by Roderick Conway Morris

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Last of the Pharoahs

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 23 December 2000
Capitoline Museums, Rome
The Esquiline Cleopatra, c. 50 AD



'How different, how very different from the home life of our own dear queen,' as a Victorian matron was heard to remark to her neighbor, after Sarah Bernhardt as Cleopatra had 'just stabbed the slave who bore her the tidings of Mark Antony's defeat at Actium; stormed, raved, wrecked some of the scenery in her frenzy and, finally, as the curtain fell, dropped into a shuddering, convulsive heap.'

Outstandingly the most glamorous historical female figure in antiquity, the Ptolemaic sovereign and last of the pharaohs is the inspiration for a visual feast at the Fondazione Memmo at Palazzo Ruspoli, in the city where she lived for two years as the paramour of Julius Caesar. The exhibition, curated by Susan Walker of the British Museum, continues here until Feb. 25 and will then go on to the British Museum in London and the Field Museum in Chicago.

Hardly any, even putative, representations of Cleopatra have come down to us. The reason is that Octavian (the adopted son of Julius Caesar), who was to become the first Roman Emperor, Augustus, found in her a serious rival in statecraft, wealth and power and one, moreover, who had the effrontery to be a woman. Augustus outlived her by nearly 50 years, and did everything he could to demonize and ultimately to expunge her memory.

But the systematic destruction of her images spectacularly failed to eradicate her legend. She was not, according to Plutarch, writing well over a century after her death, particularly beautiful, but her personality and conversation were utterly entrancing. And Shakespeare is surely close to historical truth when he speaks of her 'infinite variety.'

In 40 B.C., Mark Antony married Octavian's sister, Octavia, and his abandonment of her in favor of Cleopatra was an additional motive for Octavian's loathing of his brother-in-law's mistress. Yet at a popular level this to some extent enhanced the Egyptian queen's reputation, in that Mark Antony's marriage to Octavia could be interpreted as a purely political one, whereas his relationship with Cleopatra seemed a case of wild, romantic love.

In fact, despite the intense denigration and black propaganda orchestrated by Octavian, Cleopatra succeeded in certain circles in gaining the reputation of a have-it-all superwoman: sex bomb, the companion on an equal basis of the greatest men of the age, the leader of a long and determined resistance to maintain the independence of her country, the mother of several children, an arbiter of the fashionable and the chic, and allegedly the author of a number of books on subjects ranging from hairdressing and cosmetics to weights and measures and gynecology. It is amusing to see how Cleopatra's blasé insouciance could even undermine the self-confidence of Cicero, a macho intellectual heavyweight.

Cleopatra's times, as the exhibition magnificently demonstrates, were extraordinarily interesting from the artistic point of view, as the cultures of Egypt and Rome came into ever closer contact. And the juxtaposition of objects - some 350 in all, which would normally be segregated for display, in museums and in special shows, into geographical zones - is consistently stimulating.

Julius Caesar's personal experience in Egypt led to his reform of the Roman calendar based on the superior knowledge of Egyptian astronomers and mathematicians; and his plans for a public library in Rome were likewise modeled on the example of the Library of Alexandria, an institution whose size and scope was unparalleled in the ancient world.

The exotic Egyptian queen's stage-managed public appearances contributed to rampant Roman Egyptomania - even her archenemy Augustus eventually having his studiolo, or private study, frescoed in the Ptolemaic Egyptian fashion. After Cleopatra's defeat and death, and the annexation and sack of her kingdom, so much booty and coin poured into Rome that interest rates fell by two-thirds.

Along with the gold and silver came quantities of obelisks, sphinxes and other art works great and small, which were mostly employed out of context for purely decorative effects. (Obelisks proved particularly useful in providing the gnomons for monumental sundials, such as the gigantic one Augustus laid out on the Mars Field.) Pyramids became all the rage, the most celebrated surviving one being the tomb of Gaius Cestius, next door to today's Protestant Cemetery. There was even a craze for themed Egyptian Gardens, derided by Cicero, with artificial channels and other miniature 'Nilotic' features.

Meanwhile, the worship of Egyptian deities, especially Isis, became widespread and the numerous temples devoted to these cults continued to function until shut down by the Christian emperor Theodosius in A.D. 384.

Pascal famously observed: 'Had Cleopatra's nose been shorter, the whole history of the world would have been different'; and one is irresistibly drawn to examine the very few images thought to be of Cleopatra. A superb full-length, black basalt Egyptian statue on loan from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg is so stylized, and so clearly conforms to the conventions of the representation of Cleopatra as the deity that her Egyptian subjects held her to be, that it is inconclusive on the issue of just how beautiful she was in reality.

A marble head from the Vatican Museums, generally agreed to be of the queen, has an attractive face - but the nose is missing. Another similar marble head, from the Berlin State Museums, is complete, but has, ironically, a rather Victorian, matronly air to it. Thus, although immensely enlightening in many areas, the exhibition cannot but leave the question of the true nature of Cleopatra's physiognomy as tantalizingly unanswered as ever.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023