Cleopatra: The Queen Who Challenged Rome and Conquered Eternity

Written by Alberto Angela
Review by Misty Urban

Popular Italian historian Angela’s docudrama covers a crucial fourteen years of Roman history, complete with feasts, battles, and two legendary love affairs. The first hundred pages dramatize minute-by-minute the assassination of Julius Caesar, while the rest of the book maps events and shifting alliances up to the final triumph of Western imperialism over the “exotic” East, with a steamy interlude for Antony’s relationship with Cleopatra. Angela insists that Egypt’s famous queen, Graeco-Macedonian and educated, is sexier because of her smarts, but the narrative lens focuses on her “sensual, erotic” body, and long, rapturous passages dwell on her grooming, bathing, wafting sensuously through rooms, and having sex.

Beneath the romanticization and melodrama, Angela ably outlines the conflicts that turned Rome from a republic to an empire, ending the ancient Egyptian kingdoms and the Hellenistic age. His sources are sound and the material detail of day-to-day life is fascinating, including a thrilling tour of the Library of Alexandria. Readers unconcerned by occasional confusion over timelines and the ubiquitous sexualization of its supposed subject will likely enjoy Angela’s indulgent portrait. Those tired of the centuries-old cliché of the shrewd sexpot can turn to Stacy Schiff’s excellent biography, which is actually about Cleopatra.