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Thursday, April 4th, 2002


 

Cleopatra of Egypt: From History to Myth

by

The Nose and the Asp

A review by Ingrid D. Rowland

When the conquering Roman general Octavian (soon to be called Augustus) arrived in Egypt in 30 B.C.E., he is said to have gone immediately to visit the tomb of Alexander the Great. Asked by his Egyptian guides whether he would also like to see the tombs of the Ptolemies, the Macedonian dynasts who succeeded Alexander, the Roman victor replied: "I came to see a king, not dead bodies."

Octavian had also come to see a queen. He hoped to bring her back to Rome as a glittering prisoner of war, to parade her in chains as the supreme prize of his triumphal procession, amid vast hoards of Egyptian booty and swarms of captives, a spectacle to be exceeded only by himself, fully armed in his gilt chariot, face and hands smeared with blood-red ocher according to ancient Etruscan ritual. In Cleopatra VII, however, the Roman conqueror met his equal, at least for proud independence and clear-eyed ruthlessness.

The last of the Ptolemies, Cleopatra was also the first of that Macedonian house to have learned Egyptian, one of seven languages that she spoke fluently (including Greek, Latin, and, as Plutarch reports, Troglodyte). She comported herself like an ancient pharaoh, as haughty as those living gods had ever been — she styled herself as the New Isis — and just as divinely desirable. Two other Roman generals, Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, had quickly become her lovers. When this fierce young Italian resisted the same opportunity, she killed herself by smuggling an asp into her chambers — and Octavian took Egypt for himself.

This living Isis is the Cleopatra who was evoked in a recent exhibition mounted by the British Museum in London and the Fondazione Memmo in Rome and elaborated in this dense, lavishly illustrated, informative volume: a shrewd, calculating politician who ritually married each of her younger brothers in turn, and then contrived their assassinations with considerably less ceremony to secure her own position as sole ruler of Egypt. Upon hearing that her younger sister Arsinöe had been addressed as "queen" on a visit to the temple of Artemis at Ephesus in Asia Minor, Cleopatra had her killed as well.

By comparison with this virago, the languid odalisque of nineteenth- and twentieth-century fantasy is no more than a puff of smoke from a Flaubertian hookah, just as the hawk-nosed profile and the piercing gaze of the real woman's surviving portraits reduce our cinematic Cleopatras to painted mannequins — which may be one reason that the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton extravaganza of 1963 was such a colossal flop. Cleopatra VII was larger than anyone's fantasy — except, perhaps, that of the skinny, driven Roman youth who finally annexed her kingdom.

The appeal of the real Cleopatra, if we are to believe Plutarch, lay in the partnership of her mind, her manner, and her mellifluous voice, though Guy Weill Goudchaux's witty essay "Was Cleopatra Beautiful?" presents a strong case for the queen's physiognomy by drawing on Agnolo Bronzino's stunning portrait of the hatchet-faced sixteenth-century Florentine poetess Laura Battiferri. As Goudchaux notes: "Many know the remark of Pascal, who also had quite a prominent nose: `If Cleopatra's nose were shorter, the shape of the world would have been different.' ... One has to understand Pascal's warning; that if the queen's nose had been shorter, the queen would have lacked the necessary strength of character — of which this powerful nose was the symbol — to attract and keep in her power two of the most influential men of her time."

Her character allowed her to control not only two men, but also an entire country. With six million inhabitants, Egypt in Cleopatra's lifetime was the most populous nation in the Mediterranean world. Called upon to hold her realm steady as Rome, the region's great power, suffered the final convulsions of a century-long civil war, she initially faced as precarious a claim to her throne as Elizabeth I of England, and used the same kind of ferocious intelligence to keep it. Her skill in language won over her own diverse subjects as well as the foreign potentates whom she tried to bend to her interests. A succession of laws introduced in Rome by Julius Caesar during their stay there in 46-44 B.C.E. shows how effectively she was able to protect Egyptian sovereignty abroad (although Caesar's attempts to pass laws allowing him to rule as king outside Italy, to marry a second wife, and to set up a second capital outside Rome reveal that he had his own plans for Egypt). A document on papyrus authorizing tax breaks to Marc Antony's general Publius Canidius still bears the queen's autograph: ginesthoi, "let it happen."

At home, the continuation of Cleopatra's cult long after her death reveals her Egyptian subjects' enduring faith in her divine efficacy. Her capital, Alexandria, regarded itself as the most sophisticated city in the world, with its peerless library, its gleaming lighthouse (one of the Seven Wonders of the World), its sages steeped in the wisdom of Egypt, Israel, Persia, Babylon, and Greece, its artists, mathematicians, engineers, and writers dazzled by the intersection of cultures ancient and new. As John Ray writes, "Alexandrians wrote Euclid and Ptolemy's Almagest, peopled the first museum, transformed astronomy and the calendar, discovered how the monsoons worked and how to trade with India and the Far East. They dissected corpses, and set up a form of universal health service ... there has never been a more fascinating city."

If Cleopatra VII used her own personality more like Elizabeth I than Elizabeth II, she seems to have had the latter Elizabeth's sovereign sense of duty — as well as her fertility. With a dispatch usually associated with the gods, Cleopatra bore Caesar a son called Caesarion — "little Caesar" — in 47 B.C.E., the year after they met (she was twenty-one, he fifty-two). With Antony, seven years later, she gave birth to a set of twins with the cosmically portentous names of Cleopatra Selene ("Moon") and Alexander Helios ("Sun"), though she continued to groom Caesarion as her successor. Needless to say, Octavian made short work of Caesarion. Cleopatra would have understood why.

Along with a remarkable willingness to dispose of their nearest kin, the queens of earlier times exhibited a distinctly sexual magnetism as an integral component of their majesty. King Solomon's visit to the queen of Sheba begat the kings of Ethiopia; and Aeneas, the Trojan hero, delayed his mission to found Rome once he clapped eyes on Dido, queen of Carthage, dazzled by what Virgil called this dux femina facti, this "woman commander of deeds." As late as 1655, when Queen Christina of Sweden and her papal escort Cardinal Decio Azzolini let diplomacy turn to love amid the wonders of Baroque Rome, state visits by queens might be expected to take as intimate a turn as those of their male counterparts. The shiver of flirtation that allegedly accompanied the meetings of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher may be a chaste reminder of less inhibited times, when divine right permitted a more extensive range of royal behavior.

The essence of Cleopatra's charm may have been intangible and her power evanescent, but the set of sculpted portraits that inspired the "Cleopatra of Egypt" exhibit in the first place survive to make a haunting assemblage of their own, showing Cleopatra herself, her dynasty, and her contemporaries in all their variety. In these anonymous works, some of surpassing quality, Egyptian, Greek, Etruscan, and Roman artistic traditions meet through a range of media to create amazing cosmopolitan syntheses. The hard sheen and the high polish of green Egyptian basanite are used to render a balding Julius Caesar in the "veristic" style that the Etruscans bequeathed to Rome, with his sparse wisps of hair and all the wrinkles of middle age, clad in the carefully arranged toga of a Roman senator, his inlaid eyes providing a suggestion of their famously riveting gaze. An Alexandrian statue of a ruggedly handsome man with gaunt features like Caesar's exploits the translucent glow of large-grained marble from the distant Greek island of Thasos, combining Roman attention to the texture of aging skin with the abstract elegance of Egyptian-style almond eyes and chiseled cheekbones. A sleek Antony, in basalt such a deep green that it is nearly black, presents that hearty soldier with the elongated neck and composed expression of an austere philosopher, handsome enough to play Shakespeare's hero. Another born warrior, Octavian's brilliant admiral Marcus Agrippa, carved in fine-grained Carrara marble, holds up his large scowling head with the dignity of a Roman patrician, acutely aware, as a self-made man, that an ancient Roman was judged as much for the dignity of his step and the drape of his toga as he was for his achievements.

Cleopatra herself appears in all the guises that enabled her to maintain her dominion over her complicated realm. For her Egyptian subjects, she is shown with the dainty, idealized features and the supple figure of a native goddess, carved in painstakingly polished pink Aswan granite. For the sophisticated tastes of Hellenistic Alexandria, the living Isis appears instead as a Greek divinity hewn from Italian marble, with forthright attention drawn to her intelligent eyes and to the nose to which Pascal assigned so portentous a role in the course of history. (Another version, in marble from the Greek island of Paros, has had its nose smashed off.)

We can also see the woman who succeeded where Cleopatra failed, at earning the love of Octavian: the Roman matron Livia Drusilla, whose broad brow, fine bones, and tiny mouth bear an uncanny resemblance to the features of Octavian himself. They were kindred souls in every sense: in their physical appearance, their longevity, and above all in their intimacy with power. Livia looked so much like Octavian's sister Octavia, the wife whom Antony abandoned to follow Cleopatra down the Nile, that portraits of Livia and Octavia, whether on cameos or in the round, cannot always be distinguished from one another by modern scholars.

Like his mother, the ill-fated Caesarion appears in thoroughly Egyptian style, striding forth stiffly in pink Aswan granite, a corona of Greek-boy curls and cupid's-bow mouth tucked incongruously under an Egyptian pharaoh's names headdress. The sheer hopelessness of this young man's prematurely sealed fate inspired the great Alexandrian poet Cavafy to write of him in 1918:

In history only a few
Lines can be found about you
And hence I could shape you more
freely in my own mind.
I made you beautiful and sensitive.
My art lends your face
A dreamlike sympathetic beauty.
And I imagined you so fully
That late last night, as my light
Went out — I had just turned it off —
Suddenly you came into my room;
You appeared and stood before me,
the way you were
In conquered Alexandria
Pale and tired, pensive in your pain
Still hoping that the wretches would
take pity on you —
The ones who whispered "Too many
Caesars."

The final section of the show, dedicated to Cleopatra's legacy, was changed in each of its venues, to take advantage of local traditions and locally available works of art. The British Museum mostly displayed paintings and decorative art from London galleries, featuring many an asp pressed to a snowy breast (though Plutarch explicitly notes that Cleopatra applied the fatal snake to her arm); a particularly lurid fifteenth-century manuscript illumination shows the queen applying one hose-like snake to each breast as a shaggy-bearded Antony impales himself.

The most venerable statue of Cleopatra, at least in terms of influence on generations of artists, was discovered in Rome: a larger than life-size full-length reclining marble image unearthed in 1512 and added immediately to the Vatican collections by Pope Julius II. Only in modern times was this famous work identified instead as a mythological figure, the sleeping Cretan princess Ariadne; the snake coiled around her upper arm is obviously a bracelet, not a deadly asp. Rather than move this massive statue from its longtime setting in the Vatican Museums, the Fondazione Memmo instead displayed smaller remnants from the great Roman temple of Isis in the Campus Martius (near today's Piazza Venezia), some recognizably Egyptian, some decidedly executed under Roman influence and according to Roman taste.

A later dweller on the same plot of consecrated ground would become Baroque Rome's foremost Egyptologist: the German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher, who taught mathematics at the Jesuits' Roman College and claimed more than a century before the discovery of the Rosetta Stone to have translated Egyptian hieroglyphs. Carla Alfano's essay "Egypt in Rome" traces a fascination with Egyptian culture that began, at the latest, in the generation of Julius Caesar and has never flagged since. Indeed, from 1512, when Ottoman troops conquered Cairo, until Napoleon's victories in 1799, many European travelers took their idea of Egypt from what they could see of Egyptian monuments in Rome rather than risk Islamic hostility along the Nile itself.

It is a pity that the third venue for this important event, the Field Museum in Chicago, failed to capitalize on a noble and uniquely American chapter in Cleopatra's history: her incarnation at the hands of nineteenth-century abolitionist sculptors as a specifically African queen. It was the expatriate American sculptor, poet, and writer William Wetmore Story who first portrayed a Dying Cleopatra (now in the Los Angeles County Museum) with distinctly African features in 1858, at the time when his Stateside compatriots were arguing about emancipating their slaves. Henry James's W.W. Story and His Friends describes how the American sculptor found many kinds of freedom in Rome, all the while suggesting gently that Story's epic surroundings ultimately dwarfed him. Artistically, perhaps they did. Morally, however, Story and his abolitionist cohorts surely can stand among the despots and the sycophants who commissioned glorious art at least as often, and as successfully, as heroes.

Story was one of the abolitionists who enabled the remarkable American sculptor Edmonia Lewis to come to Rome in 1865, the city where she probably spent the rest of her life. (She is last reported as living there in 1911, before she disappears from the record.) Eleven years after moving to Europe, she hewed her Dead Cleopatra from a chunk of Carrara marble for the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876. Lewis was the only expatriate American "lady sculptress" among the many in the city who resolutely carved her own stone. (Harriet Hosmer and the rest turned their designs over to Italian stonecutters.) With her mix of Native American and African American descent, Lewis was an exotic in Rome; and yet she seems to have enjoyed a far greater freedom there than in her native land, where her white roommates at Oberlin College had accused her of trying to poison them. Henry James had little more to say of her than that she was "a Negress."

Lewis's Dead Cleopatra, shocking in its day for portraying the queen as a corpse, had a picturesque career of its own before it came to the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of American Art in Washington in 1996. Surely this impressive work, with its rich history, would have been worth more to the Chicago public than Elizabeth Taylor's gown from the 1963 movie. When will American museums realize that they are not catering to cretins?

At present, alas, for Story and Lewis alike, the tale of their involvement with Cleopatra the African queen still remains to be written, as does the curious connection of this figure with a crucial moment in the history of the United States, a good century before the Afrocentric movement, and the no less curious connection of these abolitionists with the Rome of the popes and of the Italian Republic. Mary Hamer's catalogue essay has gotten the import of Story's statue all wrong by casting it unthinkingly (and most unfairly) in a trite Orientalist mold. Cleopatra herself, of course, connects a whole series of despotic colonial regimes from every point of the compass over a long sweep of human history, from Ramses the Great through Alexander of Macedon, Imperial Rome, Ottoman Turkey, Napoleonic France, and Victorian Britain. And so this remarkable, and none too friendly, queen demands and deserves a historical vision as broadly sophisticated, as subtle, as her Alexandria had been. Rather than making her into a fatuous odalisque, American abolitionist sculptors paid insightful homage to Cleopatra's tragic majesty, a majesty to which this exhibition and this book otherwise do compelling justice.


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