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Cleopatra: The Myth

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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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Casa Buonarroti, Florence/Bridgeman Art Library
Cleopatra; drawing by Michelangelo, sixteenth century

So is the description an exaggeration? Speculation? Or sheer fantasy? We do not know. Part of the problem in trying to assess the myth of Alexandria against the likely historical truth is that most of the Ptolemaic city now lies beneath the sea, inundated by the fourth century AD, after a series of earthquakes and tidal waves. In Rome, determined excavation in the ground can give us a clue to the character of the ancient city, and to how it changed from the rabbit warrens of the first century BC to the much more impressive (or aggressive) imperial capital of the first century AD. In Alexandria we must rely on heroic archaeology under water. This produces dramatic photographs of barnacle-infested sculpture emerging from the sea, but does little to give a clear chronology of the ancient city—still less to give a picture of what it would have looked liked, and quite how lavish it really was.

Ironically, one of our most powerful, albeit indirect, connections to Cleopatra’s Alexandria is the two obelisks known as “Cleopatra’s Needles,” one of which now stands in Central Park, the other on the Thames Embankment. Originally pharaonic obelisks made about 1450 BC, they were later transferred, perhaps by Augustus, to form the entrance to the shrine of Julius Caesar in Alexandria, which had almost certainly been planned and inaugurated by Cleopatra before her death. They ended up in New York and London at the end of the nineteenth century, thanks to the usual combination of generosity, antiquarianism, and imperial exploitation.

The life of Cleopatra VII, the last monarch of the Ptolemaic dynasty, is even more “mythical” than the story of Alexandria, and the real queen is even harder to excavate than the remains of her capital. This is, in part, thanks to the inventive traditions of modern drama, from William Shakespeare to Elizabeth Taylor, which have indelibly fixed a languorous and decadent queen bathing in ass’s milk in the popular imagination. But these modern versions draw on an ancient mythology that goes back ultimately to the propaganda campaigns of the emperor Augustus, whose own reign was founded on the defeat of the “Egyptian” Cleopatra (in truth she was, almost certainly, ethnically Greek) and Mark Antony. It was irresistible for Augustus to demonize Cleopatra as a dangerously seductive Oriental despot, living a life of extravagance entirely at odds with the down-to-earth traditions of Rome and Italy, which he himself claimed to represent. Several of the most renowned poets of his reign chimed in enthusiastically with the official Augustan line on this “demented queen…with her polluted mob of retainers” (as Horace put it in a famous poem on her defeat.

In fact, we now take this image so much for granted that it comes as a shock to discover different versions of the “Cleopatra myth,” from different sides. Egyptian historians, for example, have long conscripted her into their own national story, as a heroine and public benefactress. Al-Mas’udi in his tenth-century history, Prairies of Gold, records a brilliant subversion of the canonical Roman account. His Cleopatra not only goes to enormous trouble to acquire the snake with which to kill herself, but she also manages cleverly to conceal it in some aromatic plants, so that it bites Octavian as well when he comes to discover her body. Instead of going on to reign over Rome for more than forty years, in al-Mas’udi’s history, Octavian died in Alexandria from the venom—though it took a full day to work, during which time he wrote a poem about what had happened both to himself and to Cleopatra.

To be sure, there are one or two pieces of vivid historical testimony, occasionally more or less firsthand, buried within these stories. My own favorite is the tale told by Plutarch, writing at the turn of the first and second centuries AD, about the procedures in the kitchens of Cleopatra’s palace when she was entertaining Antony sometime in the 30s BC. Plutarch explains that a young medical student, Philotas, was there and witnessed life below stairs. Noticing eight boars being cooked, he assumed that a very large party was being catered. But no, there were only about twelve guests; as the kitchens did not know exactly when the party would want to eat they had different boars put on the spit, to be ready at different times. So how did Plutarch know this? Was it just a cliché of royal extravagance? In part maybe, but it was not just that. For Plutarch claims to have heard the story, embellished or not, from his grandfather Lamprias, who had been a friend of Philotas himself. We have here, in other words, a direct connection right back to an eyewitness in Cleopatra’s kitchens, more than two thousand years ago.

For the most part, however, we have no knowledge of many of the most basic facts of Cleopatra’s life. Her famous end is perhaps well enough served, with some further eyewitness testimony (however biased or unreliable it may be, and all from her enemy’s side). Of the beginning of her life we know almost nothing. She was the daughter of Ptolemy XII “Auletes” (“flute player,” the nickname said to refer to his chubby cheeks), but the identity of her mother is a mystery, as is the date of her birth. Schiff follows many other modern writers in placing it in 69 BC, relying entirely on Plutarch, who writes in his biography of Mark Antony that she was thirty-nine when she died in 30 BC. But this means overlooking the fact that almost the very next thing Plutarch goes on to claim (that she had “ruled together with Antony for more than fourteen years”) is without doubt numerically wrong. It is almost certain that she did not even meet Antony until 41 BC, which would give a period of nine years at most, even on the most generous interpretation of “ruling together.” Whatever accounts for the error in Plutarch’s text (maybe a medieval copyist simply miscopied the figure, or maybe Plutarch himself got it wrong), the standard scholarly confidence that Cleopatra was born in 69 is just one of the many examples where modern biographers cherry-pick the parts of an ancient text that suit them and turn a blind eye to those that do not.

Schiff’s approach to the story of Cleopatra is, in part, skeptical and businesslike. She has a refreshing, outsider’s perspective on this period of Mediterranean history, and plenty of pithy phrases to match. Occasionally these bons mots come rather too thick and fast for my taste. But her summary of the atmosphere in Rome after the assassination of Julius Caesar (“a lively market opened for defamation and self-justification. There was a run on self-congratulation”) captures the politics of the period more aptly than the many pages written by specialist historians; and she gets Roman ambivalences toward extravagance exactly right when she observes that “luxury is more easily denounced than denied.”

The fairly traditional picture she paints of Cleopatra—as a powerful, independent queen, strategizing to serve her own best interests, and manipulating a succession of Roman grandees with her sexual and intellectual wiles—is not necessarily wrong. But it is worth observing that the English historian Adrian Goldsworthy in his recent double biography Antony and Cleopatra reached precisely the opposite conclusion—that she was an unimportant sideshow in Roman power struggles that she could hardly influence, the last in the line of a once glorious but now very faded dynasty—on exactly the same evidence. Frankly, we shall never know.

But what of the myth? When she reflects on how to handle the fictions that have grown up around Cleopatra and how to write a historical biographical account, Schiff writes about “peel[ing] away the encrusted myth” and “restor[ing] context.” Here she is at her weakest. This is partly because, despite some sharp flashes of insight, her grip on the history, culture, and law of the Greco-Roman world is not always as firm as it might be. Where on earth did she get the idea, for example, that Roman women in the first century BC had “the same legal rights as…chickens”?

Schiff’s problem lies more in the nature of the project that she has set herself: namely to write the biography of an ancient character as if it were possible to tell a reasonably reliable story from cradle to grave (on the model of her earlier excellent studies of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov). To be fair, she is not alone in this. There have been at least five biographies of Cleopatra in English in the last five years, and the appetite on the part of readers and publishers for life stories of ancient characters seems insatiable. Even when these are reasonably well documented by ancient standards, there are always huge gaps in the evidence. As Schiff herself admits, “childhood was not a big seller in the ancient world,” by which she means that for almost every biographical subject there is a total void to be filled before the age of twenty or thirty. For Cleopatra there are also periods of several years later in her career when we know next to nothing of her life or whereabouts. It is here that “context” tends to substitute, misleadingly, for biography.

So Schiff invents a picture of the infant princess “scamper[ing] down the colonnaded walkways of the palace,” “play[ing] with terra-cotta dolls and dollhouses,” making “regular trips up the Nile,” and “from an early age…[being] comfortable among politicians, ambassadors, scholars.” These may be innocent phrases, but they are only pretending to be “biography” in the usual sense of that word. Typical too is the “contextual” approach we find later when Schiff comes to the birth of Cleopatra’s son by Julius Caesar, Caesarion. “We know as little of the actual birth as we do of the intimacy that preceded it,” she writes. That is certainly true; in fact, we do not even know in which year the child was born (or if he was really Caesar’s son). But her honest profession of ignorance is the prologue to several paragraphs on what birthing procedures and infant care would have been like at the time (including cutting the umbilical cord with an obsidian knife and the qualities of midwives)—and then on whether Cleopatra would have had access to reliable contraception had she so chosen.

This information is drawn from any ancient source that can conveniently be brought into the picture, all jumbled together: the second-century-AD doctor Soranus, who provides most of the information we have about ancient obstetrics (including the detail of the obsidian), a papyrus letter from five centuries earlier (on what to look for in a midwife), and a considerable variety of writers on the principles and practice of contraception, from the Hippocratic corpus to the Roman satirist Juvenal. It is a useful assemblage of references to women’s medicine in antiquity, but has nothing at all to do with Cleopatra.

The truth is that “peel[ing] away the encrusted myth” of Cleopatra reveals that there is very little underneath the ancient fictional surface, and certainly nothing that can be the stuff of a plausible life story—unless it is padded out with half-relevant background that is, in a sense, fiction of a different kind. In this case the rich evidence on papyrus that survives from Greco-Roman Egypt hardly helps. For Cleopatra, there is nothing as vivid as those few lines of Germanicus’ speech uttered as he stepped off the boat. In her case the best we have is a possible “signature” on a document authorizing tax concessions and the report that in her final days she muttered again and again, “I shall not be led in triumph” (whether the surviving fragments of writing on cosmetics, dandruff, and weights and measure, attributed to a “Cleopatra” are by her or not is now anyone’s guess). As for the fragmentary, difficult, and disputed archaeology of Alexandria, it continues to produce new theories on the possible site of her palace or her tomb, each one as implausible (and newsworthy) as the last. In the end, we should probably resist the allure of biography and stick with the Augustan myth and Horace’s “demented queen.”

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