Sunday, 13 October 2013

Was Cleopatra beautiful and should we care?


I got into an interesting discussion on Twitter earlier which I thought I'd mention here rather than trying to work through complex issues in 140 characters or less!

Earlier today, I re-tweeted a link to an article from Heritage Daily on whether or not Cleopatra was beautiful. In response, I was asked 'But why is it relevant if she was beautiful or not?' We don't talk about whether or not Caesar and Mark Antony were incredibly handsome, so why are we talking about Cleopatra's looks? The whole thing is sexist because 'the beauty question is irrelevant.' (You can see some of the conversation here, if I've embedded the tweet correctly!)

On the one hand, yes, if what we are interested in is analysing and examining Cleopatra's role as a politician, her beauty (or lack thereof) is, indeed, largely irrelevant and focusing on it without mentioning Caesar and Antony's looks is sexist. I still think it's not quite as cut and dried as all that, since she cemented her political alliance with both of them by having a sexual relationship with both, plus according to Octavian's propaganda, Antony was madly in love with her - much as beauty is in the eye of the beholder and looks aren't everything, sexual attraction and romantic love are at least a little connected to looks. Plutarch tells us that what attracted Antony to Cleopatra romantically was her wit and intelligence and personality rather than her looks and I think that's genuinely interesting. But it is true that to focus on her looks but not on Caesar's or Antony's smacks of sexism.

That's not why the issue of Cleopatra's looks interests me, though. What interests me is the development of the tradition that she was beautiful. Cleopatra, in popular culture, is a stunner - she's Theda Bara, she's Claudette Colbert, she's Elizabeth Taylor (though Taylor's Cleopatra is political as well as beautiful). I, Claudius' Livia makes a reference to how she and one other 'in Egypt' were the most beautiful women in the world. In the popular imagination, Cleopatra is an exotic, sexual seductress, and beauty is a part of that.

However, like Caligula and Incitatus-as-consul, the ancient basis for this particular tradition is slim. (Suetonius, the old gossip, says Caligula thought about making Incitatus the horse consul - and now nearly every depiction of Caligula features a horse in the senate). In addition to Plutarch (who lived decades later) we have coins minted by Cleopatra and Antony that show her with fairly pointed features, a nice-looking woman but not stunningly beautiful. The tradition is, as far as we know, inaccurate.

The root of this tradition, presumably, lies in the idea that for Cleopatra to have ensnared both Caesar and Mark Antony, she must have been gorgeous. In a line of reasoning that is equally unfair to men and women, it has presumably been assumed that Caesar and Mark Antony had their otherwise politically savvy heads turned by a beautiful woman (because men only want one thing and only value women for their looks), and for this to happen, Cleopatra must have been gorgeous (because women are only capable of swaying men using sex, not through their intelligence or political ideas).

The reason I think the whole issue is interesting is precisely because we need to overturn this sort of sexist thinking. The popular view of Cleopatra, dominated by movies in which, of course, producers want to cast the most beautiful actress they can find, is of a woman who used her beauty to distract and detain two powerful men. The reality is much more complicated and more interesting - Cleopatra had political alliances with both men and she attracted them with her brains, not her beauty. I think the formation of the tradition, however sexist, is interesting, and I think the way to combat that sexism is to address the issue, look at the evidence, and ask whether the tradition conflicts with the ancient evidence and if so, why?

What do you think? Am I being sexist to think Cleopatra's beauty (or otherwise) is interesting?

17 comments:

  1. I think yes, her beauty was largely irrelevant: what really attracted Caesar and Mark Anthony was imho the simple fact that she was the queen of Egypt and viceversa: she would have hardly cared for them if they hadn't been the most powerful men of their era.
    By the way, I doubt a couple of centuries of inbreeding could do much to improve the looks of anyone ^^

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    1. Yes, I think power comes first for all three of them!

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    2. Good point on the inbreeding! :p

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    3. Well, I was just reading an interesting article about the Habsburgs and Charles II of Spain, guess it wasn't very different for the Ptolemaioi back then.

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  2. Glad to see that my response resulted in a blog post! I basically agree with all you say. Like you, I am fascinated by the post-classical reception of Cleo. I have held quite a few public talks on the topic. But all have ended with someone asking the inevitable question: "But was Cleopatra beautiful?"
    And indeed, my twitter reaction was based on the fact that the article sets out to ask why Caesar and Antony fell for Cleopatra. To be fair, this particular author does give credit to her wit and charm, but still focuses on the forever-ongoing discussion on Cleopatra's attractive force, without even mentioning any political circumstances. The question that has lurked beneath since Antiquity is why these two powerful western men abandoned their true call, their political duties in Rome, to go sailing on the Nile or, even worse, turn into an orientalised half-man that fought Rome and lost. The answer has been reduced to Cleopatra's beauty, and, at times, also to her charm.
    It certainly seems as if Caesar and Antony enjoyed Cleopatra's company, but she too seems to have liked theirs. Hence the question could be turned around: Were Caesar and Antony good-looking, beautiful, sexy? Or what in their appearance made them attractive to the queen, a goddess in her country? Their wit? If those questions seem of less importance than the political prizes at stake (she got the throne back thanks to Caesar and increased her kingdom through him), then we should also put more political weight into Caesar and Antony's interest in Egypt and her queen. After all, Egypt abounded in riches and corn, it was situated very strategically close by the Asian provinces, and it was halfway to Parthia, India, and Alexander-like fame and world domination.
    That said, I do believe that individual charisma is a factor, and that individuals and their personal encounters can change the course of history. But far too much has been said of Cleopatra's looks and too little about the political benefits involved... although I do quite fancy Colin Wells comment about putting too much weight on politics and too little on romance: "Perhaps scholars cannot imagine themselves being carried away and sacrificing all for love, like Antony".

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    1. I agree! I'm sure in real life politics was the main reason, but of course Octavian's propaganda had people focused on the sex and not the politics very early on!

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  3. Allow me to quote at length from the new book, Antony And Cleopatra by Goldsworthy:

    “Absolutely nothing is certain. Cleopatra may have had black, brown, blonde or even red hair, and her eyes could have been brown, grey, green or blue. Almost any combination of these is possible. Similarly, she may have been very light skinned or had a darker more Mediterranean complexion. Fairer skin is probably marginally more likely given her ancestry. Greek art traditionally represented women and goddesses as very pale, and fair skin seems to have been part of the ideal of beauty. Roman propaganda never suggested that Cleopatra was dark-skinned, although this may simply mean that she was not exceptionally dark or simply that the color of her skin was not important to her critics.

    At no point will we need to consider Antony’s appearance at similar length and this should remind us that the obsession with Cleopatra’s looks is unusual, and not entirely healthy. Not only is there no good evidence, but also there is something disturbing about the desire to base our understanding of her first and foremost on her appearance. Cleopatra was not another Helen of Troy, a mythical figure about whom the most important thing was her beauty. She was no mere object of desire, but a very active political player in her own kingdom and beyond.

    Cleopatra was born and raised in the real and very dangerous world of the Ptolemaic court in the first century BC. When her father died in 51 BC, she became queen. Auletes had planned for his son and daughter to rule jointly. Cleopatra had other ideas.”
    -from Antony And Cleopatra by Adrian Goldsworthy, c2010 pp.128-129


    http://narukamisthunderbolts.blogspot.com/2010/11/cleopatra-obsession-with-beauty-antony.html

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    1. There's a definite disconnect between the focus on Cleopatra's looks, but not on Antony or Caesar. (Though earlier my brother teased that wasn't I interested in the men's looks too and I mentioned that actually I am quite interested, though possibly not academically...!)

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    2. Power is what would have attracted Cleo, not looks. Same seems to work today too. Rich middle-aged men do not need to be lookers nor do powerful politions have problems finding sexual partners, looks aside. ;-)

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  4. Great post! Have you seen my Ugly Cleopatra blog? http://flavias.blogspot.co.uk/2011/09/ugly-cleopatra.html

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    1. Thank you! I'm sure I have, I remember talking about this when I reviewed Beggar of Volubilis! Couldn't fit everything in though, as was in a hurry to get out this afternoon :)

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  5. I think it's a not entirely unreasonable question to ask, mostly because, as you note, Augustan propaganda tried very hard to make it look like Antony was being led around by his penis. (Of course, this then reflected poorly on Caesar, but then Augustus was never terribly careful about Caesar's reputation once he was safely deified.) Contemporaries describe her as not all that good-looking, frequently saying her nose was too big (take that, Asterix).

    The fact that no one asks if Antony was good-looking does introduce a bit of sexism to the question, I suppose, but this is largely a question of reception and the simple fact is that reception says she was beautiful. l would say that Caesar's appearance is well enough known that not asking it of him is within bounds. And anyone who's seen one of Antony's coins from his time in the east also has a ready answer: the man looked like what he was, an alcoholic gone badly to seed.

    Finally in regard to Cleo's looks, I am reminded of something Terry Pratchett once wrote to the effect that all princesses are, by definition, beautiful; saying otherwise is generally bad for your health. And of course, Cleopatra had something that overshadowed beauty, brains, and general sex appeal: Egypt. The wealthiest country in the known world and enough grain to feed the whole of Italy. But since Augustus had his own sights set on the place, he couldn't very well throw that at Antony. No, it had to be Oriental opulence and a woman's wiles.

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    1. I wonder if, after Caesar was deified, he figured that sort of misbehaviour was par for the course for gods anyway! ;)

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  6. Power definitely comes first in the equation. Each of them had power, and the other saw advantages in that.

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  7. I don't have anything to add to the discussion, but I did want to say it's a very interesting topic Juliette! I for one never stopped to think about the question of Cleo's beauty, but two men like that I think would need more than just looks to sway them...

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    1. Thanks! :) It was Caroline's Beggar of Volubilis that first brought all this to my attention - I must admit, I think it's fascinating!

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  8. Love this post! I've posted a sort of response over on the Kateantiquity blog - do come visit if you have a moment! http://kateantiquity.com/2013/10/17/on-cleopatras-beauty/

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