Reliability of Roman Sources About Cleopatra
The study of historical figures itself involves serious risks since it is usually based on the research of significant personalities and phenomena described in a series of subjective sources. Risks and distortions are especially relevant in the case of crucial historical people who stood at the center of military and political conflicts between the major civilizations of the era. The study of the image of the Egyptian ruler Cleopatra, the last of the Ptolemies, is an excellent illustration of the apparent subjectivity and bias of the sources which tried to create a portrait of the woman during and after her lifetime.
During Cleopatra’s reign, Egypt and Rome were in a complicated diplomatic relationship. Although there was a romantic relationship between Caesar — his role was later replaced by Mark Antony — and Cleopatra, which can be seen as an act of reconciliation and juxtaposition of Egyptian-Roman political relations, the woman’s reign did not ease the tension between the states significantly. Thus, the Roman Empire treated the figure of Cleopatra with disdain. Most of the preserved sources reporting on the life and personality of Cleopatra have come down to the current period from Rome. It follows that such works — whether odes, poems, speeches, or coins — should be treated with severe caution since it was in the interest of the Romans to defame the honor of the Egyptian “enemy,” including through literature and works of art. Thus, many of the Roman sources must be viewed in terms of mechanisms of propaganda seeking to describe Cleopatra in unpleasant contexts. In addition, one should keep in mind the gossipy nature of the Roman public, the essence of which was to distort facts, rumors, and myths deliberately.
Thus, the Roman sources covering Cleopatra’s life cannot be called reliable. This is primarily due to the motivation of the Roman community to denigrate the reputation of the Egyptian queen because of the crisis of diplomatic relations. Moreover, in everyday speech among themselves, both ordinary Romans and representatives of the upper classes could discuss Cleopatra inaccurately and prejudicially, which contributed to the spread of prejudices and myths about the woman’s role in Egyptian history.