Reading Response 6: A Greco-Roman Lens
Cleopatra VII is like the most famous Queen of Egypt in all of ancient history – and she’s not even Egyptian! Cleopatra was the last in a long line of Ptolemies, a Greek family, that portrayed themselves as pharaohs and ruled from Egypt proper. During the 1st century BCE, however, the Mediterranean was in turmoil and Rome was rapidly expanding its power across the Mediterranean. Egypt, and Cleopatra, couldn’t help but be caught up in the hurricane that was the burgeoning Roman Empire.
Because of the mixing of cultures during this time, the sources we have about the life of Cleopatra mainly come from Greek and Roman writers, rather than Cleopatra herself. In this module, I want you to think about the the reliability and biases of different types of sources. We have very few sources from Egypt written by Cleopatra herself (amazingly, however, we do have her signature!). We also get a 1st-hand account from a Roman source – Julius Caesar – who was writing an autobiography as he traveled throughout the Mediterranean slaughtering people by the thousand. Finally, we have in-depth references to Cleopatra’s life in a biography by a Greco-Roman historian writing 200 years after her death.
For this assignment, I want you to do two things. First, I want you to spend 150+ words describing what we can learn about Cleopatra from each of the three sets of sources (Egyptian, Caesar, and Plutarch). Second, I want you to write 150+ words on the reliability and biases of these three sets of sources. Which is the ‘best’ source and why? Do you trust Caesar’s source more because he was there first hand? Or might he have had his own biases? Plutarch was writing centuries after her death; is he a reliable source? Consider which type of source is most useful for reconstructing a history of Cleopatra.