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Cleopatra: The Myth

Everett Collection
Warren William, as Julius Caesar, and Claudette Colbert in Cleopatra, 1934

In 19 AD, almost fifty years after the death of Cleopatra, the Roman prince Germanicus paid a visit to Alexandria, the city that had once been the capital of her kingdom, and was now the administrative center of the Roman province of Egypt. According to the historian Tacitus, the ostensible purpose of this imperial visit was to relieve the famine then afflicting the country (which he did by simply opening up some granaries where grain was stored). But the real reason, Tacitus insists, was sight-seeing—for the monuments of the Egyptian pharaohs, already thousands of years old in 19 AD, were almost as much an attraction to Roman visitors as they are to modern tourists.

In fact, Germanicus took an antiquarian cruise up the Nile, visiting the “vast ruins of Thebes” and the Valley of the Kings, just as his great- grandfather Julius Caesar had done in the company of Cleopatra herself in 47 BC. Germanicus’ trip, however, did not go down well with his adoptive father, the reigning emperor Tiberius, since the young man had broken the rules by going to Egypt without the emperor’s express permission. This was the only province of the Roman Empire to which such travel restrictions applied. Vast, rich, fertile, and unstable, it offered a potential power base for rival claimants to the throne. Even without a turbulent queen, Egypt was always liable to be trouble.

A fragment of papyrus excavated from the rubbish dumps of the Egyptian town of Oxyrhynchus gives a precious glimpse of Germanicus’ visit. This contains a verbatim account of the speech he gave, in Greek, to the welcoming crowds on his arrival in Alexandria. In it, he complains about his long sea journey and the fact that he has been “torn from the embrace of my father and grandma and mother and brothers and sisters and children and intimate friends” (a rather cozier view of imperial family life than Tacitus offers—and especially striking when you recall that his “grandma” was the notoriously scheming empress Livia).

He goes on to compliment the Alexandrians on the spectacular beauty of their city, tactfully including a passing tribute to Alexander the Great, who had founded it (“the hero who is your founder,” as Germanicus put it). Cleopatra’s dynasty of the Ptolemies had taken over the city on the death of Alexander in 323 BC: the first King Ptolemy, a Macedonian Greek, had been one of “the hero’s” leading generals and had even managed to hijack his body for burial in Alexandria—an ancient publicity coup, intended to blazon forever the otherwise brief association of this new city with the ancient world’s greatest conqueror.

To judge from the papyrus, Germanicus was given a boisterous reception by the Alexandrians. The crowd kept interrupting him with cries of “Hurrah,” “Good Luck,” and “Bravo,” and—scarcely concealing his impatience—he was driven to tell them to calm down and let him finish what he had to say: “Men of Alexandria…wait till I have completed the answers to each of your questions before applauding.” Maybe this was a common problem for ancient speakers addressing mass audiences; certainly, Greek and Roman oratory can hardly have been the sedate affair that it seems now, when we read it on the printed page. Nonetheless, the Alexandrians had a reputation for being particularly rowdy. Later in the first century AD, the Greek philosopher and orator Dio “Chrysostom” (“the Golden Mouth”) explicitly took them to task for their jibes and their laughter, their fisticuffs and frivolity. “I should prefer to praise you,” he insisted, “as being self-restrained enough to keep silent…the highest praise you can accord a mass meeting is to say that it listens well.” By all accounts, this did not make much impact on the Alexandrians whose riots and unruliness were notorious well into the Christian period (and provide the backdrop to the Spanish director Alejandro Amenábar’s recent movie Agora, which is set in fourth-century-AD Roman Egypt).

In Cleopatra: A Life Stacy Schiff vividly captures the glamour and larger-than-life reputation of ancient Alexandria. In the reign of Cleopatra (51–30 BC), before the large-scale investment in building, art, and culture in Rome itself at the end of the first century BC, Alexandria was the jewel of the Mediterranean. Anyone sailing from Alexandria to Rome in 46 BC (when Cleopatra herself made that journey to visit Julius Caesar) would have felt, to use Schiff’s apt comparison, rather as if they were going from eighteenth-century Versailles to eighteenth- century Philadelphia. Alexandria was a place of star-studded luxury, laid out with parkland, colonnades, and wide thoroughfares (according to Schiff, its main street “could accommodate eight chariots driving abreast”). Rome at the time, despite its enormous population and its political and military dominance over most of the Mediterranean, looked more like a provincial backwater, for the most part “a jumble of twisting lanes and densely packed tenements”—its public buildings decidedly unimpressive by Alexandrian standards.

The prestige of the Egyptian capital had a lot to do with its famous monuments and tourist sites. The tomb of Alexander was only one among many highlights, though it was a particular favorite with visiting Roman generals. Octavian (Rome’s first emperor, later known by the name Augustus) is said to have visited the tomb in 30 BC after he had finally defeated Cleopatra and Mark Antony, her partner and his Roman rival: in his enthusiasm to touch the mummified body, Octavian actually broke off a piece of Alexander’s nose—or so one Roman historian alleged. But the early Ptolemies were great builders on a much wider scale. The enormous lighthouse, commissioned by Ptolemy I at the beginning of the third century BC and standing more than three hundred feet tall at the city’s harbor entrance, was one of the wonders of the ancient world. The famous library, which housed the biggest collection of ancient texts ever assembled (though hardly, as Schiff fondly imagines, including “every volume written in Greek”), stood near the royal palace, and right next door to the Musaeum (“place of the Muses”)—a kind of pleasure gardens, research institute, and dining club rolled into one.

The Alexandrians themselves were a good match for their city. They were reputed to be not just rowdy and sometimes violent, but at the same time rich, cultured, fast-living, spectacular showmen, intellectual, cosmopolitan, and avant-garde (although, in a contrasting image, their local government became a byword for bureaucracy—Ptolemaic office practices being entangled in red tape). It all sounds more like the melting pot of New York than the showy decadence of Versailles.

True, Alexandrian cultural brilliance may have waned somewhat by the reign of Cleopatra; the leading intellectual of her palace was a secondhand compiler by the name of Didymus, who was credited with writing more than 3,500 treatises (and was nicknamed “the book-forgetter” since he could not remember what he had said in his earlier books, so was always contradicting himself). Nonetheless, Cleopatra and her contemporaries could look back over the last couple of centuries to all kinds of extraordinary achievements, often powered by migrants from the rest of the Mediterranean world. For there had been the ancient equivalent of a brain-drain to Ptolemaic Alexandria. The library is supposed to have been organized by Demetrius of Phaleron (a suburb of Athens), who was himself a pupil of Aristotle. One of its most famous librarians, in the early third century BC, was the poet Callimachus, originally from Cyrene (in modern Libya). Between them, the library and the research institute in the Musaeum attracted men such as the mathematician Euclid and Herophilus from Chalcedon (in modern Turkey), the scientist who first identified the difference between veins and arteries.

The intellectual achievements of Ptolemaic Alexandria are well known to us, and indeed a good deal of its literature and scientific writing still survives—rather more, in fact, than has come down from the glory days of fifth-century classical Athens, and much more varied in character. Admittedly, we have only a few scraps of the work of Didymus (probably not a great loss). But the galaxy of surviving Alexandrian literature includes some of the “hymns” of Callimachus (not liturgical texts, but fantastically learned, highly crafted poems on the subject of the gods—and one of the touchstones of “difficult” writing in antiquity); the brilliant multivolume epic on Jason and the Argonauts (the Argonautica) by Callimachus’ pupil and great rival Apollonius; the pastoral idylls of Theocritus, which were the inspiration of Virgil’s Eclogues and the origin of the whole later tradition of pastoral poetry, through Spenser and Milton to Matthew Arnold and beyond. And this is not to mention a wealth of writing on technology, geography, mathematics, and medicine, some of which now survives only in Arabic translation.

It is, however, much harder to get a clear picture of Alexandrian society more generally, partly because it is now almost impossible to decide which of the ancient stories about Ptolemaic extravagance and spectacle are more or less true, and which are the product of the ancient “myth of Alexandria”—a city in which, as many ancient writers (Alexandrian and others) loved to fantasize, everything was dazzling, expensive, and brilliantly out of proportion. One particularly puzzling case is a famous procession in honor of the god Dionysus, sponsored in the early third century BC by one of Cleopatra’s predecessors on the throne, Ptolemy II “Philadelphus” (“sister-lover”). We have a detailed account of this, originally written by a historian about a hundred years after the event, now surviving only as a quotation in a vast literary encyclopedia (Deipnosophistae, or Philosophers at Dinner) compiled at the end of the second century AD by Athenaeus, who himself came from a town near Alexandria.

The description of this procession oozes with amazement at the extraordinary spectacle. Each of the floats required hundreds of men to pull them along, partly because of the ingenious, mechanical—and presumably very heavy—displays that they carried. One of the highlights, and a triumph of Alexandrian engineering, was an eight-cubit-tall (approximately twelve feet) statue that “stood up mechanically without anyone laying a hand on it and sat back down again when it had poured a libation of milk.” Another attraction was the chariots not pulled by men or horses, but by ostriches. Another was the “wine-sack made of leopard skin and holding 3,000 measures,” which gradually released its contents onto the processional route.

Like most other modern writers, Schiff takes this account as vivid testimony of the extravagant pageantry that was laid on by the Ptolemaic court. But we should probably be more skeptical. If the splendor of the show seems almost beyond belief, that is most likely because it is not to be believed. Take, for example, that leopard-skin wine-sack, whose contents dribbled out along the road (presumably, we are meant to imagine, into the cups and flagons of the spectators). On the most reliable calculation of “3,000 measures,” this would mean a leopard-skin sack of a volume roughly equivalent to three modern tanker trucks. Even the richest Ptolemaic monarchs were surely not capable of constructing that.

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