Archive | December 1, 2006

Age Cannot Wither Her Nor Custom Stale

This looks somewhat promising. The usual cinematic portrayals of Cleopatra – from the Elizabeth Taylor version to the bizarre treatment in the usually more reliable Rome miniseries – turn her into a gorgeous but vapid sexpot. The reality was far more interesting; Plutarch said of her:

Cleopatra[H]er actual beauty … was not in itself so remarkable that none could be compared with her, or that no one could see her without being struck by it, but the contact of her presence, if you lived with her, was irresistible; the attraction of her person, joining with the charm of her conversation, and the character that attended all she said or did, was something bewitching. It was a pleasure 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 there were few of the barbarian nations that she answered by an interpreter; to most of them she spoke herself, as to the Ethiopians, Troglodytes, Hebrews, Arabians, Syrians, Medes, Parthians, and many others, whose language she had learnt; which was all the more surprising because most of the kings, her predecessors [= the Ptolemies, i.e.Greek-speaking Macedonian conquerors], scarcely gave themselves the trouble to acquire the Egyptian tongue ….

In short, she was essentially a female analogue of Julius Caesar: brilliant, charismatic, and ruthless. Her ambition was Caesar-sized too – to carve out the entire eastern half of the Roman Empire as her own separate domain. And she almost accomplished it. (As for her alleged promiscuity, if it matters, there’s no ancient evidence for that either. We know that she had longterm relationships with two men, Caesar and Antony. Beyond that we know nothing about her sex life whatsoever.)

Now I’m not putting Cleopatra forward as an especially admirable character, any more than I would Caesar. They both had tremendous positive qualities, but they both put those qualities in the service of the business of conquering, ruling, and killing people. Not my bag. But I do claim that she was a lot more interesting and impressive than the usual simultaneously-sexist-and-Orientalist stereotype of a corrupt, languid seductress (a stereotype vigorously promoted by Augustus Caesar for political reasons of his own, incidentally). This movie project looks like we might see something closer to the actual Cleopatra.

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