A French exhibition is revisiting the story of the ancient Egyptian queen Cleopatra, writes David Tresilian in Paris
Visitors to the French capital this summer have the opportunity to revisit what is known about the ancient Egyptian queen Cleopatra courtesy of an exhibition, The Myth of Cleopatra, at the Pinacothèque de Paris in the place de la Madeleine.
Bringing together material evidence from mostly European collections, the exhibition also examines Cleopatra’s afterlife in painting, literature and film. While no new discoveries are on offer, one leaves the show feeling reinvigorated and with interest in the ancient Egyptian queen renewed.
It can never be known what truly lies behind the stories of Cleopatra that have come down from antiquity, but the ancient writers are at one in suggesting that had it not been for Cleopatra’s influence over the Roman generals Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, the most powerful men in the world at the time, Egypt would have lost its independence far earlier than it did. As it was, the country was only annexed by Octavius Caesar after Cleopatra’s military defeat and suicide in 30 BCE.
Whatever else she was, these writers suggest, Cleopatra was supremely clever and a consummate politician. Though the seventeenth-century French writer Blaise Pascal later famously suggested that “had Cleopatra’s nose been shorter, the face of the world would have changed,” it seems that Cleopatra’s fascination lay less in her physical beauty and more in her quickness, intelligence and cultivation.
It may have been these things that caused Julius Caesar largely to spare Egypt the treatment he had earlier meted out to other eastern Mediterranean monarchies, looted and annexed by Roman forces in the period. According to the ancient historian Plutarch, Mark Antony lost half the Mediterranean world, his share of Roman territories after the murder of Julius Caesar, because of his association with Cleopatra.
Cleopatra transferred her affections from Julius Caesar to Mark Antony as the Roman general most likely to guarantee her country’s independence, and by doing so she secured an extra decade or so of unfettered rule. If she really abandoned Antony at the battle of Actium against Octavius Caesar, as Plutarch claims, perhaps it was because she was already thinking that Antony was a losing proposition and she would be better off with Octavius.
Unfortunately for her and for Ptolemaic Egypt, Octavius proved impervious to her charms. As every schoolboy knows, following Antony and Cleopatra’s joint defeat and Antony’s suicide, Cleopatra, shut up in the building she had designated as her tomb, committed suicide by being bitten by an asp (an Egyptian cobra). She had tried, the ancient writers say, to abdicate in favour of Ptolemy XV Caesarion, her son by Julius Caesar. But Octavius had the boy killed.
Cleopatra’s story, combining sex and power against the background of the division of the known world, inspired writers from Plutarch to Shakespeare, the former providing, in his Life of Antony, the materials for Shakespeare’s treatment in his play Antony and Cleopatra. More recently she has been memorably presented in Hollywood films. While the material evidence tends to be rather less exciting, it is a useful supplement to the surviving historical accounts.
IMAGES OF CLEOPATRA: According to Plutarch, writing in the first century CE, Cleopatra’s beauty “was not of that incomparable kind which instantly captivates the beholder. But the charm of her presence was irresistible, and there was an attraction in her person and her talk, together with a peculiar force of character which pervaded her every word and action, that laid all who associated with her under her spell.”
“It was a delight merely to hear the sound of her voice, with which, like an instrument of many strings, she could pass from one language to another, so that in her interviews with barbarians she seldom required an interpreter, but conversed with them quite unaided, whether they were Ethiopians, Hebrews, Arabians, Syrians, Medes, or Parthians.”
Presumably this was equally true for Romans. Unlike Egypt’s previous Ptolemaic rulers, members of an originally Greek dynasty founded by Ptolemy I Soter, a general of Alexander the Great, Cleopatra also reportedly learned Egyptian.
She became queen of Egypt on the death of her father, Ptolemy XII Auletes, in 51 BCE, ruling at first alone and then briefly with her younger brothers Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV until 45 BCE. When Julius Caesar invaded Egypt in 48 BCE, she was able to gain an interview with him by having herself rolled up in a bedroll or carpet and delivered into his presence.
“So captivated was Caesar by this device,” writes Plutarch in his Life of Caesar, that “he succumbed to the charm of further intercourse with her.” More importantly, he also confirmed Cleopatra on the Egyptian throne, removing Ptolemy XIII because of his opposition to the Roman invasion. In what seems to have been an early example of Cleopatra’s realpolitik, she had her other brother, Ptolemy XIV, poisoned in order to clear the way for her son by Caesar Ptolemy XV Caesarion.
Viewers of US director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1963 film Cleopatra, one of the most expensive ever made, will doubtless remember the British actress Elizabeth Taylor’s performance as Cleopatra and her arrival in Caesar’s presence in the famous carpet scene. Later in the film comes Taylor’s no-holds barred version of Cleopatra’s arrival in Rome, shown in the present exhibition, where she stayed as Caesar’s guest from 46 BCE until the latter’s assassination two years later.
According to Plutarch, Cleopatra was aware of the need to make the most of her physical and other charms, initially by orchestrating the grandest of grand entrances. It was a skill she made the most of when she was summoned to meet Mark Antony, the Roman general who was Caesar’s successor in the eastern Mediterranean, in Tarsus in what is now Syria in 41 BCE.
“She had already seen for herself,” Plutarch writes, “the power of her beauty to enchant Julius Caesar and she expected to conquer Antony even more easily… Caesar had known her when she was still a young girl with no experience of the world, but she was to meet Antony at the age when a woman’s beauty is at its most superb and her mind at its most mature.” Cleopatra was 20 when she met Caesar. She was 28 when she went to meet Mark Antony.
Thanks to Shakespeare, who borrowed Plutarch’s account in Antony and Cleopatra, Cleopatra’s arrival before Antony has become even more famous than her delivery in a carpet to Caesar. If the aim was to seduce, the entrance was probably even more effective. If it was meant to impress upon the Roman general the magnificence of Egypt, it could scarcely have been better orchestrated, even temporarily reversing the balance of power between Egypt and Rome.
“She came sailing up the River Cydnus [to Tarsus],” Plutarch writes, “in a barge with a poop of gold, its purple sails billowing in the wind while her rowers caressed the water with oars of silver which dipped in time to the music of the flute accompanied by pipes and lutes. Cleopatra herself reclined beneath a canopy of cloth of gold, dressed in the character of Venus, while on either side of her to complete the picture stood boys costumed as cupids who cooled her with their fans.”
“Great multitudes accompanied this royal progress, some of them following the queen on both sides of the river, while others hurried down from the city of Tarsus to gaze at the sight. The crowds drifted away from the market-place where Antony awaited the queen, until at last he was left sitting quite alone and the word spread on every side that Venus had come to revel with Bacchus for the happiness of Asia.”
Not for the first time Antony found himself outmanoeuvred by Cleopatra. The important thing was to keep him from coming to an accommodation with Octavius that would imperil the independence of Egypt. “Plato speaks of four kinds of flattery, but Cleopatra knew a thousand,” Plutarch writes. “Whether Antony’s mood was serious or gay, she could always invent some fresh device to delight or charm him.”
Seeing her position threatened by Antony’s strategic marriage to Octavius’s sister Octavia, “she pretended to be consumed with the most passionate love for Antony. Whenever Antony came near her she would fix her eyes on him with a look of rapture, and whenever he left she would appear to languish and be on the verge of collapse.”
For a time it worked. “First, he proclaimed Cleopatra queen of Egypt, Cyprus, Libya and Syria and named Caesarion as her consort. Next he proclaimed his sons by Cleopatra to be kings of kings,” a political settlement that guaranteed Roman protection of Cleopatra’s rule at least while Antony’s own credit lasted.
THE MATERIAL EVIDENCE: Most of the materials gathered in the present exhibition come from Italian collections, including the splendid Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples.
Among the highlights is a marble bust from Turin, nose more or less intact, that is thought to be of Cleopatra. However, no information is provided on this recent attribution and why it has been made. Other memorable pieces include another marble bust, also confidently said to be of Cleopatra, this time from the Vatican Museums in Rome, and marble images of Julius and Octavius Caesar that well capture Roman arrogance.
This is not a scholarly exhibition, and well-known pieces, such as the marble bust of Cleopatra from the Altes Museum in Berlin, are missing. Presumably this object, perhaps the most famous representation of Cleopatra, was not available for loan. There is a lot of padding in the exhibition, perhaps inevitable given the scarcity of surviving pieces directly illustrating the reign of the Egyptian queen.
Some of this padding is interesting, particularly that illustrating the “Egyptomania” that seems to have taken over Rome in the wake of Cleopatra’s visit, with Egyptian iconography finding its way into Roman mural paintings, jewelry, domestic manufactures and even furniture design. But one wonders whether more material genuinely illustrative of Ptolemaic and Hellenistic culture could not have been found. There are some telling Ptolemaic coins, for example, showing how the queen’s image was deployed. More of these would have been welcome.
The last section of the exhibition, on Cleopatra’s afterlife in European painting, literature and film, contains some grotesque Italian paintings and clips from various European and American films. According to the wall texts in this part of the exhibition, images of Cleopatra in European art “show the oriental woman in the eyes of western men, the queen personifying the despotism, intrigue and seduction” of the East. In fact, they illustrate a sideline in ancient Egyptian kitsch.
Film versions of Cleopatra seem to have been affected by the curse of the pharoahs, from Mankiewicz’s unwatchable 1963 film Cleopatra, which almost bankrupted the studios that made it, to the 1945 film version of the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw’s play Caesar and Cleopatra, when it was released the most expensive UK film ever made and a catastrophic failure at the box office. The British actress Vivien Leigh, best-known for her role as southern belle Scarlett O’Hara in the film version of the US civil war drama Gone with the Wind, played Cleopatra.
Cleopatra has also made appearances in opera, with more successful results. She appears in Handel’s 1724 opera Giulio Cesare in Egitto, for example, extracts from which are sung in the exhibition by the Spanish soprano Montserrat Caballé, as well as in Massenet’s 1914 opera Cléopâtre, also sung here by Caballé.
Finally, there are costumes from a 1989 Italian production of Egyptian poet Ahmed Shawqi’s play The Death of Cleopatra. This seems to have been an unusually opulent production, perhaps one of the few full-scale stagings that this play has received since it was written in the 1920s.
Le mythe Cléopâtre, Pinacothèque de Paris, Paris, until 7 September