Cleopatra: Beyond the Myth – CHAUVEAU (CSS)

CHAUVEAU, Michel (translated from the French by David Lorton). Cleopatra: Beyond the Myth. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2002. 104p. Resenha de: Canadian Social Studies, v.38, n.3, p., 2004.

In Cleopatra: Beyond the Myth, Michel Chauveau attempts, as far as possible, to set the record straight regarding the myriad myths and facts which have followed this ancient queen through the centuries. Perhaps one of its greatest traits is that it is a relatively short book, making a somewhat complex and intimidating subject accessible. He does an admirable job of such an arduous task, and I found this a compelling, engaging and titillating book that left me wanting to learn more.

Chauveau is a former member of a noted French archaeological institute in Cairo and, at press time, was director of studies at L’Ecole Pratique in Paris. While this lends a great deal of credibility to his work, the extensive list of citations, in French, German, Italian and English, further demonstrates a wide and varied research base for his subject. This book may be useful as a secondary text by college professors, or as a supplementary resource at lower levels. Maps are provided on a front overleaf and following the Translator’s note which helps to orient the reader as to the time and place covered by this work. A small note of caution should be considered as this is a translation, and some of the nuances of the subject may have been lost or altered in that translation. The book is made up of straight text with a Chronology of the Ptolemies and a few selections from Ancient Texts, as well as excellent notes, bibliography and index.

Chauveau explains early on that the ancient accounts of Cleopatra’s life are limited. He notes that Egypt at that time was a satellite of Rome, and that it is likely, in part, due to her stormy affairs with both Julius Caesar and Antony that we know as much as we do. He also states from the beginning that he is trying to sift truth from fiction and provide a somewhat more accurate understanding of this complex woman.

Woven throughout Cleopatra are a great many details about the functioning of Roman society which was so entwined with Cleopatra’s rise, rule and eventual demise. It is largely through Roman documents that many of the facts about her have been verifiable. Some knowledge of this period of history is definitely beneficial, and makes the understanding of events much easier.

Cleopatra’s family history is detailed and her birthright to the Egyptian throne is established through a long line of powerful women of the Lagide family. Chauveau does, however, raise the question of her legitimacy when he describes her as daughter of the royal couple, fruit of a morganatic union, or even illegitimate (p. 9). From the very beginning, her life is shrouded in mystery and unanswered questions. What is not in doubt, however, is her intelligence and the fact that she must have had a considerable and extensive education. She spoke at least seven languages Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Ethiopian, Median, Parthian, and Latin at a time when even royal women were not usually extensively educated.

The future queen’s formative years were filled with conflict and intrigue as her family tried to come to terms with Roman aggression and she learned many ruthless lessons regarding power and alliance during this period. It is also suggested that once her father had died, she may have displaced her brother on the throne, overthrowing the dying king’s wishes. Then, through a series of intrigues, Cleopatra ultimately became victorious and took her place as sole ruler of Egypt. Part of why this was possible is that she came to power during the Roman Civil War. Caesar went to Egypt to plunder its riches in order to support Roman military exploits, and it was at this time that one of the famous myths of Cleopatra occurred. Chauveau maintains that she slipped through enemy lines, persuaded a friend to wrap her in a carpet and deliver her to Caesar’s private quarters, where she used seduction, intelligence and compassion to win him over. This verifies one of her well-known adventures, and clearly demonstrates a great deal of audacity and creativity on her part. Her relationship with Caesar is also authenticated by this as he describes their close relationship, her travelling to Rome and staying in his house, and eventually Caesar’s acknowledgement of Cleopatra’s son as his own.

That this famed Egyptian queen was ruthless and manipulative is beyond question. Chauveau insinuates that she had her 15-year-old brother killed so that she could usurp total control. In another instance Caesar called for her help and while she publicly refused aid, one of her generals sent a fleet to assist him. By these means she could await the outcome of the battle and denounce or support Caesar’s actions whichever served her purposes best. While these traits are not unique to Cleopatra, they are more often attributed to male rulers, but since she was a ruler and acted as such, was she really any more remarkable than her male contemporaries? Once Caesar was killed, Antony became a strong force in the Roman Empire, and he too turned to Egypt to see what support he could garner from it. To that end he summoned Cleopatra and her arrival at Tarsos and lavish display flattered him immensely. Clearly she knew how to manipulate powerful men. When he visited her at Alexandria and stayed for months it was clear that he too had fallen for her romantically. Chauveau clearly states that they were lovers (p. 46), and Antony also later acknowledged two of her children as his own.

Perhaps one of the most noted legends about Cleopatra is about how she met her end. Her army had been defeated and her rule was clearly at an end, so friends helped her to seal herself up in her mausoleum with her treasures. Chauveau presents it as fact that Antony was told she was dead and so committed suicide. He was, however, hauled up by ropes to where she was concealed and died in her arms. Octavian, a long time enemy, captured her and her treasure and confronted her with her past errors. Whether Octavian gave consent, or whether Cleopatra’s friends managed to help her without his knowledge, she did commit suicide. Literature and Hollywood perpetuate the myth of her inducing snakes to bite her, but it is more likely that she used poison. So ended the life of one of the most fabled, and perhaps misunderstood, women of history.

The legacy which Cleopatra left, regardless of the truth of the myths, is quite significant. According to Chauveau, she had reconstituted in large part the Lagide Empire of her forbears, which had dominated the Mediterranean world in the third century (p. 52). Using her considerable intelligence, beauty and ruthlessness, she accomplished what many men before her had done. Perhaps because she was a woman in a time of male dominance such exploits became the stuff of speculation, and were embellished through the ages.

While Chauveau’s work clears up many discrepancies, it also raises more questions. For example, did Cleopatra really commit suicide or was she murdered by Octavian’s minions? What would her role have been in a new Egypt had she survived? Was she merely a lusty, adulterous manipulator, or where her actions truly designed to assure the greatness of Egypt? Perhaps these questions are precisely that part of Cleopatra’s mystique that will live on forever.

E. Senger – Henry Wise Wood High School. Calgary, Alberta.

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