LIFE Summer Research Grant Reflections: A New Look at Cleopatra: Egypt, Rome, and Beyond

This is the second blog post in a series written by the 2023 recipients of the Duke University Libraries Summer Research Fellowship for LIFE Students. You can read the first post here. Jason Liang-Lin is a Duke senior.

Growing up, I was always fascinated with  the Ancient World. How could it be possible to piece together what life was like from over four millennia ago? Books on Greek myth, Roman culture, and Egyptian history always populated my hauls from the public library. However, there was no way to dive deep into these timeless civilizations in primary or secondary school. When I stepped onto Duke’s campus my first year, I was eager to delve into a rich variety of subjects, including the study of classical antiquity. For me, I valued the diverse viewpoints that a liberal arts education brings, and Classics gave the bang for the buck. With Classics, I was learning about foreign language, political philosophy, visual art, drama, and literature all at once.

I was first hooked on studying the Late Republic (~130 B.C.-31 B.C.) and Julio-Claudian (27 B.C.-68 A.D.) eras of Roman history from the course “Age of Nero.” There, I learned how the prototypical image of Emperor Nero as an egotistical maniac who fiddled while Rome burned in a self-inflicted fire was far from the truth. My professor Dr. Lauren Ginsberg cautioned us to consider the historiography, the surrounding context for how history is written, of our ancient textual sources. Historiography is critical because of the adage “history is written by the victors.” Though ancient histories written by venerated authors such as Tacitus, Suetonius, and Livy are foundational primary texts, their works often recorded events centuries after they occur and are shrouded by the imposing political currents of the time. This bias complicates any study of history, and disentangling fact from flair is a delicate balance. These lessons were further emphasized in my most recent course “the Romans,” which was also taught by Dr. Lauren Ginsberg and provided the inspiration for my summer project. While transitioning from the Late Republic to the rise of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Gaius Octavian (later Augustus), the prominent figure Cleopatra VII (Cleopatra) became central to the histories of Rome and Egypt. I was drawn to her impressive achievements from independently raising an army to being the first of the Greek Ptolemaic rulers to speak native Egyptian.

From the days of Augustus Caesar to the Renaissance, Cleopatra has been characterized as temptress seducing ordinarily virtuous Roman men with her feminine wiles. Yet, this characterization papers over her status as a genuinely powerful monarch who prevented Egypt’s subordination as a client state, embarked on ambitious infrastructural initiatives, and avidly researched toxicology.

Recent scholarship has been shedding light on the latter narrative, upending the dominant Western paradigm of Cleopatra. However, few resources have synthesized the interplay between sources from classical antiquity and the contrasting perspectives of medieval Islamic scholars on Cleopatra. Further, the rich body of research into Cleopatra has only recently searched beyond the Horatian and Vergilian poetic interpretations of Cleopatra and uncovered diverse Roman and Egyptian perceptions of her. My project aims to be at the forefront of Cleopatra’s image revolution by integrating aspects of her leadership and scientific scholarship, as espoused by non-Roman sources, with traditional classical accounts. This study investigates alternative narratives to the visual forwarded by the Roman elite, taking into account sources both contemporaneous and post-Cleopatra. I aim to use a mixed-methods approach incorporating material, religious, and literary culture to conduct a cross-cultural analysis of Cleopatra, including how the Roman reception of her evolved, how her perception to civilizations beyond Rome deviated, and her ill-discussed scientific endeavors.

With the help of Duke University librarians Arianne Hartsell-Gundy and Greta Boers, Duke LIFE Library program advisor Rukimani Pv, and my research advisor Dr. Lauren Ginsberg, I embarked on a journey for the summer that included reading seminal biographies of Cleopatra, an academic study between Cleopatra and Rome, and literature reviews of modern scholarly research into Cleopatra. These resources were made available by the vast collections of Duke University Libraries. Contrasting popular culture, each book or research article emphasized the lack of evidence that Cleopatra traded sex for political favors or had rampant affairs. In fact, Cleopatra’s beauty did not become a subject in text until centuries after her life. Rather, Cleopatra was a well-educated queen and a shrewd politician who formed multiple beneficial alliances with Egypt’s much stronger neighbor.

In the last part of the summer, I had the privilege of visiting Rome to firsthand examine the material culture created during and after Cleopatra’s rise to power. Specifically, I visited the limited, six month exhibition “The Beloved of Isis. Nero, the Domus Aurea and Egypt,” which displayed the Egyptian influence on Rome the century following Cleopatra’s death. Situated in the excavation site of the “Domus Aurea,” the Golden House that Emperor Nero constructed in 68 A.D., is a section dedicated to Isis, the Egyptian goddess of fertility, healing, and divine motherhood. When Cleopatra was coming to power, Isis’s religious reach was spreading far beyond Egypt because of her appeal to the merchants and sailors of the Mediterranean. Cleopatra, recognizing the popularity of her cult, took advantage of her divine status as a ruling Ptolemy to adopt the persona of Isis on Earth. No doubt Cleopatra accelerated the image of Isis in Rome even after her suicide at the Battle of Actium in 30 B.C.

In addition, I visited the Ara Pacis Augustae, the Altar of Augustan Peace. Augustus constructed this monument to promote an image not only of dominion over the western and eastern parts of the empire, but also of the peace and prosperity that only Augustan heirs can continue. In Diana Kleiner’s Cleopatra and Rome, she argues that Cleopatra’s influence permeates throughout the structure, from the design to its figure carvings. First, the Ara Pacis emulated the peaceful procession and ritual sacrifice reliefs found in the Dendera Temple where Cleopatra carved herself with the young Caesarion, the child she bore with Julius Caesar. Further, Cleopatra’s daughter Cleopatra Selene likely appears alongside Cleopatra’s grandson in the north frieze of the Ara Pacis, possibly to represent Egypt’s integration into the Roman empire under Augustus. I also visited the Gregorian Egyptian Museum, a section in the Vatican Museums that holds a rich trove of artifacts from Roman Egypt and Egyptian-inspired Rome. Together, modern scholarly sources and material evidence paint Cleopatra as a powerful woman who had an indelible religious, political, and visual impact on Rome.

In conducting this research, I confronted a number of challenges. Claims regarding Cleopatra’s personality and actions are often difficult to verify, and academic studies readily admit this. All contemporaneous sources on Cleopatra that survive were written by Roman authors who readily employ invectives. Though certain writings are attributed to Cleopatra from a treatise on cosmetics to essays on gynecology and alchemy, there is no definitive evidence of any extant works written by her. Personally, Roman and Ptolemaic lineages were quite difficult to keep track since they have longstanding traditions of incestuous marriages, are rife with political murders, and frequently include adopted children of relatives. Through this research process, I also recognized that organization and focus are two invaluable assets for efficiently conducting in-depth research.

With the summer over, I anticipate exploring deeper into the non-Roman depictions of Cleopatra and how those images clash or complement the Roman view of her. My immediate focus will be to read through Bernard Legras’s Cléopâtre l’Egyptienne (2021), which uses a variety of non-Roman sources to construct a more objective, scholarly picture of Cleopatra. Ultimately I see this project as the cornerstone of a senior dossier for a potential major in Classical Civilizations.

I am grateful for the support of Duke University Libraries and their patrons in providing the intellectual and financial resources for this summer research opportunity. I also greatly appreciate the research suggestions and writing advice of my faculty mentor, Professor Lauren Ginsberg, Duke librarians Arianne Hartsell-Gundy and Greta Boers, and program advisor Rukimani Pv. Finally, I want to thank my 2023 LIFE Summer cohort Axelle Miel and Jura Miklobusec. I can’t wait to see where your research takes you.