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Cleopatra: Myths and Legends

Cleopatra is a useful test case for how we understand ancient history and in particular the history of women in Antiquity. She is obviously a famous figure, whose image has been used through art for centuries to think about issues such as:

  • Sex
  • Race
  • Empire
  • Power
  • Love
  • Beauty

That’s interesting for us in large part because we can see that others have approached Cleopatra with preconceptions. Those preconceptions have tended to shape their reading of the history. For instance, if you assume that a female ruler or and Egyptian ruler would be regarded by the Romans as unnatural of somehow immoral, it becomes easy to understand Cleopatra as someone bad. If we assume that the Romans were racists and horrified by an Egyptian being married to their leading man, then again we have explanation for Cleopatra. If think that only on the basis of Cleopatra being stunningly beautiful or a witch could a man such as Antony be influenced by her, then we will write our histories in a certain way. If we think that only a  woman with white skin can be beautiful, then we will depict Cleopatra in certain ways. If we think that the Romans were imbued with a strong sense that sexual relations were kept within marriage, because that is the only decent and proper way for a society to work, then we will worry about the sexual behaviour of Antony.

These are ways in which cultural presumptions, sexism and racism creep without us noticing into the historical stories that we tell. Understanding the preconceptions of others who have thought about or depicted Cleopatra, makes us question our own preconceptions.

Let us start with beauty. Nobody really asks whether any particular man in Roman history was beautiful. It does not matter somehow. But it does matter for the Cleopatra, for it is beauty that is seen as key to some of the stories we try to tell about her.

We can start with stories around Cleopatra and Caesar, the most famous is their meeting, her smuggled in to see him wrapped in a rug. The problem is not the story itself, but what is done with the story in later traditions, especially in the Victorian era, when Cleopatra was a staple of the art establishment.


Gerome’s Caesar and Cleopatra (1866)

In Gerome’s representation of the event, a young Cleopatra (she would have been about 18) appears in the Alexandrian palace where Caesar was labouring at his papers. A black slave presents him with a beautiful girl, hair done in high Victorian fashion, dressed (or nearly dressed) and wrapped in an Oriental rug, showing that her morality might be non-standard Western. It takes little insight to see that we are looking at a male sexual fantasy.

We can see how white she is. As a woman of the Mediterranean and of Africa, Gerome gives her an unexpectedly pale colouring. He just assumes that she was white, like he assumes that her slave was black. He assumes that she was decadent and sexually available to a Caesar who is a hard-working bureaucrat. It is how Gerome makes sense of the story.

Gerome was far from the only painter to get excited by Cleopatra. Waterhouse gave us a teenage, bad and sulky Cleopatra. And here, she is a wilful and spoilt child, one to whom power should never be given, but who needs a strong fatherly figure to teach her what is right and wrong. She also symbolised an Egypt which was at the time under British ‘protection’, a spoilt child of a nation supposedly in need of a ‘grown-up’ state to keep it in order. Power and gender and assumptions about the East contribute to telling this story.

cleopatra 1880 Waterhouse

Waterhouse, Cleopatra (1880)

Alma-Tadema_-_The_Meeting_of_Antony_and_Cleopatra 1885

Alma Tadema, Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra (1885)

Alma Tadema gave us the meeting of Antony and Cleopatra in 1885, full of luxury and seduction and Eastern cloths, roses and leopard skins ,and flute girls, and a white dress so gauzy that Cleopatra’s body is clearly visible through its film. This time she is depicted as an adult, though a very white one.

What is being played on is ideas of empire and the Orient and, indeed, of the conquest of the East through its personification as a woman. It is the East that tempts with its excesses of luxury and its indisciplines. That East can be conquered by the wrapped up man approaching, clothed as a senator, head covered respectably, curious as this foreign vision. Is he the conqueror or is she about to be the conqueror? In spite of that, her beauty is racially presented in  whiteness. It is as if Tadema can imagine the seductions of the East and its temptations, but it be truly tempting, truly a seductive queen, she has to look as if she has come from a land as close to the Mediterranean as, say Scotland. And who has power in these paintings? At face value, it is the Romans Caesar and Antony. But is it she who will seduce these respectable men? Is the eighteen-year old Cleopatra a threat to the 50+ Caesar? Does the Victorian gentleman looking at this picture shudder at the temptation of the East which might transform him from the respectable Caesar and Antony, who gaze upon beauty to someone corrupt?

That fantastical element to the Cleopatra story continued into the twentieth century with images of Cleopatra in film. Elizabeth Taylor’s role as Cleopatra was a a departure from an Ancient focus. The 1963 film was her picture and entitled Cleopatra, where Shakespeare had given us Antony and Cleopatra, George Bernand Shaw, Caesar and Cleopatra, and Plutarch,  The Life of Antony. Cleopatra/Taylor was the star and to be star one needed money, a pretty face, a particular shape of body: that’s how a woman became famous, got power, became a star. The parallels run through the story. It is the sensational (American) star (Elizabeth) Cleopatra who in her beauty captured the simple (British) soldierly Antony (Burton). When the two started dating in real life, Hollywood fantasy gossip met Hollywood fantasy film through the medium of Ancient history. Elizabeth Taylor was, in case you don’t know, very North European in her colouring

Cleopatra is used to reinforce prejudices and she is made into images that people want to use. There is a circulatory to it. Our prejudices determine how we interpret Cleopatra and her history, but when we depict Cleopatra in the way that makes sense to our prejudices, suddenly her story comes to reinforce those very prejudices. If we are racist, then Cleopatra has to be white, and once we depict her as white, she reinforces the prejudice that rich, beautiful and power women are always white.

That’s interesting in part because when we think about Cleopatra, we need to be aware of other people’s fantasies and assumptions. We simply cannot know the exact shade of her skin colour, for instance, and although in so many ways that doesn’t matter historically (because if it did, the Romans would have mentioned it), it does matter because of the racist assumptions that have been employed with regard to her image. We cannot know whether she and Antony were madly in love, for the secrets of the bedroom are secrets. We cannot assume that she somehow reflected and represented ‘Eastern values’, whatever they might have been, because it suited people to make her represent those values.

It is notable is that she was a figure of fantasy from Roman times, an imagined woman whose image could be made to do so many things. And when we think about women in the Roman world, we have to know that what we know of them is so often the image created of them, a fantastical version of the female. But that does make her any less real. Think of a female model on the cover of a magazine. She is real and a fantasy. We know that. But that does not stop men wanting their women to be like her, and women striving to emulate that fantasy.

For historians, Cleopatra is a test case and a warning. Our prejudices slip in so easily. Beware of assumptions. Tread carefully through the histories and then we will truly understand what makes Romans different from us and what makes them similar.

Cleopatra: Egyptian Queen                    Donations of Alexandria                 War of Actium

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