The Magazine

O, Cleopatra!

Globalization in antiquity.

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