Thursday, March 27, 2003

Cleopatra: from history to myth

By Mary Beard, Newnham College

I was reading Mary Beards essay about Cleopatra and found descriptions of several Roman triumphs particuarly illluminating.

"Julius Caesar, in his triumph of 46BC, had treated the gawping crowds to a series of pictures of the last moments of his rivals in civil war: Cato disembowelling himself "like a wild beast", Scipio throwing himself into the sea, Petreius stabbing himself at dinner. (It is a striking insight into Roman notions of good taste that one ancient commentator should note that Caesar refrained from displaying the names of these casualties - apparently that would have been too much for the sensibilities of the audience.) "

"In AD118, the Emperor Trajan enjoyed a posthumous triumph for his victories over the Parthians. In its bizarre procession, the part of the triumphant Emperor in his chariot was played by a dummy."

"In 61BC, for example, in the triumph of Pompey the Great - then victorious over King Mithridates, though later defeated by his arch-rival Julius Caesar in the civil wars of the early 40sBC - the extravagance of the artwork proved counterproductive in the eyes of some. In his encyclopedic Natural History, Pliny the Elder gleefully bemoaned the effeminate luxury of one particular portrait of Pompey that was carried in the procession: it was a head made entirely of pearls and was, Pliny crowed, an uncomfortable omen of Pompey's ultimate, undignified fate - to be beheaded by a eunuch on the shores of Egypt.

"In a famous procession in the 2nd century BC, the eyes of the crowd all fell, not on the Roman victor, but on the pathetic infant sons of the defeated Eastern king, who were walking with the captives."

The article goes on to speculate about the problems a triumph including Cleopatra would pose for Octavian:

"Octavian must have known of the impact that Cleopatra's sister, Arsinoe had made when she was displayed in Julius Caesars procession in 46BC: no rejoicing at her well-deserved fate, but pity and sympathy at the sight of an exotic princess in chains, and tears shed by the onlookers as her misfortune reminded them of what they themselves had suffered in the wars."

So, the article points out, Cleopatras last public appearance in the city of Rome was in the form of a wax model, complete with model asp, carried in the victory parade of Octavian in 29BC.

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