Cleopatra: Portrait of a Killer is quite an interesting programme, which details a lesser known part of Cleopatra’s life story, how she came to the throne. The programme starts by detailing the discovery of a slight, female skeleton in a tomb in Ephesus, Turkey in the 1930’s. The person was clearly of great importance having been buried inside the Roman city; it was standard practice for Roman’s to bury people outside city limits. Not knowing the identity of the individual the finders resealed the sarcophagus and left it in the octagonal tomb. In recent years the tomb was rediscovered and a quest launched to identify the occupant. Having noted that a text by the Roman historian Casius Deo suggests it could be Cleopatra’s sister the programme then continues with a alternating scenes of reconstruction/ historical narrative and modern research concerning the skeleton.
There are certainly some issues with this programme, and unsurprisingly they are similar to ones that plague other programmes. The dreaded facial reconstruction rears its ugly head again, although this time it is digital and the experts explain what it is that they do, which was a nice touch. This focus on Arsinoe’s appearance leads to the frankly ludicrous claim that the skull is the most important part of the body. In fact a great deal more can be learnt from the rest of the body. One interesting thing which did come out of the study of her skull is the idea that she may have been of mixed descent between Greek and African or Egyptian. The programme seems to imply that the Ptolemaic dynasty, including Cleopatra, therefore may not have been purely Greek. It does not mention however that Cleopatra and Arsinoe had different mothers potentially making this invalid. On top of this of course ,is that the shape of someone’s skull is not a reliable indicator of race, despite many years of people claiming otherwise.
The programme also claims that they have proven without a doubt that the skeleton belonged to Arsinoe. This is most certainly not true. I will consent that the evidence is rather compelling, but we can never prove anything beyond doubt in archaeology, it is simply not possible. We can be very sure of something, but as we were not there to experience these past events we cannot know for sure; there is always the possibility for example that this was not her real body, even if it is her tomb, something which is not unheard of.
My final problem with this programme is the dramatic reconstructions. Now these are a bit of a bug bear of mine as what they amount to in most cases is simply filler to take up some time. I particularly hate it when they reuse the same scene, something which Cleopatra: Portrait of a Killer is guilty of at times. Throw in some bad CGI and things start to get worse. What I disliked most about them however were the small details such as manacles so large that the person wearing them could clearly slip their hands right through, and everyone wearing purple, despite the fact that in republican Rome it was a colour reserved for people of high status on special occasions. These small things I personally find rather distracting, they pull me out of the scene, as it were, and it is just as easy to get them right as to get them wrong really, so there is no excuse.
All in all though, this is an enjoyable programme and well worth a watch. It is available on the iPlayer until midnight on the 10th of July.