Cleopatra And Rome, by Diana E E Kleiner

The image-savvy Egyptian queen who never had a bad hair day
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The Independent Culture

Critics can - and do - slam the BBC's toga saga Rome, which ends tonight, for its breezily inventive way with character and chronology. But the one charge that they have no right to bring has to do with the alleged vulgarity of the series. The Roman and Hellenistic élite of the first century BC had little in common with late-Victorian gentlefolk. Rather, think the ruthless, shameless fixers and chancers in Dallas or Dynasty. And, on the fashion front, think Big Hair.

In Cleopatra and Rome, Diana E E Kleiner - a professor of classics and art history at Yale - explains how the image and legend of Egypt's superstar queen lingered in the minds, and shaped the deeds of Roman rulers. Both desired and dreaded, she "cast a long fashion shadow in Rome" through the pivotal period when Octavian/Augustus built an empire on the ruins of the republic that Julius Caesar wrecked. "Power hair", like every other personal feature of Cleopatra and her Roman rivals and lovers, had a part to play in the bitter battles of spin and propaganda.

On statues, friezes and coins, Cleopatra VII specialised in a towering cobra-motif headdress for her Egyptian audience, and a sculpted melon-shaped style for the wider Greek and Roman world. In response to the brazen Egyptian's Joan Collins-scale coiffure, Octavia - Octavian's older sister and the wife whom Mark Antony abandoned for Cleopatra - publicised the neater nodus, a pompadour-style roll of hair, as a symbol of Roman virtue and modesty. Even hair wars might win, or lose, recruits for the real wars of the 40s and 30s BC.

From temple statuary to triumphal processions and embossed tableware, the major players of those world-shaking decades carried on their poses, pacts and feuds across every medium. Kleiner's illuminating approach places emphasis on the stories told by material evidence. So, for instance, when Antony put Cleopatra's head alongside his on official coinage in 32BC, enemies of the queen thought that she had (literally) debased the Roman currency.

For Kleiner, Cleopatra enjoyed a long, illustrious afterlife in Roman art and culture. Women aped her style; patrons built in the Egyptian manner; poets buffed up her legendary persona. As for the real queen, she depicts not the minx of myth but a serial monogamist, politically astute, intellectually able - and far more loyal to her Roman lovers-turned-allies than they ever were to her.