Cleopatra VII, the last queen of Egypt (69-30 BC), has recently returned to Rome as
the inspiration for an exhibition entitled Cleopatra: Rome and the Magic of Egypt. Major museums and galleries worldwide have lent almost 200 works of art to this show celebrating a woman whose appeal and influence remain undiminished even now, 2000 years after her death.
These include the 'Nahman Cleopatra', a marble head (circa 33-30 BC), on show in Italy for the first time. The portrait, which is still in private hands, takes its name from Maurice Nahman (1868-1948), the most famous of Cairo's antique dealers and collectors in pre-Nasser Egypt.
The 'Nahman Cleopatra' resembles another head dating from the second half of the 1st century BC, from the Vatican Museums, which is also on view here (circa 45 BC), one of the few portraits thought by scholars to really represent the queen. Found in 1784 at the Villa dei Quintilii on the Via Appia, the young woman wears the royal diadem, a broad band of cloth tied around the head (first adopted by Alexander the Great) that came to symbolise Hellenistic kingship.
|Photograph: Musei Vaticani|
Both heads may be Roman copies, in marble, of the lost, gilded bronze statue of Cleopatra given by Julius Caesar to the Temple of Venus Genetrix, while she was living in Rome from 46 to 44 BC. Another marble head found in Rome, on the Via Labicana, may be a portrait of Cleopatra in her youth, represented in the guise of the goddess Isis and dating from the 2nd or 1st century BC. The likeness of Cleopatra shown on coins does not do her justice. Men found her extremely attractive, although she may not have been a great beauty in the conventional sense but probably a highly intelligent jolie-laide whose allure was derived from her elegant bearing, notable wit, regal status and undoubted political savoir faire.
Representing the queen's illustrious Macedonian ancestry there is the 'Guimet Alexander', a masterpiece of Hellenistic sculpture from the Louvre. Alexander the Great was the founder of Alexandria, where he was reputedly buried by Ptolemy Soter I (circa 367 BC-circa 283 BC), one of his generals, the initiator in 305 BC of the Ptolemaic dynasty that ended with Cleopatra's death in 30 BC. Cleopatra's lovers Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) and Mark Antony (83-30 BC) are also represented, as is Caesarion (47-30 BC), her son by Julius Caesar, who became Ptolemy XV.
Caesarion was killed by Octavian, the future Emperor Augustus (63 BC -AD 14), when he conquered Egypt in 30BC following the battle of Actium, and after both Mark Antony and Cleopatra had committed suicide. The great queen did have a kind of revenge on her arch-enemy, though, as Octavian soon realised that he had to respect the millennium-old traditions of ancient Egypt in order to be accepted as sovereign there. Soon this prim and proper general, staunch defender of Roman virtues, who was opposed to the effeminate mores of the East, was depicted Egyptian-style, although he did not mind adopting the god-like attributes of a pharaoh.
Later emperors, such as Tiberius, Nero and probably Domitian, were also represented as pharaohs in several portraits. Surprisingly, Augustus even had his home in Rome on the Palatine decorated with frescoes on Egyptian themes.
Following Cleopatra's triumphal arrival in the capital in 46 BC as Caesar's conquest and her two-year stay in her lover's suburban mansion (Horti Caesaris) in Trastevere, a wave of Egyptomania spread among the fashionable circles of the Republic. Cleopatra's 'Roman years', during which the city's customs and fashions were heavily influenced by the Egyptian queen and her court, are the subject of one of the most interesting sections of this exhibition.
Soon the ladies of the capital began to sport Egyptian hairstyles and wear beautifully crafted jewellery incorporating exotic symbols, such as the snake, the sacred uraeus that symbolised sovereignty and immortality. A snake bangle, dating from 1st century BC to 1st century AD, was found among the belongings of a Roman lady, probably the owner of the famous House of the Faun in Pompeii. The wealthy had their villas decorated with paintings, mosaics, sculptures and furnishings inspired by the fabled kingdom of Egypt. Alexandrian artists and craftsmen travelled to Rome and other important centres of the empire in order to respond faster and more efficiently to the growing demands for the new fashion.
The ubiquitous 'Nilotic scenes', depicting an extraordinary range of aquatic fauna including hippopotami, crocodiles, frogs, wild ducks and ibis, along with lotus flowers, thickets of papyrus and fish of all kinds, evoked the teeming fecundity of the River Nile. They also often provide the background for improbable battles between diminutive warriors, crocodiles and hippopotami, as in 'Nile Scene with Pygmy Hunters', found on the walls of a mansion in Pompeii and dated circa AD 55-79.
Another fine example decorates a five-metre-long threshold mosaic dating from the 1st century BC that came from a luxurious domus in Privernum. Both are included in the exhibition. But the most spectacular of the Nilotic scenes was the great early floor mosaic found in an apse of the temple of the Fortuna Primigenia in Palestrina, where the goddess Isis was associated with the Latin goddess Fortuna. This proves that Egyptian cults had infiltrated the peninsula even before the presence of Cleopatra in Roman society. The floor dates from the end of the 2nd century BC and the first half of the 1st century BC. In his Naturalis Historia written circa AD 77-79, Pliny the Elder states: 'Mosaics came into use as early as Sulla's regime. At all events there exists even today one made of very small tesserae which he installed in the temple of Fortune at Palestrina.'
This craze for Egyptian style even went so far as to cause the building of small-scale pyramids in Rome as tombs for the capital's wealthy citizens. One of these still stands by the Ostia Gate outside the Aurelian walls at the beginning of the Via Ostiensis, near the Porta San Paolo and the Protestant Cemetery
Built circa 18-12 BC and standing almost 37metres high, it is the pyramid-tomb lined in white marble of Gaius Cestius Epulo, chief magistrate (praetor), tribune of the plebs and one of the seven state priests in charge of public banquets (epulones), in honour of Jupiter and other religious festivals. Gaius Cestius had made his considerable fortune by trading and possibly serving in Nubia, in Upper Egypt. Another such tomb, demolished in 1499, was built at the beginning of the Via Triumphalis, as well as one or two more pyramids on the Via Flaminia, on the site of the present-day Piazza del Popolo.
Sphinxes, too, appeared in wall paintings or as garden statues. In Pompeii, a crouching sphinx wearing the headdress of the pharaohs, and dating from the 1st century AD, decorated a fountain in a domus, and two sphinxes guarded a trellised garden. Another sphinx in the exhibition, made of pink granite, comes from as far from the Italian mainland as Sardinia – it was found near Cagliari. It was presumably part of a local Iseum, a temple to the Egyptian goddess Isis, one of many that dotted Central and Southern Italy at this time.
A number of Egyptian gods and goddesses made their way into the Roman pantheon or into the private beliefs of the inhabitants of the peninsula, despite the opposition of the more conservative members of the Roman Senate. They illustrate the existence and increasing popularity of Egyptian religious cults, mostly adopted – it appears – by women and the lowers classes but not necessarily only so, well before the coming of Cleopatra to Italy.
First and foremost there is the image of Isis, goddess of life and, as Iside Pelagia, goddess of sea travel, who invented sails. She is represented both in traditional Egyptian garb – that worn by Cleopatra, who as a queen was held in Egypt to be the embodiment of the goddess – and in Hellenistic/Roman-style clothing, breastfeeding her son the god Horus. Isis lactans, as she is known, is shown in a small 1st-century AD terracotta, signed by a craftsman named Pausania, that was found in Herculaneum.
A large, striking statue of Anubis, the jackal-headed protector of the dead (1st century BC-1st century AD) found at Cuma near Naples, shows the god with a dog's head and the body of Hermes/Mercury. This is the result of a meeting of Hellenistic culture with the Egyptian Pharaonic cults that flourished in Alexandria under the Ptolemaic dynasty. The fusion then spread to Italy through the intermediary of Egyptian merchants who plied the Mediterranean back and forth and who settled in large communities in the Italian ports and in Rome itself.
This could be assimilated what troubled the Romans, though, was the powerful aura surrounding the female identity in Egypt's religious and political context. In an irredeemably paternalistic society, it was unthinkable that such authority should be given to a woman.
Women should limit themselves to being symbols of matronly virtues. They should devote their lives to the benefit of the pater familias, father and husband and to their children, never exercising masculine daring or independence.
Cleopatra VII, on the contrary, enjoyed divine status as Isis, a goddess whose power was equal to that of men, and she was a queen who ruled in her own right. She embodied, and still embodies, a challenge to a male-dominated society where she was cast as the foreign seductress, the femme fatale, the 'serpent of the Nile'. She was described as the 'fatal monster' and the 'whore queen' by leading poets of Augustus' time, Horace in his Odes (I.37.21) and Popertius in his Poems (III.11.39) respectively.
The coins minted by Octavian around 28-27 BC (15) after his victory over Antony and Cleopatra bear the inscription Aegypt Capta ('Egypt held captive'), but this exhibition shows that it was, in fact, Rome that was captivated by Egypt's powerful spell and that of her beguiling queen.
• Cleopatra: Rome and the Magic of Egypt is on show at Chiostro del Bramante in Rome (+39 06 916 508 451; www.mostracleopatra.it) until 2 February. The accompanying catalogue, edited by Giovanni Gentili, is published by Skira at €38.