Tag Archives | Antiquity

Some Notes on Last Week’s Episode of Rome

Cicero In real life, Cicero was killed by many people after fleeing his home, not by one person in his home.

In real life, Brutus died by suicide, not in battle.

In real life, Servilia died of natural causes, not suicide.

I’m just sayin’ ….

Cleopatra on Mars; or, Our Forgetful Experts

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

I remember how, when the Viking lander first began sending photos back from Mars, scientists were amazed to discover that the Martian sky is pink. Initially the sky showed as white, but the Viking project’s scientists quickly noticed that the colour of the lettering on the lander itself was off, and when they corrected the colour, the sky blazed forth in glorious pink – a development which the scientists noted was completely unexpected.

Cleopatra's face on Mars? At the time, the scientists’ astonishment baffled me – because I had learned years before, in elementary school, long before any photos had come back from Mars, that scientists were predicting that the Martian sky would be pink or purple. So how did the scientific community manage to forget its earlier prediction? Why were they surprised by something a fifth-grader in Idaho could have told them?

Beats me. But I lately had a feeling of déja vu over the recent news story concerning the discovery of a coin with Cleopatra’s face on it, revealing a less than beautiful visage. Archaeologists and historians reported with cries of amazement that Cleopatra’s reputation as a great beauty must now be revised.

Their reaction puzzles me in much the same way that the Viking project’s scientists’ reaction to the Martian sky puzzled me.

First: it’s old news that Cleopatra’s charm lay more in her personality than in her physical appearance; I recently quoted Plutarch on my blog to just that effect. Surely all these archaeologists and historians have read Plutarch?

Second: this is not the first time that coins with Cleopatra’s image on them have been discovered. Given my longstanding interest in classical history, I’ve been seeing pictures of Cleopatra coins for years. None of the depictions was especially attractive. So what’s new here? Surely all these archaeologists and historians have seen Cleopatra coins before?

Third: this is nothing unique to Cleopatra. On the contrary, it’s a persistent feature of ancient coins generally that the images on them are less flattering than, say, statues or busts of the same persons. Take a look, for example, at these depictions of Augustus and Tiberius.

Augustus and Tiberius - coin and bust

Is it because the busts were idealised, making the coins a more accurate portrayal? Or is it because the coins were more hastily made (or because the ancients were, famously, better at 3-D representation that at 2-D – or again, better at 2-D front views than at 2-D profiles), making the busts actually more accurate? Or is it (perhaps most likely) some of each? 

Well, I don’t know. What I do know is that looking good in busts and not so good on coins is a pervasive feature of ancient portraiture. So why all the surprise about Cleopatra? And why the leap to the assumption of the coin’s accuracy in this case? Surely all these archaeologists and historians have seen ancient statuary and currency before?

The Strangeness That Was Rome?

Gary Kamiya lauds the HBO miniseries Rome both for its “extraordinary attention to historically accurate detail” and for its willingness to “depict an alien worldview, one untouched by Christianity and the moral ethos introduced by that strange little sect.” “It requires both historical scholarship and a certain imaginative audacity,” Kamiya opines, “to create characters who don’t share some of our most basic assumptions and beliefs.” (Conical hat tip to LRC.)

HBO's Rome But it seems to me that Kamiya overstates the divide between Christian and pre-Christian society. Anyone who’s read, say, Cicero’s De Officiis knows that pre-Christian moral ideals could be as high-minded and pacific as Christian ones; and anyone who’s studied history knows that the real-life conduct of rulers and warriors in Christian societies could be as sanguinary as that of their pagan predecessors. As for Kamiya’s quaint assumption that husbands nowadays no longer kill their wives over suspected infidelity, I can only wonder what planet he’s been living on.

I’m also rather skeptical of Kamiya’s assumption that Rome offers a realistic picture of Roman society. In fact the show doesn’t deal much with ordinary Romans at all; it’s pretty much all about the rulers, the only commoners being either actual criminals or else folks of various classes drawn into the rulers’ wars and intrigues. A show that chronicles the doings of Rome’s most ruthlessly violent class during one of the most ruthlessly violent periods of Roman history is not going to be the most reliable of guides to the Roman mind.

Kamiya makes much of the show’s unrestrained sexuality as an indication of Roman mores. But Roman official sexual morality was actually fairly severe, even puritanical; having sex (even with one’s legal spouse) in full nudity, or during the day, or at night with the light on, was widely regarded as shockingly licentious. Did private conduct conform invariably to this code? Well, no; but from the show you’d never guess there was any such code.

It’s perhaps odd that Kamiya says nothing about Roman acceptance of slavery, which some might think the most striking difference between Roman society and our own. But given what treatment of blacks was legally tolerated in our own country just half a century ago, I don’t think the modern world can pride itself too much on its moral superiority.

As for Kamiya’s praise of Rome’s historical accuracy, I imagine that the ghosts of Atia and Cleopatra might have some objections to their bizarre portrayals as scheming sadistic murderer and drug-addled nymphomaniac respectively. (And even Marc Antony would have some grounds for complaint – he was an obnoxious jerk, yes, but not that over-the-top obnoxious.)

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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