Thursday, August 14, 2008

Antony and Cleopatra a Love/Hate Relationship?

I finished reading Colleen McCullough's latest addition to her "Masters of Rome" series of novels, "Antony and Cleopatra" and found her characterization of the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra as one of a combination of love and exasperation to be quite convincing.

This seems to be born out by a quote by Pliny the Elder that I stumbled across today on a very good website offering essays on the history and culture of Rome:

"Pliny (XXI.7.9) relates how Cleopatra played on Antony's fear of being poisoned. Refusing to take any food that had not been tasted [sic], she instead laid a garland of poisoned flowers on his head, suggesting, as the revelry grew wilder, that they all drink their chaplets. As Antony began to drink from the cup into which he had scattered his flowers, she stopped him. A prisoner was brought in and commanded to drink, dying on the spot."

This act, if indeed it ever happened, appears to be much less playful than Cleopatra ordering a diver to go underwater and tie a dried fish to Antony's fishing line.

Of course Pliny is also the source for the story of Cleopatra dissolving one of her almost priceless pearls in a cup of vinegar to impress Antony:

"There have been two pearls that were the largest in the whole of history; both were owned by Cleopatra, the last of the Queens of Egypt--they had come down to her through the hands of the Kings of the East....In accordance with previous instructions the servants placed in front of her only a single vessel containing vinegar, the strong rough quality of which can melt pearls. She was at the moment wearing in her ears that remarkable and truly unique work of nature. Antony was full of curiosity to see what in the world she was going to do. She took one earring off and dropped the pearl in the vinegar, and when it was melted swallowed it....With this goes the story that, when that queen who had won on this important issue was captured, the second of this pair of pearls was cut in two pieces, so that half a helping of the jewel might be in each of the ears of Venus in the Pantheon at Rome." - Pliny, Natural History (IX.59.119-121)

The value of the pearl that Cleopatra dropped in her cup was said by Pliny to be worth ten million sesterces (a hundred thousand gold aurei). It's as if Antony and Cleopatra were engaged in constant competition to see which one could outdo the other in startling behavior.

This page, peppered with interesting asides, also mentions Julius Caesar restricting the wearing of pearls to individuals with a certain status. It's an anecdote about him I had not read before:

"Suetonius relates that Caesar had attempted to restrict the wearing of pearls, a symbol of wealth and prestige, only "to those of a designated position and age" (XLIII).

Suetonius goes on to attribute Caesar's invasion of Britain to a desire for the fresh-water pearls found there and that, "in comparing their size he sometimes weighed them with his own hand" (XLVII)."

I also had to chuckle at Seneca's wit when criticizing the ostentatiousness of Roman women wearing pearls. "Seneca (On Benefits, VII.9) complains that the ears of women are trained to carry pearls in pairs, with another fastened above, and are not content unless the value of two or three estates hang from each lobe."
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