How Cleopatra became a canvas for society's anxieties
All of our fears about women in power, female sexuality, and race have been projected onto this historical figure
Two-thousand years after her death, Cleopatra continues to enthrall us. Earlier this year, the British tabloid The Daily Star reported that a new movie about this last Pharaoh of Egypt was in the works. According to an anonymous source, the movie will be "a dirty, bloody, political thriller told from a feminist perspective," as opposed to the movie Cleopatra of 1963 starring Elizabeth Taylor, which had been a historical epic.
Our fascination with Cleopatra endures because we know surprisingly little about her. And what we do know is based purely on speculation. This lack of information makes Cleopatra the perfect canvas onto which anxieties of women in power, female sexuality, and race have been projected throughout the centuries.
Most of the information we have about Cleopatra comes from Greek and Roman sources, some of them written long after her death. Contemporary sources about her are few and reveal almost nothing. Only one papyrus has survived where the signature is assumed to be in Cleopatra's own hand. We know she belonged to the Ptolemaian dynasty, who were the descendants of Ptolemy I Soter, one of Alexander the Great's Greek-Macedonian generals who, after Alexander's death, took power in Egypt. The Ptolemaians adopted the Ancient Egyptian practice of sibling marriage and co-rulers. Added to the fact that parts of the family tree are empty because the information simply doesn't exist, you get a situation where it is near impossible to determine how people are related, and who exactly ruled Ptolemaic Egypt when.
Possibly born in 69 BCE, Cleopatra was the daughter of Ptolemy XII Aulete. Her mother could have been Cleopatra V, the queen and sister-wife of Ptolemy XII, or one of his concubines. Following the death of Ptolemy XII, Cleopatra came into power as Cleopatra VII with her much younger brother Ptolemy XIII as co-ruler.
Soon after, Ptolemy XIII and their sister Arsinoë IV forced Cleopatra into exile in Syria. There she amassed an army, returned to Egypt, and allied with Julius Caesar, took back power. With Ptolemy XIII and Arsinoë IV now dead, Cleopatra married her other much younger brother, Ptolemy XIV, while at the same time entering into a relationship with Julius Caesar. Before his assassination on the steps of the Roman Senate, she bore Caesar a son who she made into her newest co-ruler, Ptolemy XV, after the sudden death of Ptolemy XIV. Cleopatra met Mark Antony after he and Octavian had divided the Mediterranean between them, granting Antony authority over the east. Cleopatra and Mark Antony entered into a decades long on-and-off relationship that was as much about love as it was about political alliances. Together they had three children before Octavian defeated them at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE. The following year, both Cleopatra and Mark Antony were dead by suicide.
According to associate professor of English Francesca Royster, Cleopatra as pop culture icon tends to resurface during times of crisis in society. This started immediately after her death when Octavian, now Emperor Augustus, consolidated his political position. To deflect blame away from himself for having gone to war against Mark Antony, a fellow Roman, he commissioned history works that painted Cleopatra as the instigator by making use of Roman prejudices against women and anyone not Roman. In this version, Cleopatra became the exotic decadent, the master seductress, and the foreigner rolled into one. Augustus' view of Cleopatra set the template for how she is still portrayed today.
But Royster also traces this phenomenon back to William Shakespeare's play Antony and Cleopatra, first performed on stage in London in 1606. At that time, England found itself in political, religious, and social turmoil that in a few decades would descend the country into civil war. What makes Shakespeare's play stand out in relation to other works about Cleopatra is the introduction of her skin color, which is described as "tawny." With this one word, Shakespeare projects onto Cleopatra all of England's anxieties in relation to the Ottoman Empire, which ruled over large parts of the Mediterranean and the Middle East, posing a political and religious threat to England's budding imperial ambitions.
From Shakespeare on, Cleopatra's skin color becomes as integral to her allure as her political ambitions and her supposed sexual prowess. Oscillating between different shades of color, the development of the American film industry around the turn of the 20th century ramps up the anxieties surrounding Cleopatra's ethnicity; persons of color as leading movie actors were inconceivable at this time. Therefore, Cleopatra becomes included in whiteness: Royster demonstrates that as time goes on, Cleopatra the movie star grows increasingly pale while the characters that surround her grow increasingly dark, until we reach 1963 with Elizabeth Taylor starring as an alabaster-skinned Cleopatra surrounded by black slaves, establishing in the mainstream the Egyptian queen as an undoubtedly white person.
Simultaneously, a counter narrative develops where Cleopatra is a black African and as such becomes the canvas onto which African Americans paint a heritage of empowerment. The historical origins of this interpretation of Cleopatra come from the blank spots in the Ptolemaic family tree and the possibility that Cleopatra might have been the daughter of one of Ptolemy XII's concubines from Nubia (present-day Sudan). Because she was made the villain in Roman history writing, the memory of Cleopatra has endured, while other powerful Ptolemaic women have been forgotten.
For centuries, Rome was the foundation of the educational systems of Europe, and later North America. As such, Roman anxieties about women, sexuality, and the Other were planted in our psyches and became our own. Our current need to declare Cleopatra either white or black, a politician or a seductress, is based in a world view created by British and American imperialism where race and gender were at the center of world domination.
With its promise of dirty politics and feminism, the rumored upcoming movie about Cleopatra fits into the pattern of a society in crisis, as it reflects the current political climate, as well as the changing role of women in society.
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