puts Cleopatra in the specific context of her times. Putting to rest the gossip and propaganda, the veil of mystery around the true Queen is lifted to reveal a powerful, persistent woman that was a medical author and scholar, skilled naval commander, talented diplomat, and brilliant propagandist in addition to being the last Hellenistic queen of the Ptolemaic Empire. While ultimately a Macedonian Greek woman that was a “Hellenistic despot ruler” and “a loser in a closely matched struggle for power” (as written by Mary Lefkowitz in her informative “Not Out of Africa”), Cleopatra was able to wield relative popularity with the people over whom she ruled, that genuinely cared for her Greek empire and worked to return it to its former glories lost to time and war.

Grant skillfully pulls together primary sources to construct a clear as possible portrait of the most famous queen in history while weeding through all the lies spouted by her detractors, principally Augustus. Grant also interestingly notes, that the attacks on Cleopatra were meant to make Mark Antony look bad, but were not necessarily meant to be a direct attack on her person. And yet this anti-Antony propaganda morphed into an everlasting “incidental” propaganda that targeted Cleopatra through millennia. Cleopatra was incredibly ambitious, but this did not encompass being a seductress but rather a charming, politically astute, highly educated queen that did all her best for her country.

At once eye opening and refreshing, scholarly and accurate, readable and fascinating, Grant gives to us what is probably the best work on Cleopatra to date. Highly recommended for both history students and any reader interested in getting a beautiful, ground breaking, erudite biography of the last Hellenistic queen of Egypt.

Tombstones of Ancient Roman Dogs

Aeolidis tumulum festivae
cerne catellae,
quam dolui inmodice
raptam mihi praepete
fato.

Behold the tomb of Aeolis, the cheerful little dog, whose loss to fleeting fate pained me beyond measure.

Raeda[r]um custos
numquam latravit
inepte. nunc
silet et cineres
vindicat um-
bra suos.

This guard of the coaches never barked unsuitably. Now he is silent and his shade protects his ashes.

Quam dulcis fuit ista quam benigna
quae cum viveret in sinu iacebat
somni conscia semper et cubilis
o factum male Myia quod peristi
latrares modo si quis adcubaret
rivalis dominae licentiosa
o factum male Myia quod peristi
altum iam tenet insciam sepulcrum
nec sevire potes nec insilire
nec blandis mihi morsib(us) renides.

How sweet and friendly she was! While she was alive she used to lie in the lap, always sharing sleep and bed. What a shame, Midge, that you have died! You would only bark if some rival took the liberty of lying up against your mistress. What a shame, Midge, that you have died! The depths of the grave now hold you and you know nothing about it. You cannot go wild nor jump on me, and you do not bare your teeth at me with bites that do not hurt.

Portavi lacrimis madidus te nostra catella,
quod feci lustris laetior ante tribus.
ergo mihi, Patrice, iam non dabis osculla mille
nec poteris collo grata cubare meo.
tristis marmorea posui te sede merentem
et iunxi semper manib(us) ipse meis,
morib(us) argutis hominem simulare paratam;
perdidimus quales, hei mihi, delicias.
tu dulcis, Patrice, nostras attingere mensas
consueras, gremio poscere blanda cibos,
lambere tu calicem lingua rapiente solebas
quem tibi saepe meae sustinuere manus,
accipere et lassum cauda gaudente frequenter

Bedewed with tears I have carried you, our little dog, as in happier circumstances I did fifteen years ago. So now, Patrice, you will no longer give me a thousand kisses, nor will you be able to lie affectionately round my neck. You were a good dog, and in sorrow I have placed you in a marble tomb, and I have united you forever to myself when I die. You readily matched a human with your clever ways; alas, what a pet we have lost! You, sweet Patrice, were in the habit of joining us at table and fawningly asking for food in our lap, you were accustomed to lick with your greedy tongue the cup which my hands often held for you and regularly to welcome your tired master with wagging tail.

Source: Electronic Archive of Greek and Latin Epigraphy

Sculpture of Episteme, symbolizing Science, at the Celsus Library in Ephesus, Anatolia. The third largest library in the ancient world, it was built in honor of a Roman Senator and completed between 114-117 AD. It had the capacity to hold 12,000 scrolls.

Instagram: instagram.com/ancient_archives

Does it ever make you want to cry to think about history & how little we actually know about it? Like there were entire empires that existed & they were glorious & powerful & now all we know about them is what we can find out from ruins & sometimes-fragmented writing. There were entire cultures & ways of life, & people who lived back then probably thought those empires would always exist & be powerful, & now they’re in ruins & have almost disappeared, & idk it just makes me so emotional to remember that

On This Day | 15 March

The Death of Caesar (1859-1867) by Jean-Léon Gérôme.

In 44 BC, Julius Caesar was stabbed to death on the Ides of March in Rome. The assassination was planned and carried out by Brutus, Cassius and several other Roman senators.