The Different Faces of Cleopatra
Sculptures, bust, coins and bas-reliefs are among the artifacts that illustrate the countenance of the powerful Egyptian Queen, Cleopatra. She is the seventh Cleopatra of the Ptolemy dynasty and has ruled Egypt in the first century BC. This paper enumerates some of her different faces and contributions as she influenced several aspects of our history.
The intricacies of Cleopatra’s dealings in Egypt, her leadership and fall to her sibling rivals as well as her relations with the Roman empire and love affair with Roman leaders Julius Ceasar and Mark Antony has made her a famous topic in the art especially in prose and film.
As enumerated by Meadows (2001), some of the famous artworks which was inspired by her colorful life are Michelangelo’s sketch entitled the “Head of Cleopatra”, Guido Cagnacci’s “Death of Cleopatra”, Jan Lys’ “Death of Cleopatra”, Guido Reni’s “Cleopatra”, Massimo Stanzione’s “Cleopatra”, and Octavian rejects Cleopatra by an unknown artist (via culturalresources.
com) among others. Literary pieces have also used Cleopatra as subject which mostly portrays the tragic suicide of Cleopatra by a poisonous snake because of the death of Mark Antony. Among the many works about her include Horace Ode 1.37, Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Legend of Cleopatra” and the famous Shakespearean version Antony and Cleopatra Act 5 Scene 2.
Since Cleopatra lived in a time of where immense sources of learning and discoveries are available, she was said to be well educated and “politically astute”. In addition, she learned to speak several languages and was reported to be “mature beyond her years”. As a great leader of Egypt, she gave a rebirth to an ailing Egypt from her father Ptolemy XII’s reign by pushing rewarding economic reforms and helping Egypt survive a time of draught while safely holding on to power that many rivals are constantly grabbing (Egyptology Online).
Stories of the historical beauty of Cleopatra have told how she has used the elements from nature to preserve her beauty and youth. The Aloe extract (Aloe barbadenis) which is commonly used in anti hemorrhagic treatments, cosmetics, burn ointments and lotions was theorized to have been used by Cleopatra to “accentuate her legendary beauty” (Gutierrez and Fuller, 2004). Long before scientific evidence have proved that cucumber has helpful effects as antioxidants due to its vitamin content and soothing power, it is said that Cleopatra has “attributed her good looks to a hearty diet of pickles” and that “Roman emperors, among them Julius Caesar, fed pickles to their troops in the belief that they lent physical and spiritual strength” (http:// www.nyfoodmuseum.org /_ptime.htm). She was also believed to have developed hair care recipes that would prevent hair loss (Viegas, 2004).
However, the Queen of Egypt’s physical appearance is still subject to debate and our picture of her is influenced by many films which tell us of her famous love story with Julius Ceasar and Mark Antony. Consequently, current images of Cleopatra, as portrayed by beautiful actresses Sofia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor, Vivien Leigh and Lilly Langtree, show the “image of a seductress”, a charming, charismatic and intelligent queen and a political image of a woman who is constantly “adored by generals and Roman politicians”. Interestingly, as beauty can also be depicted from its ensnaring power it can also be a representation of influence to men desiring power themselves. In fact, Cleopatra’s involvement with the two top Roman officials is evidence of her guile and charm (Hawley, 2001). However, recent articles indicate otherwise when a 2000-year old coin from the time of 32 BC during the Ptolemaic era was shown by the Shefton Museum Newcastle University to have engravings on opposite sites with images of Mark Antony and an unattractive, to our time’s standards, image of Cleopatra (BBC News, 2007). This confusion over Cleopatra’s physical beauty could have been resolved if there had been documents that would be proof to her countenance however, “many of the images of Cleopatra during her reign were destroyed by Octavian, Mark Antony’s successor, who took over after the couple killed themselves.” It is important to note however that despite this Cleopatra is known to be a woman of “passion and conviction” who brought out the essence of femme fatale in an era and field dominated by men. The means by which she was known to achieve this is very typical of a female using sensual power to align a man’s desire to her interests. However, as stressed by Bushby (2001) because of the scarcity of the resources, some exhibits about her show very rare artifacts that tell very little information on Cleopatra.
A different façade of Cleopatra shows how her power over men of her time and people of other generations has continued to increase and defy the boundaries of chronology. As men are often intrigued by the desire of women for learning, the astute Cleopatra was a vision of favor to many. She was known to be interested in alchemy and mathematics and have written an account of weights and measurements as well as a document on gold making. She was also said to have been meeting scholars and philosophers regularly as a means of learning and encouraging the erudites to continue on with their discoveries. Viegas (2004) also mentions that as proof to her interest in the behavior of nature, she has invented an analytical tool for liquid substances. Amazingly, being an early alchemist herself, the Chrysopcea of Cleopatra shows the earliest distilling instrument for liquids. It shows of an “alembic with two receivers (known as ‘ dibicos ‘) [and] is accompanied by various mystic sayings about the unity of the universe and a serpent biting its tail, known as ‘ Ouroboros ’ which was a symbol of the universe and alchemy.” (Macnab Speech, 1935). It might be interesting to note that this instrument whose modern transformations and modifications has revolutionized many industries such as the lucrative petroleum, liquor and perfumery business has been first thought of by an Egyptian female leader who not only entranced powerful men in history but was also a picture of zeal for technological advancement.
Author Jack Lindsay’s (1970) account of a Berthelot text from the 1800’s of a Kleopatra alchemist, believed to be Cleopatra VII, which shows of a person’s heart with a sincere yearning for learning the rudiments of nature. In this text, Kleopatra was in constant discourse to the philosophers and in awe of the detailed design of nature and is a keen observer not only of their appearance, but have focused on the development of plants and the processes and elements involved in their growth. She is quoted to have said “Look at the nature of plants, what they come from. Some come down from the mountains and grow out of the earth, and some grow up from the valleys and some come from the plains. But look how they develop. For it is at certain seasons of the year you must gather them; and you take them from the islands of the sea and from the most lofty place. And look at the air that ministers to them, and the nourishment circling round them, so that they may not perish or die. Look at the divine water that gives them drink, and the air that governs them after they have been given a body in a single being”. As an answer to the obvious wisdom professed in this text, the philosophers asked for further enlightenment and was documented to have replied “In you is hidden a strange and terrible mystery. Enlighten us, throwing your light on the elements. Tell us how the highest descends to the lowest, and how the lowest rises to the highest, and is united with it, and what is the element that accomplishes these things. And tell us how the blessed waters visit the corpses lying in Hades fettered and afflicted in darkness, and how the Medicine of Life reaches them and rouses them as if woken by their possessors from sleep; and how the new waters, both brought forth on the bier and coming after the light penetrates them at the beginning of their prostration and how the cloud supporting the waters rises from the sea”.
The above account of the philosophical nature of Cleopatra shows a person of interest to the secrets of nature and someone who has in fact unlocked them especially the nature of water and its known power to cleanse and revitalize. She replied that, “The waters, when they come, awake the bodies and the spirits that are imprisoned and weak. For they again undergo oppression and are enclosed in Hades, and yet in a little while they grow and rise up and put on various glorious colours like the flowers in the spring and the spring itself rejoices and is glad at the beauty they wear”. In addition to her philosophical knowledge of plants and water, she was also documented to have mentioned a concept similar to the belief of early chemists on transmutation, physical and chemical changes, “… when they are clad in the glory from the fire and the shining colour of it, then rather will appear their hidden glory, their sought-for beauty, being transformed to the divine state of fusion” (Lindsay, 1970, In Hatt, 1997).
In addition to her contribution to medicine and philosophy, she was also the subject of one of the earliest recounts of birthing positions (Dundes, 1987). A sculptural relief recovered from the Temple of Esneh, a town in the North of Egypt, was believed to show an account of Cleopatra giving birth in an upright position, kneeling and giving birth with the help of five lady attendants assisting her in giving birth. This difficult position which inspired the design of the birthing chair was not only an account of Cleopatra’s parturition but of her fame and power both as a woman and mother. Her conversations with the Philosophers (Lindsay, 1970) include a passage saying, “… for they are nourished in the fire and the embryo grows little by little nourished in its mother’s womb; and when the appointed month comes near is not held back from coming out. Such is the procedure of this worthy art. The waves and surges one after another in Hades wound them in the tomb where they lie. When the tomb is opened, they come out from Hades as the babe from the womb”. Viegas (2004) have also mentioned that accounts of Arabic historians mention that Cleopatra was also known to have studied gynecology. Arabic writers and historians also regard Cleopatra highly as a woman with a keen interest in science. She was believed by this group to be an alchemist, mathematician and scientific explorer as other documents have also described. They attribute to her the creation of the Lighthouse of Alexandria which was marked by the presence of a powerful telescope at that time that also aids in Egypt’s defense. Consequently, according to Arabic texts, she was also among the Egyptian women, who were interested in medicine, alchemy, and science.
At the time, Alexandria housed the greatest collection and library of books and scrolls the world has known. However, the political intricacies and conflicts between the Roman and Egyptian leaders Julius Ceasar, Mark Antony, Octavian and Cleopatra has led to a war that created a fire which eventually perished an estimate of 100,000 scrolls and more from the great Alexandrian library. Recently, like Mark Antony, who tried to make amends after the disastrous fire, by replacing the damaged scrolls with 200,000 new ones from Persia, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), heads of state from various countries including France, China, Jordan, Spain, Greece and the Egyptian government started rebuilding a similar library in the tradition of the Old Alexandria Library. Named as the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the modern library was created in 1995 and contains around four million books and ten billion web pages in 2004 and is aiming to double the volume in the future (Trent, 2004).
Cleopatra has also been associated with several architectural structures in her time. Cleopatra’s needle, which was brought to London through the efforts of the medical doctor Erasmus Wilson and seemed to be similarly entranced by the majesty of Cleopatra, is a large obelisk structure 70 feet tall which is part of a pair of “ needles ” built near the Temple of Ceasarium in Alexandria. One of the needles found its way to London through an engineered elaborate apparatus as lead by Dr. Wilson, physician, dermatologist and first president of the Egypt Exploration Fund, and eventually ended up in Central Park in New York (Copeman, 1978). Viegas (2004) stressed that her interest for medicine is evident of her support to the Temple of Hathor at Dendera which, according to resource person to Discovery News, Schwappach, the temple is a significant structure which symbolizes both physical and mental healing. This article also discusses how Cleopatra’s interest in science and education has “encouraged scientists and discussed their findings and thoughts with them”. Some also claim that the Cleopatra who was interested in alchemy may be a different person from Cleopatra VII as this name is associated with women of royalty and power in the Ptolemaic dynasty.
Indeed Cleopatra’s realm has superseded the Hellenistic era and has affected philosophy, cosmetics, modern culture, politics, medicine and even chemistry.
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