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Review: "Cleopatra of Egypt: From History to Myth" Edited by Susan Walker and Peter Higgs

"Both my boyfriend and myself agreed that you would probably have gotten more out of [the British Museum's Cleopatra exhibit] if you had known more about the subject [Cleopatra] in the first place, and known how the different artifacts and people fitted into her life. My main criticisms were that the room it was in was too small, too busy and therefore too hot (may not sound like a big deal but it did mean that you couldn't really spend as much time looking at things and reading the descriptions), and there didn't seem to be a set chronological route round the exhibit. Everything just seemed to be a bit hit and miss."

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Cleopatra of Egypt : From History to Myth
Cleopatra of Egypt : From History to Myth
Susan Walker and Peter Higgs, editors
Princeton University Press, 2001
ISBN 0691088357
Hardback: $60.00

Cleopatra of Egypt : From History to Myth, edited by the British Museum's Susan Walker and Peter Higgs, a collection of eleven essays and photographs of hundreds of artifacts, represents a collaboration between the Egyptian Department and the Greek and Roman Department at the British Museum. With 364 full-color plates and 261 black-and-white illustrations, Cleopatra of Egypt : From History to Myth is a lavish book meant to be perused at leisure.

Photographs present a wide variety of artifacts from statues of the early Ptolemies to Renaissance paintings of the suicide of Queen Cleopatra of Egypt. Suggesting the era rather than the principal characters of the Cleopatra saga, pottery, jewelry, and floor mosaics show the skill and magnificence of the times. Reading through the British Museum's descriptions of the artifacts provides a grounding in the terminology used to describe Egyptian art of Ptolemaic Dynasty to which Cleopatra belonged. Supplementing the catalogue's art history lesson is an article by Sally-Ann Ashton entitled "Identifying the Egyptian-style Ptolemaic Queens." From this article the reader learns that the Ptolemaic queens' hair was usually braided and held back. Seen from the side, this style resembles a melon, and so it is described as a melon coiffure. The creases around the necks of the queens are referred to as "Venus rings," representing pudginess. Arsinoe II is represented with a crown with a double uraeus (the cobra head). If there are only one or three, it is most likely someone else. Cleopatra is thought to have had a rather long, aquiline nose, but unfortunately for those seeking a clear picture of what Cleopatra looked like, most of the statues thought to be of Cleopatra are missing this telltale part of the physiognomy.

Coins often bear the imprint of the reigning monarch's face, but since they are handled so much, they quickly lose clarity. The sturdier the metal, the better. Unfortunately, Cleopatra did not mint gold coins at all. Gold would probably have survived time's ravages better than the silver and oxidized bronze pieces that remain from the reign of Cleopatra. Cleopatra's silver coins were heavily alloyed with base metals. This was an eonomic measure made necessary by Cleopatra's father's relations with Rome. Cleopatra's father, Ptolemy Auletes, had to borrow very heavily from Roman financiers and, in addition, had to pay the Romans thousands of talents to keep them at bay, so little was left for coinage at home. Only ten individual coins from the reign of Cleopatra have survived in very good, but not mint condition, according to Guy Weill Goudchaux, in his article Was Cleopatra Beautiful? In one set of coins Cleopatra and Mark Antony look very similar. In another set, Cleopatra has "an enormous neck and the features of a bird of prey." Ironically, in a picture book about the famous queen, there are no complete, accurate, and positively identified pictures of the face of Cleopatra.

Like her physical appearance, images of the character of Queen Cleopatra are inconsistent.

The book's essays, divided into the following sections, "The Ptolemies and Alexandria," "Cleopatra, Lady of the Two Lands," "Cleopatra and the Power of Rome," and "Egypt in Rome: the Myth of Cleopatra," reveal most of what is known about Cleopatra, and provide necessary background on her fascinating city, Alexandria, her ancestors, the Ptolemies, and Roman relations with Egypt. A "catalogue" of related artifacts follows each section of essays.

The first of these sections, "The Ptolemies and Alexandria," sets up the historical background. Cleopatra's lineage goes back to the Macedonian general Ptolemy who was given command of the Egyptian section of the empire Alexander the Great had carved. Between the fourth and first centuries B.C. Ptolemy's descendants ruled Egypt. Their center was the great city of Alexandria. In 153 B.C., the Ptolemaic ruler Physkon made Rome guardian of his kingdom. It wasn't long before Rome noticed Egypt's bountiful resources and began to take advantage of this gift. By the time of Cleopatra's father, Rome decided who would occupy the throne of Egypt.

Part II of Cleopatra of Egypt : From History to Myth, "Cleopatra, Lady of the Two Lands," continues the theme of the connection between Egypt and Rome. The title of the first article, Cleopatra's Subtle Religious Strategy, is a bit misleading. There was no clear royal policy that directed the nation, but rather a series of personal choices and beliefs. According to Herodotus, "the Egyptians 'were the most religious men'." They honored the Ptolemies as descendants of the gods. Cleopatra worshiped Isis in Egypt and in Rome, but in Ephesus she worshiped Artemis. She also participated in animal worship. The second article, Cleopatra's Images, explains the styles in which Cleopatra was portrayed during and shortly after her lifetime. The next chapter, Identifying the Egyptian-style Ptolemaic Queens, distinguishes Greek and Egyptian representations of Cleopatra and the Ptolemaic queens before her. Specific clues are provided to help the reader identify portraits.

The third section, "Cleopatra and the Power of Rome," continues the search for a physical portrait of Cleopatra and theorizes on why an insecure Octavian may have been so hostile to the Egyptian Queen.

The final section, "Egypt in Rome/The Myth of Cleopatra" explains the effect of Cleopatra's presence in Rome. When Caesar brought Cleopatra to Rome, she set up a miniature version of her court, with much of its lavish extravagance and its gods. Her gods became Rome's. From his recent stay in Egypt, Caesar had information on how to make the Roman calendar more useful. In Anything Truth Can Do, We Can Do Better, the Roman and Greek writers develop a myth about Cleopatra in which she becomes the object of male fantasy. The final chapter, The Myth of Cleopatra Since the Renaissance starts with Boccaccio's description of Cleopatra in De mulieribus claris and continues with conventional portraiture of her in the Renaissance, Pope Julius II's influence in making Cleopatra known as an enemy of Rome, and the further negative influences on the Church. This view was not static, however. Cleopatra, in the hands of Shakespeare, became a worthy heroine of tragedy. As women began to gain education and power, emphasis shifted to the younger, resourceful Cleopatra. Then came film and Cleopatra became all the rage.

Despite the division of Cleopatra of Egypt : From History to Myth into 4 sections, the book doesn't seem to have a meaningful organizing principle. The divisions seem based more on the needs of the illustrations than the chapters. Yet despite the division of the catalogue into four parts, it is still an overwhelming collection of artifacts. Despite its organizational shortcomings, it is a beautiful, well-made book, worth thumbing through and reading sections as the mood strikes. There are several excellent essays and much information to be gleaned. A chronology, map, table of genealogy, bibliography and glossary are included. Those planning a trip to the Cleopatra Exhibit, should read this book before they go and lug it along for reference.

Cleopatra of Egypt - From History to Myth

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