The Magazine

O, Cleopatra!

Globalization in antiquity.

Nov 12, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 09 • By PAUL A. CANTOR
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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.