Thursday, April 23, 2009



Cleopatra’s critics are draconian,
male chauvinists who ruled the roost from Rome.
Perhaps we’ll find out from her catacomb
if she was African or Macedonian,
or even, God forbid, part dreaded Persian.
If she had been a sexy Scandinavian
might she have proudly ruled the rude Octavian
as she once did, without a sham conversion,
both Jules and Tony, his great antecedents
who sailed with her on burnished barks? Who knows?
Although they say she had a perfect nose,
Octavian might have had a yen for Sweden’s
luscious blondes, preferring them to dark,
dark women. Had she only dyed her hair,
he might augustly have agreed to share
the empire with her, making her his mark.

Stacy Schiff writes about Cleopatra in the NYT, April 2, 2009 (“Who’s Buried in Cleopatra’s Tomb?”):
Cleopatra died 2,039 years ago, at the age of 39. Before she was a slot machine, a video game, a cigarette, a condom, a caricature, a cliché or a synonym for Elizabeth Taylor, before she was reincarnated by Shakespeare, Dryden or Shaw, she was a nonfictional Egyptian queen. She ruled for 21 years, mostly alone, which is to say that she was essentially a female king, an incongruity that elicits the kind of double take once reserved for men in drag. From her point of view there was nothing irregular about the arrangement. Cleopatra arguably had more powerful female role models than any other woman in history. They were not so much paragons of virtue as shrewd political operators. Her antecedents were the rancorous, meddlesome Macedonian queens who routinely poisoned brothers and sent armies against sons. Cleopatra’s great-grandmother waged one civil war against her parents, another against her children. These women were raised to rule. Cleopatra had a child with Julius Caesar. After his death, she had three more — two sons and a daughter — with his protégé, Marc Antony. Motherhood confirmed her hold on the throne. She was a little bit the reverse of Henry VIII; she too needed a male heir, though she was rather more successful in securing one. Almost certainly Marc Antony and Julius Caesar represent the extent of Cleopatra’s sexual history. She was self-reliant, ingenious and plucky, and for her time and place remarkably well behaved. Having inherited a country in decline, she capably steered it through drought, famine, plague and war.What good can be said of a woman who sleeps with two of the most powerful men of her age, however? The fathers of Cleopatra’s children were men of voracious and celebrated sexual appetites. Cleopatra has gone down in history as a wanton seductress. She is the original bad girl, the Monica Lewinsky of the ancient world. And all because she turns up at one of the most dangerous intersections in history, that of women and power. She presides eternally over the chasm between promiscuity and virility, the forest of connotations that separate “adventuress” from “adventurer.” Women schemed while men strategized in the ancient world, too. And female power asserted itself regularly, if more covertly than it had on the Greek stage. In a first century B.C. marriage contract, a woman promises to be faithful and attentive — and to not add love potions to her husband’s food. Clever women, Euripides had already warned, are dangerous women….
Octavian hardly needed to inflate the tale: Here is a royal woman who could be said to have died, after all, for love. Romantic tragedies don’t get any better, which explains why Shakespeare had a difficult time improving on Plutarch. And Cleopatra puts a vintage label on something we have always known existed: mind-altering female sexuality. It’s that love potion again. She does not so much bump up against a glass ceiling as tumble through a trapdoor, the one that dismisses women by sexualizing them. As Margaret Atwood has written of Jezebel, “The amount of sexual baggage that has accumulated around this figure is astounding, since she doesn’t do anything remotely sexual in the original story, except put on makeup.” In Cleopatra’s case, the sheer absence of truth has guaranteed the legend. Where facts are few, myth rushes in, the kudzu of history….
The search is, too, a topical one. The Cambridge classicist Mary Beard points out that for many years archaeologists’ Holy Grail was the (still undiscovered) tomb of Alexander the Great. We find ourselves no longer in the market for an imperialistic white male. While this dig will resolve none of the great questions, it could, notes Professor Beard, conceivably offer clues to Cleopatra’s ethnicity. Was she pure Macedonian, or all or part African? (My guess is Macedonian with, possibly, a bit of Persian blood.) Indeed the mixed ancestry question appears to be the issue of the day: A month ago British scientists suggested that they had answered it definitively, producing computer simulations of Cleopatra’s sister, based on a skull found in Turkey. Here we engage in a familiar exercise: Cleopatra too spent her life trying to reconcile East and West, with as little success as we do today. A Roman could not get past the idea of a civilized, virtuous West and a decadent, opulent East. He could not pry apart the exotic and the erotic. The East was by definition beguiling and voluptuous — like a woman, as it happens. Think of Coffee, that second-act marvel in Balanchine’s “Nutcracker.” She is a sultry, intoxicating presence, too potent for any partner, by no means critical to the story, really there, I have always suspected, to wake up the fathers in the audience.

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 4/22/09

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