Egyptian princess, Roman prisoner, African Queen
Jane Draycott (336pp. Bloomsbury. £27.99).
Her history, her myth
Francine Prose (216pp. Yale University Press. £15.99).
The name “Cleopatra” conjures images of a seductive siren – sailing in an opulent barge, dissolving a pearl in vinegar to convince Mark Antony of her fabulous wealth, or pressing a phallic asp into her billowing cleavage after Octavian, the future emperor Augustus, defeats her at the battle of Actium in 31 BCE. The picture of Cleopatra as mother-of-four does not quickly spring to mind. But she bore four living children between her mid-twenties and her mid-thirties. The first was her son by Julius Caesar, Ptolemy XV, known as Caesarion, “Little Caesar”; he reigned over Egypt jointly with his mother from the age of three. Her other babies were fathered by Mark Antony – the twins Cleopatra “Selene” (Moon-Goddess) and Alexander “Helios” (Sun-God), born in 40 BCE, and Ptolemy Philadelphus, born four years later.
Cleopatra Selene soon lost her father, her mother and all three brothers produced by her famous mother (most of her five half-siblings, the children of Mark Antony, fared better). Caesarion, as Julius Caesar’s son, was killed by Octavian in 30 BCE, to remove a potential rival. The other three children, not yet in their teens, were taken to Rome, at which point both boys mysteriously disappear from the historical record. But their sister, the last known survivor of the Ptolemaic dynasty of Egypt, was taken in by Octavian’s older sister Octavia. Octavia had once been married to Mark Antony, and looked after her large “blended” family in the imperial residences on the Palatine Hill.
At about fifteen, Cleopatra Junior was married off to King Juba II of Numidia. He, too, had been raised in Rome after his father’s kingdom had been annexed, and he became a loyal henchman of the Roman emperor. The couple moved to Juba’s newly expanded realm, at that point retitled Mauretania. They named their capital Caesarea (now Cherchell, Algeria) to acknowledge Juba’s status as Augustus’ client. Juba was a keen supporter of intellectual, cultural and architectural endeavours; their kingdom prospered. They had two children, a girl and a boy; Cleopatra died in her mid-thirties.
That is virtually all that the surviving written sources have to say about her, but Jane Draycott has wrestled dauntlessly with the little evidence there is about this intriguing figure, producing the only modern full-length biography to stand alongside the dozen or more novels in which Cleopatra Selene appears, from Robert Graves’ I, Claudius (1934) onwards.
Draycott is skilled at bringing ancient social environments to life. Her reconstructions of the physical conditions in which the royal offspring lived, and Cleopatra’s emotional responses to her dramatic early life, are plausible and vivid. When only six, Cleopatra sat with her parents and siblings on an elaborate public platform in front of the assembled Alexandrian masses, to be declared queen of Cyrenaica and Libya. After her parents’ suicides, she was forced to march with her twin in Augustus’ Roman triumph in chains of gold, escorting an effigy of their mother holding that asp. She was bombarded with vicious caricatures, produced by the Augustan propaganda machine, of Cleopatra VII as a barbarous whore.
Draycott is writing for the general reader, and needs to make her narrative exciting. She is sometimes seduced by the sensationalism of her sources – Plutarch, Suetonius, Cassius Dio – into presenting their claims without sufficient scepticism. Elsewhere, she is forced, by the nature of her project, to rely on painting imaginative word-pictures or on compiling detailed accounts of the convoluted genealogies and shifting political alliances of her era. Much of the book is written in the subjunctive: Cleopatra Selene “might have” felt sad, or “would probably” have been present at an event. But, with the help of fascinating illustrations, Draycott does an excellent job in recreating the culture and febrile atmosphere of the early years of Augustus’ reign, observing it from the perspective of a politically important pawn in his imperial game. Cleopatra, she reminds us, was also a vulnerable child and teenaged girl. Her gender may have saved her life (in contrast to what very likely happened to her brothers), but it compromised her every freedom. And her complicated ethnic identity – as a member of the Macedonian royal family of the Ptolemies, born in Egypt, partly raised in Rome and reigning as queen in North-West Africa – can, as Draycott shows, illuminate modern debates on immigration, acculturation and citizenship.
Francine Prose’s reappraisal of Cleopatra Selene’s mother, Cleopatra VII, is much shorter and less satisfactory. There have been innumerable studies of this more famous Cleopatra, both as a historical figure and as a cultural icon refashioned by every succeeding age. Prose is not a classical historian, and it shows. The first six chapters consist of an impressionistic historical narrative, divided respectively, and very conventionally, into the Ptolemaic background into which Cleopatra was born around 70 BCE, the politics of Rome in the 50s, Cleopatra’s dealings with Julius Caesar, her relationship with Mark Antony, Actium and the suicide. There is confusion about the intended audience; accounts of complicated diplomacy sit alongside vaguely feminist generalizations; some sources are given precise references, while others are not. The scandal-peddling ancient sources are sometimes treated as hopelessly misogynist and unreliable fictions, sometimes as unassailable truth.
Prose’s real enthusiasm seems to be the more recent reception of Cleopatra. She frequently refers to films about her heroine even in the “historical” chapters, and the second part of the book is entitled “The Afterlife of Cleopatra”. It would better be called “Selected Afterlives of Cleopatra”. It offers a few comments on Renaissance and Early Modern representations of the dissolving pearl anecdote, a sketchy discussion of Shakespeare’s debt to Plutarch in Antony and Cleopatra and Dryden’s All for Love, and a cursory overview of three films about Cleopatra, the main focus inevitably being on the 1963 extravaganza starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton – although there have actually been dozens of other films, beginning in the earliest days of silent cinema.
A controversy has been raging about the casting of the Israeli movie star Gal Gadot, rather than an actress with some Arabic or African ancestry, as Cleopatra in a biopic to be directed by Kari Skogland. The latest such debate is over the casting of Adele James as Cleopatra in a Netflix docudrama, African Queens: Queen Cleopatra, produced by Jada Pinkett Smith, whose maternal ancestors are Jamaican and Bajan (from Barbados) and African-American in her paternal line. James is British and mixed-race, but understandably private about her precise heritage.
Yet, after a trailer for the four-part programme, an Egyptian lawyer has filed a request that the public prosecutor take steps to prevent access to it in Egypt, claiming without any evidence (because there is none) that Cleopatra was light-skinned.
This is where Draycott shows a sensitivity unknown to Prose towards by far the most important aspect of the reception of Cleopatra over more than a century: her ethnicity. Despite some harshly worded disputes, in which eminent classicists have unwisely expressed uncompromising views, we have absolutely no idea of Cleopatra’s precise genetic make-up: she was descended from Macedonians (whose claim to be Greeks was disputed), but in the course of the Ptolemies’ 260 years’ residence in Egypt, it is difficult to believe that no local genes entered the bloodline. The important point is that to people of African and Arabic heritage worldwide it matters that Cleopatra was “Egyptian”, culturally and/or biologically.
In 1927, for example, the Egyptian author Ahmad Shawqi’s play The Death of Cleopatra challenged the classical sources in arguing that Cleopatra had been falsely maligned, a victim of European imperial propaganda.
A vast sculpture of “The Death of Cleopatra” by Edmonia Lewis was the sole major work of art by an African American at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876: Nathaniel Hawthorne had already drawn satirical attention to the eroticization by white men of Cleopatra as a smouldering Nubian in The Marble Faun (1860). More recently the Philadelphian artist Barbara Chase-Riboud, who is African American, has returned over twenty times to depictions of Cleopatra in sculpture, wall art and poetry. Ever since abolition, “Cleopatra” has in the USA been a “speaking name”, bestowed by Civil Rights campaigners on their daughters and on the action heroine of the blaxploitation movies Cleopatra Jones (1973) and its sequel. Prose’s attempt to chart the significance of Cleopatra’s afterlife, without properly exploring this aspect, is a missed opportunity indeed.
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