The Magazine

O, Cleopatra!

Globalization in antiquity.

Nov 12, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 09 • By PAUL A. CANTOR
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THE ISSUE OF GLOBALIZATION is very much on our minds at the moment--and the experience of the ancient world proves an aid to understanding what we think of as a uniquely modern problem.

It was Jean-Marie Guehenno who argued in his brilliant 1995 book "The End of the Nation-State" that during the age of empire--beginning with the conquests of Alexander the Great--the ancient world embarked on a vast experiment in cosmopolitanism that eerily foreshadows what we are experiencing today. What we refer to as Hellenization or Romanization in the ancient world may well be the first examples of the phenomenon we now call globalization. As alien civilizations clashed in the all-embracing grasp of the Roman empire, the results proved unpredictable. Sometimes Rome managed to impose its cultural will on its subject peoples, sometimes these foreign cultures had a profound effect in reshaping the Roman way of life, and sometimes the clash produced hybrid forms never seen before. With the cultural fate of the ancient world hanging in the balance, Hellenization and Romanization generated the same peculiar mixture of hopes and fears that globalization produces around the world today.

Anyone interested in what we can learn from ancient experiments in globalization should make every effort to see the exhibition "Cleopatra of Egypt: From History to Myth," which runs from October 20 to March 3 at the Field Museum in Chicago. This is the only opportunity in the Western hemisphere to see an exhibition that has already fascinated audiences at the Palazzo Ruspoli in Rome and the British Museum in London (where I saw it in August). This is not a blockbuster exhibition in the King Tut tradition; do not expect to see anything on the order of the Rosetta Stone or the Venus de Milo, or even anything with a curse on it.

But what this exhibition does have is extraordinary historical and educational value. It is one of the most thoughtfully assembled and thought-provoking shows I have ever seen. And it is not just about one Egyptian queen. It also deals with the great Romans she encountered: Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Augustus Caesar. "Cleopatra of Egypt" gives a comprehensive view of the Mediterranean world at one of the great turning points of history, when the Roman Republic changed into the Roman Empire--a moment of exceptional cultural complexity, ferment, and anxiety.

THE WOMAN WE KNOW simply as Cleopatra was really Cleopatra VII (69-30 B.C.), descended from a line of Macedonian Greeks who had ruled Egypt since 305 B.C., when Ptolemy, one of Alexander's generals, had himself proclaimed pharaoh. The Ptolemies were foreigners in Egypt and ruled the North African and Middle Eastern portion of Alexander's empire, a portion much diminished by the time of Cleopatra VII. Being foreigners, the Ptolemies had a problem in establishing and maintaining their political authority. One of the most fascinating aspects of the Cleopatra exhibition is the dual way the Ptolemies represented themselves. In some sculpture, they had themselves pictured in traditional Egyptian style, looking for all the world like pharaohs, with the customary headdress and other insignia of Egyptian power. But other busts and statues of the Ptolemies show a distinctively classical look, typical of what we expect from Greek and Roman sculpture of the period. Showing one face to their Egyptian subjects and another to the larger Mediterranean world, the Ptolemies presented themselves as assimilated to Egypt's native culture even as they tried to demonstrate that they were true to their Hellenistic heritage.

THE POLITICAL COMPLEXITY of negotiating between two cultures is nowhere more evident than with Cleopatra herself. She is credited with being the first of the Ptolemies to learn the Egyptian language (more than two centuries into their dynasty!), and yet in moments of crisis she repeatedly turned to Roman leaders for help and ended up bringing Egypt firmly within the orbit of Rome. In some of the exhibition's pieces, she is pictured as an Egyptian goddess, Isis or Hathor. But in others, her features look Greek, and she seems modeled on an Olympian goddess like Aphrodite. Indeed, as the exhibition catalogue explains in detail, the identification of a given statue as Cleopatra VII can be extremely difficult. A statue long displayed in the Vatican as an image of Cleopatra's suicide is now identified as a figure out of Greek mythology, the sleeping Ariadne.

But by including numerous representations of Cleopatra on jewelry and coins, the exhibition helps the viewer arrive eventually at a reasonably consistent image of the great queen--more handsome than beautiful, one is tempted to say, but one can also get a sense of how this woman succeeded in captivating one Roman ruler after another.