The Cleopatras: The Forgotten Queens of Egypt by Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones - review by Antony Spawforth

Antony Spawforth

Eternity Was in Their Lips

The Cleopatras: The Forgotten Queens of Egypt


Wildfire 368pp £25

In 1983, the BBC broadcast an eight-part dramatisation called The Cleopatras. I dimly remember the actor Richard Griffiths commanding the small screen as a shaven-headed Ptolemy VIII (‘Potbelly’). The series posed as a palace drama akin to the BBC’s earlier I, Claudius. Despite focusing, like that series, on what has been labelled ‘a tribe of fairly repellent people’, it did not meet with the same critical acclaim and has not been reshown. If it were, muses the website, would today’s viewers see it as a ‘historical, or hysterical drama’?

In his new book, Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones seeks to tell the story of Ptolemaic Egypt (323–30 BC) through its run of queens named Cleopatra. The book reflects the current fashion for reassessing women at the centre of power in ancient times, many of them patronised ever since by the male writers telling their stories. Unlike the television series, his is a serious work of history, based on the latest evidence. This includes the recent find of the famous Cleopatra’s ‘signature’ on a Greek administrative papyrus: ginesthoi (‘so be it’), it reads, the equivalent of the Bon of French kings. 

The Ptolemaic dynasty took power in Egypt following Alexander the Great’s conquest of the country in 332 BC. The dynasty’s founder, Ptolemy I, was a Macedonian general and boyhood friend of Alexander the Great. There were seven Ptolemaic queens called Cleopatra. The name, of Greek origin, was introduced into the ruling lineage of the Ptolemies with the marriage of Ptolemy V in 193 BC to a distant cousin, the ‘Syrian’ Cleopatra, a Seleucid princess. By this date, Ptolemaic Egypt was already past its heyday as a Mediterranean power. Rome was casting an ever-lengthening shadow over the states that had succeeded Alexander the Great’s empire in Greece, Asia and Egypt. The background to the queenship of the Cleopatras was one of Ptolemaic decline. 

Llewellyn-Jones makes a strong case for the achievement of the Cleopatras in securing their dynastic position – staying alive, in effect – in the face of murderous court politics and eruptions of mob rule among Alexandria’s riot-prone population. As he shows, their latent power lay in their wombs and in the deployment of brother–sister marriages to promote the god-like uniqueness of the Ptolemaic lineage. This extreme practice secured for generations of royal daughters the prospect of a throne as the spouse – and active sexual partner – of a ruling brother or close kinsman. 

Real political influence depended on personality and family dynamics, though in the event of a minority a queen mother could rule openly as regent, her image sometimes appearing ‘in complete and splendid isolation’ from that of her son in Egyptian temple reliefs. Llewellyn-Jones discusses, perforce speculatively, what childhood might have been like for a Ptolemaic princess. As descendants of Ptolemy I, later Ptolemies were proud of their Macedonian heritage, and Macedonian royalty had a long tradition of forceful females, not least in the immediate family of Alexander himself. 

Religion reinforced Ptolemaic queenship. The influential Egyptian priesthood and the Ptolemaic court were politically co-dependent. In discussing this relationship, the author makes skilful use of the art and hieroglyphs found in Egypt’s temples. These showcased favourably the role of the Ptolemaic queen, hedging it with a prestigious divinity. How much this ‘propaganda’ rubbed off on ordinary Egyptians is debatable. Llewellyn-Jones also highlights the colonialist and racist character of the Graeco-Macedonian occupation of Egypt and describes the so-called Great Revolt of around 199 BC. Setting southern Egypt alight, it was put down by Alexandria only after a real show of force. 

By the time he gets to her, in chapter fifteen, Llewellyn-Jones has established that the famous Cleopatra, the seventh of that name, certainly had family history on her side – not all of it edifying – in gauging how to play the part of Ptolemaic queen regnant. Since her ethnicity remains debated, it is helpful to have the author’s position on Cleopatra VII’s maternity: the temple evidence strongly intimates that she was the legitimate daughter of Ptolemy XII and his queen and first cousin, Cleopatra VI Tryphaina. Given the insistent endogamy of the Ptolemies, the last Cleopatra arguably had as much claim to Macedonian ancestry as Alexander the Great, half-Epirote on his mother’s
side, himself. 

Llewellyn-Jones tells the familiar story of Cleopatra’s affair with Caesar with verve. ‘We should remember that Cleopatra would have appealed to Pompey in the same way if he had won the civil war instead of Caesar,’ he writes. As to the manner of her suicide, he reminds us that the classical writers hedged their bets. Cassius Dio was certain only that ‘slight pricks’ had been found on her arm. These might have been caused by an asp or, according to Plutarch, an ‘implement’ of some sort (he suggests a comb). 

Llewellyn-Jones succeeds in demonstrating that the durability of the later Ptolemaic dynasty depended as much on its queens as on its kings. He ends by suggesting that the Cleopatras ‘count among history’s most significant ruling women’. Yet on the showing of this book, it must be conceded that none of the Cleopatras, not even the last, approached Elizabeth I or Catherine the Great as a ruler capable of setting a whole people on a different course. In mitigation, one might say much the same of the male Ptolemies, even the early ones. Their kingship was personal, not remotely ‘national’, and even their cultural achievements, such as the famous Alexandrian library, were arguably aimed at self-preservation: the need to make occupied Egypt attractive to the migrants from Greek-speaking lands on whom their dominion depended.

As well as the royal biographies it provides, the strengths of the book include its exploration of the underpinnings of Ptolemaic queenship, its panorama of Ptolemaic Egypt and the attention given to the dynasty’s Seleucid cousins ruling in neighbouring Syria, with whom the Cleopatras intermarried. In all, The Cleopatras offers a fresh and vivid account of the decline and fall of what the ancients retrospectively labelled ‘the Macedonian times’ and what we know as the Hellenistic world. 

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