Sunday, November 1, 2009

Cleopatra... or not?



Since giving my gallery talk on 'Rome, city and empire' on 17th October, I've been thinking quite a lot about the limestone bust which is labelled as 'A woman resembling Cleopatra'. Within my memory, this bust used to be labelled as 'probably Cleopatra' but the lovely bust was downgraded at the time of the Cleopatra exhibition a few years ago.

The bust is Roman, and dates to around the time that Julius Caesar fought his African campaigns. The successful general returned to Rome to celebrate his triumph in 46BC and brought with him his most exotic prize, the Egyptian queen Cleopatra VII. Cleopatra's arrival and residence in Rome caused quite a stir: on the one hand her very presence scandalised those Romans who considered the East a decadent place with morals that did not match those of Republican Rome, and on the other she sparked a phase of Egyptomania. Egyptian objects and themes became popular in domestic settings, cults such as that of Isis (established in Rome for a couple of hundred years) were revived and became popular, and even the queen's hairstyle was imitated by fashionable Roman women. This latter is one of the reasons why the identity of the bust has been thrown into doubt - scholars argue that although we know from coins and other media that Cleopatra wore her hair like this, we know that many other women did too.

Cleopatra's coins carried her image, as was common for rulers by that time. The first ruler to show his image on coins was probably Philip II of Macedon, but it was his son Alexander III (the Great) who really exploited this media for spreading the image of the ruler amongst his subjects. Cleopatra was, like these two great monarchs, Macedonian, and belonged to the dynasty founded by Ptolemy I, Alexander's general. But the queen cared greatly for her subjects and was the first of the dynasty to learn Egyptian, the local language. She also foresaw the threat of Rome, and knew that the best way to try and protect her country was to ally herself with the powerful men of Rome - first Caesar and then Marc Antony. As usual, the coins show the queen in profile and in particular reveal her to have had a somewhat pointed and slightly hooked nose. As legend has it (rather spitefully), it was not her looks that made her attractive, but her other charms.... in fact, she was very intelligent as well as being a great queen. I should have thought that these attributes would make her attractive enough, and the fact that she had herself portrayed with such candour is also appealing. This bust, as you can see, has a hooked nose. In fact, it is remarkably like the coin profiles.

So why then, do the scholars discredit this as a portrait? They argue that the bust does not have a diadem, the 'crown' or royal regalia worn by Macedonian and Hellenistic rulers. This is indeed true, but in fact there are extant portraits in ivory, stone and bronze of other Macedonian rulers who are portrayed not wearing diadems. Diadems feature heavily on coins, to be sure, but I think that when it comes to actual portrait statues, context must be considered. The head may well belong to a sculpture which was of a type for which a diadem may have been inappropriate. It may also be the case that the Roman sculptor seeing Cleopatra installed in Rome as queen no longer, may have considered it unwise to depict her as a monarch - a status considered in the ancient world as having religious connotations. We simply cannot know. I suggest you come along to my next gallery talk on Rome on 28th November and judge for yourself.... if she looks like Cleopatra, and has her hair like Cleopatra, and is made at the right time for Cleopatra, then maybe she is Cleopatra!


No comments:

Post a Comment