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.

Julius Caesar was so smitten that he brought her to live with him in Rome from 46 to 44 B.C., and he created something of a scandal by having a gold statue of Cleopatra placed in the Temple of Venus on the Via Sacra. Roman merchants and other travelers had already brought the cult of Isis to Rome before Cleopatra's arrival, but her presence helped ignite a kind of Egyptomania in the city, culminating in the bizarre Egyptian pyramid a Roman named Cestius built for himself as a tomb in 12 B.C. (still standing today, adjacent to the Protestant Cemetery and the graves of Keats and Shelley). The Vatican and Capitoline museums in Rome are filled with "Egyptian" artifacts manufactured by Roman craftsmen to meet a seemingly limitless demand for this kind of exotica. The Cleopatra exhibition features several such items, including both a terra cotta relief and a painted plaster panel featuring scenes of the Nile. The great strength of the exhibition is that it documents the Egyptianizing of Rome as well as the Romanizing of Egypt. We see sculpture in Egypt being reshaped on classical models, but at the same time we see how the Romans came to worship Egyptian deities and even adopt Egyptian funerary practices.

Thus the Cleopatra exhibition can teach us an important lesson--that globalization moves in both directions. The military victor is not always the cultural winner, and, as several essays in the exhibition catalogue point out, many writers in Rome, including Virgil, worried about the corrupting effects of Egyptian and other foreign influences. The "Aeneid" pictures Rome threatened by inhuman deities arising out of the East and associated with Cleopatra. As Virgil tells the story, the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C. was the triumph of the good old gods of Rome over Cleopatra, Mark Antony, and the animal gods of Egypt. But Rome was eventually conquered by a religion arising out of its Eastern provinces, namely Christianity. No better example could be cited of the unpredictable effects of globalization. Rome's imperial penetration into the East eventually enabled an Eastern religion to penetrate the very heart of the empire and remake it into a Christian community under the rule of the Emperor Constantine.

IN THE WIDE VARIETY of objects on display, the Cleopatra exhibition is very entertaining. If you like coin collections or jewelry, this is certainly the exhibition for you. And although there are no world-class treasures, there are some extraordinarily beautiful works, beginning with the image of a dog from a mosaic floor excavated in 1993 in Alexandria. Looking uncannily like Nipper--the RCA trademark in the famous "His Master's Voice" advertisement for the gramophone--the dog is among the most realistic representations in ancient art, especially in its mournful eyes.

The exhibition also includes many examples of the kind of luxury items that would have adorned a court like Cleopatra's and made her daily life fit for a queen. I was especially struck by three agate vessels on loan from the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. In another reminder of the potential for globalization in the ancient world, the catalogue points out that similar agate vessels have been found as far away as China, but whether they were made in China and shipped to Egypt or vice versa is hard to tell. The exhibition also contains several quirky, one-of-a-kind items. In the most oddball example of cultural hybridity, a stele found near the temple of the Egyptian dog-god Anubis in Memphis bears an inscription in Greek advertising the talents of a dream prophet: "I interpret dreams having a commission from god. With good fortune! A Cretan is he who interprets these things." As early as the third century B.C., Egyptian and Greek religious traditions were already being fused.

Perhaps the rarest item in the exhibition is the only known surviving example of a royal order issued by Cleopatra, recorded on a papyrus in 33 B.C. and preserved, like many ancient writings, only because it was later used to wrap a mummy. The papyrus is a grant of tax privileges to Publius Canidius, a close political associate of Mark Antony. As the catalogue reports, "Canidius was permitted to export 10,000 sacks of wheat from Egypt and to import 5,000 amphoras of wine from Cos each year, and enjoyed exemptions from duty on these items, and, moreover, in perpetuity from all taxes on his land in Egypt." This was presumably some kind of payoff for services to Cleopatra's lover, Antony, and I for one am relieved to learn that even while the ancient world was globalizing, it managed to carry on the age-old tradition of political corruption at the local level.

NO SELF-RESPECTING MUSEUM INSTALLATION would be complete these days without a few items of prurient interest, especially one that deals with a famous lover. The British Museum dug deep into its vaults and came up with two examples of ancient pornography. In one, a Roman terra cotta lamp from about 40-80 A.D., a plump woman is taking full advantage of a rather remarkable Nile crocodile. (In the true spirit of scholarship, the catalogue soberly reports: "Although made many decades later than her death, this may be an obscene caricature of Cleopatra VII.")

Even more interesting is a marble relief of unknown provenance picturing a Nile scene with a couple--how shall I put this delicately?--doing it Anubis-style in the middle of a boat. (The catalogue asks: "Could the relief even be a savage caricature of the relationship between Cleopatra and Mark Antony?")

A museum show subtitled "From History to Myth" has to be careful about its claims, and to its credit this exhibition never sensationalizes its material and always makes it clear what is purely conjectural in its ascriptions. Still, it is good to see that the curators have a sense of humor and chose to give us a glimpse of the seamier side of ancient artistic representation.

And if these objects really were making fun of Cleopatra and Mark Antony, they do provide a footnote to history, illustrating the relentless character of the propaganda campaign Augustus launched against his enemies in Egypt. The "Aeneid" was in some sense the highest flower of this campaign, but evidently Augustus' propagandists were not above an obscene cartoon here and there.

In the end "Cleopatra in Egypt" succeeds in its task. By an artful juxtaposition of objects and images, it manages to make some of the most interesting and complex figures of antiquity come to life. The catalogue that accompanies the exhibition is sumptuous in the way catalogues tend to be these days; you may have a hard time hauling it home, but you will not regret it. The photographs of the objects on display do an excellent job of reproducing them. In particular, three-dimensional objects such as busts, statues, and reliefs are dramatically lit in a way that helps bring out their character on the printed page. The catalogue essays and entries supply all sorts of useful background information; my one complaint is that with the assignments divided up among ten different authors and not well coordinated, there is a great deal of repetition in the text.

In any event, as good as the catalogue may be, this is an exhibition that begs to be viewed in person and not just read about in a book. I would hate to have missed the chance to sort out the multiple images of Cleopatra--and the eyes of that Egyptian Nipper have to be seen to be believed.

Paul A. Cantor is professor of English at the University of Virginia. His most recent book is "Gilligan Unbound: Pop Culture in the Age of Globalization."

November 12, 2001 - Volume 7, Number 9