An ancient Egyptian relief of Cleopatra

One of the most important Roman discoveries of the last fifteen years is still little known. Unearthed in northern Greece, it is the monument erected to commemorate the naval battle of Actium in 31 BC, fought between Octavian (the future emperor Augustus) on the one side and Mark Antony, with his lover and financial backer, Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt, on the other. Victory effectively handed to Octavian control of the Roman world, and ended the decade of civil wars that had followed the assassination of Julius Caesar. Antony and Cleopatra, the rival claimants to power, sloped back to Alexandria, the capital of Egypt. The vast memorial to the battle is a major work of Roman state art, with terraces, colonnades, freestanding statues, and a large altar covered with sculpture celebrating the new Augustan regime. It stood on a prominent headland, overlooking the site of the battle, reportedly on the exact spot where Octavian had pitched his tent before the engagement and just outside his new city of Nikopolis (“Victory Town”).

The site of the monument has been known since the early nineteenth century and it has been sporadically excavated ever since. In the 1980s the façade of the structure was examined in detail: a large retaining wall, over sixty yards long, with more than thirty empty sockets that had once held bronze rams, taken from the captured warships of Antony and Cleopatra. This series of enemy weapons, jutting out all along the front of the monument, was a powerful boast of Octavian’s victory—as well as an open warning to anyone in the future who might consider challenging the regime. The Roman principate tended to conceal its autocratic power under a veil of civility, but—as this Actium monument shows—the threat of violence was never far from the surface.

The most spectacular discoveries were not, however, made until the 1990s. These were the fragments of the relief sculpture, in the finest Athenian marble, which once ran around the altar (originally extending for more than fifty yards). Found in over 15,000 pieces, this has been gradually reassembled by a team led by the archaeologist Konstantinos Zachos. He has shown that the sculpture was arranged in two registers. The lower register showed a variation on a standard Roman theme: images of weapons and armor, artfully composed to look as if they had fallen at random.

The upper register is a much more striking find, rivaling in importance the famous Ara Pacis (Altar of Peace) or Forum of Augustus, both in Rome. For it depicted Octavian’s triumphal procession celebrated in Rome in 29 BC, to honor his Actium victory. Surviving portions depict a group of leading Romans accompanying the procession, and a few, very fragmentary, prisoners and lictors carrying the fasces, the bundle of rods that was the symbol of Roman official power.

By immense good fortune, what must have been the central image has also been preserved. This is the triumphal chariot of Octavian, an elaborately decorated affair with large wheels, pulled by a team of four horses. Only the lower body of the emperor survives, with an outstretched arm holding a branch of laurel. But in front of him, peeking out over the high sides of the chariot, are two diminutive figures of children, a boy and a girl. There is no firm indication of who they are. But Zachos, largely on the basis of the physical appearance of the girl and comparison with other portraits, identifies them as the ten-year-old twin children of Antony and Cleopatra, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene.

The idea is that rather than simply display Antony and Cleopatra’s children as enemy captives (Roman propriety would not, after all, have approved of parading the children of Antony, a Roman senator, as if they were human spoils), Octavian chose to have them share his chariot. They were on display as captives in a sense, but at the same time under the care of the new emperor, in a spirit of reconciliation.

The reconstruction of the Actium victory monument not only gives us a glimpse of a lost masterpiece of Roman art. It is also a tremendous achievement of archaeological detective work. Yet inevitably, it raises all kinds of further issues and problems. For a start, ingenious and appealing as Zachos’s identification of the children is, it is almost certainly wrong. Several Roman writers discuss the tradition of carrying children in the triumphal chariot: they are always the close relatives, usually the sons and daughters, of the successful general. The ancient biographer Suetonius tells us that in Octavian’s procession in 29, his nephew Marcellus and his adopted son Tiberius rode on horses next to the chariot—which leaves his daughter Julia and Tiberius’ younger brother Drusus, both aged nine, as the most likely occupants of the chariot. Indeed the historian Dio Cassius strongly implies that, notwithstanding Roman proprieties, Cleopatra’s children were displayed in the procession alongside a model or statue of their mother, who had (or so it was said) escaped the ignominy of being paraded in the triumph by well-timed suicide.


More generally, this vast—and surely very costly—monument gives us another example of the way the Augustan regime fixed on the Battle of Actium as the defining moment of victory in the war against Antony and Cleopatra, and as the foundation of the new political order. Even now, Augustus’ reign is still usually dated from that battle in 31 BC. In reality, as Joyce Tyldesley makes clear in Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt, Actium was “hardly the greatest of victories.” Both Antony and Cleopatra escaped alive, their forces on dry land were won over to Octavian’s side only by large bribes, while Octavian himself was “embarrassingly short of money,” for he had not managed to get his hands on Cleopatra’s rich war chest.

All the same, unheroic as it was, the battle provided more promising material for Augustus’ propaganda machine than its messy and seedy sequel, when Antony and Cleopatra reached Alexandria. After further inglorious skirmishes, bribery, and treachery on all sides, both of the lovers apparently killed themselves in 30 BC: Antony when he thought (wrongly) that Cleopatra had died; Cleopatra to escape further humiliation at Octavian’s hands and the obligatory appearance in the triumph.

Some modern scholars, Tyldesley included, have had their doubts about the queen’s death—and not just about how feasible suicide by snakebite (her chosen method, according to tradition) really was. They have also suspected that, however loudly Octavian claimed that he wanted her as a spoil for his triumph, he would have realized that Cleopatra alive was likely to be much more trouble than Cleopatra dead; the story of suicide, in other words, may well have been a cover for murder. We will never know the truth, but Octavian may have had good reason for dating his reign to 31 BC (rather than the following year), and focusing popular attention on a sea battle instead of the murky circumstances surrounding his adversaries’ deaths.

Tyldesley’s biography of Cleopatra is engaging, brisk, and reasonably level-headed. This is not the usual story of passion and romance between the dazzling Egyptian queen and ambitious, easily seducible Roman dynasts—whether Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, or any other of her supposed string of international lovers. In fact, according to one creative misreading of Plutarch, adopted by Shakespeare, she had even seduced Julius Caesar’s old rival, Pompey the Great, as she later did his son. If true, it would mean that she had been to bed with just about all the key Roman players in the civil wars of the mid-first century BC. Tyldesley’s main aim is a more austere one. It is to see Cleopatra in the context not only of Roman power and civil war, but also in the context of Egyptian society and of the Greek Ptolemaic dynasty that had ruled the country for almost three hundred years, since the conquests of Alexander the Great. Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator (“Goddess, father-loving”), to use her proper royal title, was the last queen of the Ptolemies, in the dynasty’s declining decades.

The reputation of the Ptolemaic capital of Egypt, Alexandria, may now be one of high culture, scholarship, and learning; this was the city of the famous Alexandrian Library, and of the poets Theocritus and Callimachus. But Tyldesley leaves us in no doubt that in the final century of the Ptolemies’ rule, culture or no culture, Egypt was in effect a rogue state. Life at the top was murderous. Cleopatra was in open war with her brother Ptolemy XIII, who drowned in the Nile while he was in flight from Julius Caesar, then Cleopatra’s ally. (The story was that his boat sank, and the golden armor he was wearing made it impossible for him to swim.) Cleopatra’s sister, Arsinoë, who had backed Ptolemy XIII, was captured by Caesar and displayed in his triumphal procession of 46 and then allowed to live in the temple of Artemis at Ephesus—until in 41 Cleopatra and Antony had her murdered on the temple steps.

Tyldesley is also fascinating when she is tracking down evidence concerning Cleopatra in the surviving Egyptian material (whether papyri, inscriptions, or sculpture). And she is clear and honest about the problems of doing so. Often we are dealing with the same tricky issues of recognition and identification (is this Cleopatra or isn’t it?) as we saw with the children on the Actium monument. The earliest dated Egyptian representation of Cleopatra is a particularly intriguing example. It is a stone plaque, almost two feet tall, inscribed with a short text in Greek, dated to “Year 1” (of her reign, that is), and recording a dedication to the goddess Isis made by some religious group on behalf of “Cleopatra Thea Philopator.” Above the text is a small relief sculpture showing Isis on the left and, facing her, the queen making an offering. The oddity is that this image of Cleopatra shows her in the dress of a male Egyptian pharaoh.


Historians of ancient gender have seen this as crucially significant. Women in antiquity were by definition so disempowered that the authority of a new female ruler could only be captured by representing her in the guise of a man. Or so the argument goes. And, to be fair, there are—as Tyldesley observes—one or two Egyptian precedents for such a convention. Queen Hatshepsut, for example, in the fifteenth century BC was often portrayed as male. But in this case, a careful look at the plaque itself reveals a much more practical explanation: the inscription seems to have been recut, in order to replace some earlier text with the version we now have. The likeliest explanation is that the original wording honored Cleopatra’s father Ptolemy XII, but that he died before the dedication was carried out and the plaque set up. The words of the dedication were hastily changed to reflect the change of ruler, though the formulaic image of the pharaoh was left in place.


Fox Films/Kobal Collection/Witzel

Theda Bara in the film Cleopatra, 1917

As an Egyptologist by training, Tyldesley is sometimes less reliable on the Roman context of Cleopatra’s life-story. Anyone, for example, who can call Dio Cassius’ History of Rome “highly readable” and “action-packed” has not, I suspect, read it from cover to cover. And the idea that the baroque rhetoric of the Roman poet Lucan is the “equivalent of modern tabloid journalism” is as overgenerous to the British popular press as it is unfair to one of Rome’s literary giants. But it is in her analysis of the well-known accounts of Cleopatra’s final years with Mark Antony, and their conflict with Octavian, that some nagging problems with Tyldesley’s Cleopatra are to be found.

Greek and Roman writers tell a fairly consistent story about the couple’s decadent lifestyle in Alexandria, and about the danger they posed to the more sober, down-to-earth traditions of Rome. Ancient historians, poets, and biographers refer time and again to the ostentatious banqueting that went on around Antony and Cleopatra, and Plutarch singled out their notorious drinking society known as the “Association of Inimitable Livers.” It was commonly said that on one notorious occasion Antony dressed up as the god Dionysus, and celebrated a parody version of a Roman triumph in the Egyptian capital. And on another, Antony and Cleopatra are supposed to have appeared together as king and queen and to have announced their plans for world dominance, including a scheme to groom young Caesarion (Cleopatra’s son by Julius Caesar) to take over the western part of the Roman empire.

How much of this is even remotely true? Tyldesley has a healthy suspicion of many of the lurid details. She recognizes that we can find occasional confirmation even for some of the most picturesque stories. There is, for example, an inscribed statue base from Alexandria which refers to Antony as “an inimitable lover “—which may well be a pun on his “Association of Inimitable Livers.” But she has no time for the idea that, when with Cleopatra, Antony “pissed in a gold chamber pot”; she is dubious, though not wholly dismissive, about the story of Cleopatra, on a wager with Antony, dissolving her pearl earring in her wine (a scene recreated in Tiepolo’s famous painting The Banquet of Cleopatra ) and then drinking the resulting mixture; and she even wonders whether the “Inimitable Livers” were actually a religious organization devoted to Dionysus as much as a drinking club.

She is also well aware that the misogynist Romans would have found in Cleopatra, the foreign queen, a useful scapegoat for the disasters of the wars. Just as Dido, Queen of Carthage, threatened to keep Rome’s founding hero, Aeneas, away from the path of duty, so it was Cleopatra who led Antony and the others astray—their only crime being weakness of will in the face of a dangerously seductive, emasculating, immoral woman. To put it another way, the reports of Cleopatra’s sexual and other excesses were not simply extravagant fantasies; they were invented to fill an important political function in Rome.

Choosing what to believe out of all the colorful stories told about infamous personalities in the ancient world is, of course, a central task for any modern historian of Greece and Rome. But Tyldesley does not face up to the bigger question of how far not merely the details but even the underlying structure of the various ancient accounts of Cleopatra’s life with Antony is the result of Augustan propaganda—how far, that is, the publicity machine that turned the Battle of Actium into the culminating victory of the civil wars also created the image of Orientalizing decadence that still defines Antony and Cleopatra.

The truth is that in the years that followed Julius Caesar’s murder, there was not much to choose between Octavian and Antony as rivals for power in Rome. It was certainly no foregone conclusion that Octavian would end up victorious. In fact in 32 BC, only shortly before the final campaign leading up to the Battle of Actium, several hundred senators, including both the consuls, chose to throw in their lot with Antony and left Italy to fight on his side. This is an extraordinary total if Antony and Cleopatra were really living in a state of almost perpetual drunkenness, dressing up as gods, and publicly planning to carve up the known world between themselves and the illegitimate son of Caesar himself.

Almost certainly they were not. But it is the propaganda of the winners that, as usual, has entered the history books, both ancient and modern. Once Octavian had secured victory, even if not before, it was undoubtedly in his interest to make it look as if his own success had indeed been a foregone conclusion—or, at least, that victory for Antony would have meant the complete destruction of all that Rome stood for. Whatever the aims of Antony really were, they were rewritten to appear as part of a (love-fueled) attempt to turn Rome into an Eastern monarchy, with its capital in Alexandria. This is captured nicely in the story of his “triumph,” in the guise of the god Dionysus, in Alexandria—which must have been told as a terrible warning to Octavian’s home audience of how Antony could take one of the oldest Roman rituals of state, one that could be celebrated only in Rome itself, transport it to the East, and turn it into an instrument of his own self-aggrandizement.

Meanwhile, Octavian stressed his own traditional, homespun Italic image. When in 32 BC he finally declared war on Cleopatra (and significantly it was on Cleopatra, the foreign enemy, alone) he revived—or more likely creatively “reinvented”—an antiquated Roman religious ceremony to mark the start of hostilities. In what must have seemed an extraordinarily quaint piece of theater, Octavian (as Tyldesley puts it)

donned ritual garments, stood before the temple of Bellona on the Campus Martius, hurled a wooden javelin against an invisible foreign enemy and, invoking the most ancient of rites…declared war on Cleopatra.

Other propagandist touches included the parade of his own sister Octavia, who had once been married to Antony, as a loyal Roman wife and mother, in contrast to the dangerous subversion represented by Cleopatra. Octavian’s publicity campaign is one of the most flagrant examples in world history of the first law of military victory: that the reputation of both winners and losers is dictated by the winner. After Octavian’s establishment as sole ruler of the Roman world, it was in everyone’s interest to collude in his fiction.

If Antony had won, of course, the story would have been very different. Indeed, despite the dominance of the Augustan version of events, a few hostile anecdotes about the young Octavian probably offer a glimpse of what Antony’s side was saying. One particularly revealing example highlights an extravagant dinner party given by Octavian in Rome. Dubbed “The Banquet of the Twelve Gods,” it was an elaborate fancy-dress party, to which every guest literally came in a divine costume. Octavian chose to dress up as the god Apollo. Not unlike the reports of Cleopatra appearing as Isis or Antony as Dionysus, it is this type of story that would surely have dominated the historical record about Octavian if he had lost the Battle of Actium. It would have been a far cry from the image of the Augustus as a wise and avuncular elder statesman that we now know.

The implications of all this for any biography of Cleopatra, or of Antony, are bleak. Tyldesley is astute in trying to focus on the Egyptian evidence for Cleopatra’s life. But even so, it is impossible to tell the story without relying on material that has, to a greater or lesser extent, been subjected to Octavian’s hostile spin. The fact is that we probably get a more telling, and less biased, view of the conflicts of this period of Mediterranean history, and the role of women within that, if we turn our attention to those who stood a little behind the front ranks—and who were not quite such helpless victims of the posthumous propaganda campaign.

One of the most extraordinary figures was Antony’s third wife, Fulvia, who independently raised eight legions in Italy to fight for Antony. She was eventually besieged by Octavian’s forces in the town of Perugia, and by chance a number of the lead sling bullets used against her by Octavian’s artillery have been found. Many of these carry the crudest of obscene graffiti, making it all too clear exactly which part of Fulvia’s anatomy was their intended target. No doubt, outside the fantasy world conjured up by Augustan propaganda, Cleopatra too was the butt of such violent ridicule.

More typical perhaps is the story of Cleopatra Selene, one of the twins born to Antony and Cleopatra who may—or more likely may not—have been represented in the chariot on the Actium monument. Whatever her part in Octavian’s triumphal procession, she remained for a while in Rome under the care of the long-suffering Octavia (who was forced to act out her role as virtuous wife and mother by looking after Antony’s children by a number of other women). After a few years, while still in her mid-teens, Cleopatra was found “an eminently suitable husband” (as Tyldesley chooses to see it), in the shape of a North African prince named Juba—another captive, who had also been raised in Rome and become a close friend of Octavian (as well as a prolific geographer and historian). Around 25 BC, Juba and Cleopatra were packed off to rule the Roman dependency of Mauretania, in North Africa, where they had two children (one called Ptolemy and the other, we guess, Cleopatra) and where they each issued coinage in their own name: Juba’s was in an official Roman style, with Latin slogans; Cleopatra’s was decorated with Egyptian symbols and her title in Greek, “Queen Cleopatra.”

It is a nice irony that less than a decade after her mother’s death, Cleopatra Selene could safely be sent to take her place as an African queen, call her children by the preferred names of the Ptolemaic dynasty, and boast of her Egyptian connections. Or perhaps, rather, it is a sign of the self-confidence of the Augustan regime and the success of its propaganda. No Cleopatra could threaten it now.

This Issue

February 12, 2009