Friday, September 18, 2020

The Real Cleopatra

  The "real" Cleopatra?

Cleopatra is barely mentioned in De Bello Alexandrino, the memoirs of an unknown staff officer who served under Caesar. The writings of Cicero, who knew her personally, provide an unflattering portrait of Cleopatra although it actually sounds more like Cicero did not feel he was greeted by her as one of the most important senators of Rome.  I found this imagined letter between Cicero and J.W. Worthy, late professor of philosophy at John Tarleton Military Academy, based on Cicero's writings, interesting:

"I do not wish to be unfair to the graecula.  She is clever beyond words, no denying it.  You may understand my impatience with her if I remind you that, although she chatters on in Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac, Greek of course, Parthian, Median, Egyptian (she is said to be the first Ptolemy to master that), Ethiopian, and Trogodyte, all with marvelous fluency so they say, she was unable to receive me in Latin!  Or claimed to be unable to do so, so that right here in the city I was compelled to converse in Greek.  It is no different with her vaunted drive, energy and ambition:  they were not enough to motivate her to cultivate the most important Roman senator.  And of  her fabled treasure:  although her aides had promised a purely literary acknowledgment of my merits, I came and went empty handed".  

For more of Professor Worthy's "correspondence", see:

The Augustan-period authors Virgil, Horace, Propertius, and Ovid perpetuated the negative views of Cleopatra approved by the ruling Roman regime, although Virgil established the idea of Cleopatra as a figure of romance and epic melodrama. Horace also viewed Cleopatra's suicide as a positive choice, an idea that found acceptance by the Late Middle Ages with Geoffrey Chaucer. The historians Strabo, Velleius, Valerius Maximus, Pliny the Elder, and Appian, while not offering accounts as full as Plutarch, Josephus, or Dio, provided some details of her life that had not survived in other historical records.

Cassius Dio, writing in the 3rd century CE claimed Cleopatra was a woman of surpassing beauty, and at the time (48 BCE), was "most stunning" in the prime of her youth.  He said even at Mark Antony's funeral, where she appeared in mourning garments, she was still "most stunning."  In Octavian's propaganda, Cleopatra was presented as a beautiful witch that cast a spell over Antony, consciously refusing to acknowledge her as the wealthiest and most powerful female sovereign of the Hellenistic Mediterranean.  Plutarch, however, said her beauty did not exceed Octavia's, Antony's official Roman wife and sister of Octavian.  But he does admit her charm rested in her persuasive character and stimulating discourse  because she was highly educated and spoke many foreign languages.

The fragmentary Libyka commissioned by Cleopatra's son-in-law Juba II provides a glimpse at a possible body of historiographic material that presented a more favorable view of Cleopatra.

Cleopatra's gender has perhaps led to her depiction as a minor if not insignificant figure in ancient, medieval, and even modern historiography about ancient Egypt and the Greco-Roman world. For instance, the historian Ronald Syme asserted that she was of little importance to Caesar and that the propaganda of Octavian magnified her importance to an excessive degree. Although the common view of Cleopatra was one of a prolific seductress, she had only two known sexual partners, Caesar and Antony, the two most prominent Romans of the time period, who were most likely to ensure the survival of her dynasty. 

There is an excellent article by Branko van Oppen on the Ancient History Encyclopedia about various portraits of Cleopatra:

Seal impression with bust of Cleopatra VII at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada courtesy of the museum.

An ancient Roman portrait head, c. 50–30 BCE, now located in the British Museum, London, that depicts a woman from Ptolemaic Egypt, either Queen Cleopatra or a member of her entourage during her 46–44 BCE visit to Rome courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Roman fresco in the Pompeian Third Style possibly depicting Cleopatra, from the recently reopened House of the Orchard at Pompeii, Italy, mid-1st century CE

A probable posthumously painted portrait of Cleopatra with red hair and her distinct facial features, wearing a royal diadem and pearl-studded hairpins, from Roman Herculaneum, Italy, 1st century CE, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Ángel M. Felicísimo from Mérida, Spain.

Egyptian portrait of a Ptolemaic queen, possibly Cleopatra, c. 51–30 BCE, located in the Brooklyn Museum courtesy of Wikimedia Commons courtesy of the museum.

A silver tetradrachm of Cleopatra minted at Ascalon, Israel courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor PHGCOM.

A silver tetradrachm of Cleopatra minted at Seleucia Pieria, Syria courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor PHGCOM

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Ancient Marriage Rings

 Ancient Egyptian papyrus scrolls dating to 6,000 years ago, depict the exchange of braided rings of hemp or reeds between spouses.  These bands were eventually replaced by circlets of leather, bone, or ivory. Ancient Egypt considered the circle to be a symbol of eternity, and the ring served to signify the perpetual love of the spouses. This was also the origin of the custom of wearing the wedding ring on the ring finger of the left hand, because the ancient Egyptians believed that this finger enclosed a special vein that was connected directly to the heart, in Latin the "Vena amoris".  

In ancient Greece and Rome betrothal rings resembling signet rings were introduced, most commonly with a  a "fede" ring, depicting two hands clasping in love or agreement - dextrarum iunctio. Initially, the ring was given by the groom to the father of the bride to serve as a symbol of bride purchase.  By the second century BCE, however, the ring was given to the bride to indicate the groom trusted her with his valuable property.  Although a gold ring, sometimes inset with carved carnelian, aquamarine, garnet, or onyx, was worn in public to display the husband's wealth and status, it was replaced by an iron ring, called the Anulus Pronubus, at home. These iron rings sometimes were formed in the shape of a key to represent control over the household possessions. Iron rings plated with gold have also been found.

The design eventually evolved to depict carvings of the couple themselves.  Although such rings were initially considered a pagan tradition, when Christianity was adopted as the state religion and representatives of the church began performing official marriages, rings were once more exchanged but religious images were incorporated into ring designs.  Sometimes inscriptions were included as well.  One example in the British Museum is inscribed "Te amo parum" - "I love you too little" or "I do not love you enough".

One of the first-known uncut diamond rings is dated to the 100s CE and found in Rome.  However, its association with love or marriage is unknown. The first documented diamond betrothal ring was exchanged in 1475 at the wedding of Costanzo Sforza and Camilla D'Aragona in Italy. Their wedding poem read “Two wills, two hearts, two passions are bonded in one marriage by a diamond.”

Earlier this year when I studied the Black Death we also discussed the development of artwork featuring "memento mori" skeletal images.  I was surprised to discover Renaissance-era gimmel marriage rings included memento mori in their artwork. 

To learn more about the history of the wedding ring check out:

Early Byzantine silver marriage ring with wedding couple in profile, 375-425 CE, at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada courtesy of the museum.

Renaissance-era Gimmel-style marriage with with memento mori imagery at The Metropolitan Museum of Art courtesy of the museum.

A 6th-7th century gold marriage ring with couple depicted at The Metropolitan Museum of Art courtesy of the museum.

A 6th century gold and niello Byzantine marriage ring depicting scenes from the life of Christ at the Walters Art Museum courtesy of the museum.

A 6th century gold and niello Byzantine marriage ring depicting scenes from the life of Christ at the Walters Art Museum courtesy of the museum.

Gold and onyx 3rd century CE Roman "fede" ring.

1st century CE Roman "key" ring at the Vidy Roman Museum near Lausanne, Switzerland courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Rama.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Roman and Etruscan worship of Amphiaraus

 In the ancient world, after an infant was born, the umbilical cord was cut and tied, and then the baby was washed, rubbed with salt and oil, and wrapped with strips of cloth. These strips kept the newborn child warm and were thought to ensure that the child's limbs would grow straight. 

The earliest depictions of swaddled babies are votive offerings and grave goods from Crete and Cyprus, 4000 to 4500 years old.  Votive statuettes have been found in the tombs of ancient Greek and Roman women who died in childbirth, displaying babies in swaddling clothes. In shrines dedicated to Amphiaraus, models representing babies wrapped in swaddling clothes have also been excavated. Apparently, these were frequently given as thank-offerings by anxious mothers when their infants had recovered from sickness.

Amphiaraus was a mythical hero that was the son of Apollo and the mortal Hypemnestra. In Greek mythology Amphiaraus was a seer and greatly respected in his time.  He was also one of the heroes present at the Calydonian boar Hunt. In the tragedy "Seven Against Thebes" Amphiaraus is persuaded to take part in a raid in which Aphiaraus had already forseen his own death. He tried to warn the other warriors that the raid would fail but they would not be dissuaded.  During the battle Amphiaraus tried to flee from the a famous son of Poseidon but Zeus threw a thunderbolt and opened the earth which swallowed Amphiaraus together with his chariot.  Thereafter Amphiaraus was worshiped as a fortune-telling god and healing god like Asclepius.  In Etruscan tradition inherited by the Romans, a son of Amphiaraus escaped the slaughter at Thebes and led an expedition to Italy where he founded a colony at the location of Tibur, modern-day Tivoli.

Image: A mold-made earthenware votive effigy of a swaddled infant, Etruscan, 300-200 BCE, at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada courtesy of the museum.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Tympanum: Instrument of Ecstasy

 The origin of the tympanum (tambourine) is unknown, but it appears in historical writings as early as 1700 BCE and was used by ancient musicians in West Africa, the Middle East, Turkey, Greece and India. The tambourine passed to Europe by way of merchants or musicians. Tambourines were used in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome where they were known as a tympanum. Worshipers used the instrument during the rites of Dionysus, Cybele, and Sabazius. The instrument came to Rome from Greece and the Near East, probably in association with the cult of Cybele. The first depiction in Greek art appears in the 8th century BCE, on a bronze votive disc found in a cave on Crete that was a cult site for Zeus.

The tympanum is one of the objects often carried in the thiasos, the retinue of Dionysus. The instrument is typically played by a maenad, while wind instruments such as pipes or the aulos are played by satyrs to produce frenzied music to induce an ecstatic state.

The tympanum was the most common of the musical instruments associated with the rites of Cybele in the art and literature of Greece and Rome, but does not appear in representations from Anatolia, where the goddess originated. From the 6th century BCE, the iconography of Cybele as Magna Mater, "Great Mother", may show her with the tympanum balanced on her left arm, usually seated and with a lion on her lap or in attendance. The Homeric Hymn to the Great Mother says that the goddess loves the sound of the tympanum. The drum continued to feature as an attribute of Cybele into the Roman Imperial era.

 Figurine of a woman with a tympanum (tambourine), Roman, 2nd century CE at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada courtesy of the museum.

Bronze statuette of Cybele with tympanum on a cart drawn by lions courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Peterjr1961

 Mosaic of a street musician with tympanum from the Villa of Cicero in Pompeii courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Wolfgang Rieger.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

The Phrygian Cap in Greek and Roman Art

 The Phrygian cap later known as a liberty cap is a soft conical cap with the apex bent over, associated in antiquity with several peoples in Eastern Europe and Anatolia, including Phrygia, Dacia, and the Balkans.  By the 4th century BCE (early Hellenistic period) the Phrygian cap was associated with Phrygian Attis, the consort of Cybele, the cult of which had by then become graecified. At around the same time, the cap appears in depictions of the legendary king Midas and other Phrygians in Greek vase-paintings and sculpture. The Phrygian cap also came to be applied to several other non-Greek-speaking peoples ("barbarians" in the classical sense). Most notable of these extended senses of "Phrygian" were the Trojans and other western Anatolian peoples, who in Greek perception were synonymous with the Phrygians, and whose heroes Paris, Aeneas, and Ganymede were all regularly depicted with a Phrygian cap. 

While the Phrygian cap was of wool or soft leather, in pre-Hellenistic times the Greeks had already developed a military helmet that had a similarly characteristic flipped-over tip. These so-called "Phrygian helmets" (named in modern times after the cap) were usually of bronze and in prominent use in Thrace, Dacia, Magna Graecia and the rest of the Hellenistic world from the 5th century BCE up to Roman times. 

The Greek concept passed to the Romans and encompassed not only Phrygians but also the other near-neighbours of the Greeks. On Trajan's Column, which commemorated Trajan's epic wars with the Dacians, the Phrygian cap adorns the heads of Trajan's Dacian prisoners. Parthians appear with Phrygian caps on the 2nd-century CE Arch of Septimius Severus and Gauls in Phrygian caps are depicted on the 2nd-century CE friezes of the 4th century Arch of Constantine. In the tauroctony images of Roman Mithraism, the figures of the god Mithras as well as those of his helpers Cautes and Cautopates are routinely depicted with a Phrygian cap. 

In later centuries, a Phrygian-looking cap became associated with liberty because of its resemblence to the Roman cap of liberty, the Roman pileus, a felt cap worn by manumitted (emancipated) slaves of ancient Rome, and an attribute of Libertas, the Roman goddess of liberty. 

Figure of male with Phrygian cap, earthenware with painted decorations possibly from Palmyra, Syria, 1st-2nd century CE at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada.

Paris of Troy wearing a Phrygian cap on a Roman sarcophagus dating to the Hadrianic period (117-138 CE) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Marie-Lan Nguyen.

Three wise men" with Phrygian caps to identify them as "orientals" 6th-century, Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor nina-no.