Special Episode – The Reception of Cleopatra

Cleopatra looms large in the imagination, but her legacy is often overshadowed by the western cultural tradition. It turns out that there are many ways to understand the last Pharaoh of Egypt.

Special Episode – The Reception of Cleopatra with Yentl Love

We were thrilled to sit down with Yentl Love to discuss the Islamic reception of Cleopatra. Love is known for her work in making ancient history and classics accessible through her blog the The Queer Classicist. Love has been studying Ancient History and Classics for a number of years and is now bringing the ancient world to life for readers across the globe.


Egypt’s last pharaoh has a rather negative reputation in the western tradition. A classic example is the characterisation of her as a poisoner.
Alexander Cabanel, Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Condemned Prisoners, between circa 1845 and circa 1887. Wikimedia Commons

Rethinking Cleopatra  

Cleopatra VII was the last Pharaoh to rule Egypt. She was part of the Ptolemaic dynasty, descendants of one of Alexander the Great’s generals. She experienced her fair share of family drama. One of her sisters was executed for seizing the throne from their father! It may not have been a relaxing childhood, but it did prepare her for a political career when she became pharaoh at just eighteen, alongside her younger brother, Ptolemy XIII.

In this episode, we discuss Cleopatra’s journey and her encounters with some of the most famous Romans in history, including Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and Octavian (later Augustus!), and how these relationships would impact the way she was represented in the surviving sources.

There are many Greco-Roman sources that refer to Cleopatra, and these include histories, biographies, poems and letters. One factor that they have in common is the negative portrayal of the Egyptian Pharaoh. This is in contrast to the archaeological record, such as coins, statues and buildings.

One of the most arresting portraits is by Artemisia Gentileschi, Death of Cleopatra, 1613 or 1621-1622. Here we see a woman in middle age, stripped bare of all the insignia of power in her final moment of defiance.

Cleopatra the Scholar

We explore some of the reasons behind the differing portraits that have survived of Cleopatra, before delving into the Islamic source tradition. Produced much later than the Greco-Roman sources or the archaeological material, the Islamic sources provide a distinct portrayal of Egypt’s last queen; one that is not bound up in her relationships with men or her appearance.


Cleopatra the scholar? Elizabeth Taylor in the title role of the 1963 film with writing implement in hand!
Image courtesy of http://www.mediafactory.com.au

Join us for this episode about the historiography of Egypt’s last pharaoh; a woman whose fame deserves to include more than just her Roman lovers.

Select Bibliography

Ashton, S. Cleopatra and Egypt. Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2008.

El-Daly, O. Egyptology: The Missing Millenium: Ancient Egypt in Medieval Arabic Writings. London & New York: Routledge, 2016.

Gillett, M. “Goddess, Whore, Queen and Scholar.” Teaching History 51, no. 1 (March 2017): 19-23.

Hughes-Hallet, L. Cleopatra: histories, dreams and distortions. London: Pimlico, 1997.

Welch, K. “Cleopatra as Pharaoh?” Teaching History 53, no. 1 (March 2019): 10-15.

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Drs R and G laugh and spar their way through the ancient Roman world!

One Comment

  1. […] We sit down with Yentl Love to talk all about classical reception in Lil Nas X’s 2021 music video for ‘Call Me By Your Name’. Yentl Love is the famous Queer Classicist and we recommend checking out her blog for accessible analysis of the ancient world. We are thrilled to have Yentl return to the show – you may remember her from the insightful conversation we had about the reception of Cleopatra. […]

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