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
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