Cleo and the chasm between promiscuity and virility

Good essay on Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff, who is working on an entire book about her.

(By contrast, Cleopatra is one of three people–the others being Hannibal and Morihei Ueshiba–who feature in one chapter, Nr 6, of my forthcoming book.)

The news, apparently, is that they are hoping to find her tomb in Egypt. But aside from that, says Schiff,

What good can be said of a woman who sleeps with two of the most powerful men of her age… Cleopatra has gone down in history as a wanton seductress. She is the original bad girl, the Monica Lewinsky of the ancient world. And all because she turns up at one of the most dangerous intersections in history, that of women and power. She presides eternally over the chasm between promiscuity and virility, the forest of connotations that separate “adventuress” from “adventurer.”

My previous musings on Cleo are here.

Bookmark and Share

What Cleopatra might have looked like

Cleopatra: Hot or not?

I like to try to imagine what the characters in my book (the ancient ones, that is) looked like. This is, for obvious reasons, a futile task, but that has never held me back.

So I’ve already weighed in on what Hannibal, and Carthaginians in general, looked like (ie: hunky but not like Denzel); and what his Numidian cavalry looked like (ie, a bit like Zidane).

Cleopatra’s look, of course, is perhaps the most fascinating mystery in history because of her legendary sex appeal. Plutarch tells us, however, that it was not her looks per se that made Caesar and Antony fall for her, but her voice, her many languages, her wit and panache, her ability to read the psyche of a man she was seducing, and so forth.

In any case, researchers at Cambridge (the British one) have tried to reconstruct her face, and this is it.

It’s plausible, because she was said to have a dark complexion and a longish, hooked nose, which she inherited from her father, Auletes.

Let it be remembered, though, that there was not a single drop of Egyptian blood in her veins. She was pure Macedonian-Greek, descended from a relative of Alexander the Great. One of Alexander’s generals, Ptolemy, founded her dynasty, and all his heirs, including Cleo’s brothers, were named Ptolemy. (Auletes, the piper, was a nickname.)

Let it also be said that she was the product of incest. The Macedonians adopted the Egyptian custom of marrying a brother and sister as co-rulers. (These then took the additional name of Philadelphus, or sibling-lover). Several Ptolemies before Cleopatra’s generation were horrendously fat and possibly otherwise genetically compromised. Cleo, however, got lucky. And although her child with Caesar was murdered, her children with Antony were allowed to live on in obscure parts of the Roman empire, breeding merrily with outsiders.

Why August (not September) is called August

What's that fat little bugger doing to my leg?

The month of July gets its name from the birthday of Gaius Julius Caesar. Fair enough. But what about August?

This one always baffled me. Octavian, who was Caesar’s grand-nephew and adopted son (as everybody discovered to great surprise when reading Caesar’s will), and who would be the future Emperor Augustus was born in September, not August.

September was also when, in 31 BC, Octavian defeated Antony and Cleopatra at the sea battle of Actium, thus ending the long civil wars and, in effect, the Roman republic, and installing himself as princeps. Before long he would be “Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus”, or “Commander Caesar, son of god, the Illustrious.” I have asked my wife to address me in this fashion and eagerly await her reply.

So why the month before September?

Well, I just found out, while still reading about Cleopatra, whom I have just made a minor character in one chapter of my book. As it turns out, it had everything to do with Cleopatra. It took Octavian a good year to consolidate his gains after Actium, and he only showed up at Cleo’s capital of Alexandria–you guessed it by now–on August 1 of the following year.

A few icy gestures later, and Antony had shoved a sword into his abdomen, while Cleopatra injected herself with the venom of a snake–Virgil says “two asps”–or perhaps a comb. That was not yet all, however. Cleopatra had had a son with Caesar, nicknamed Caesarion (“little Caesar”) and he was the one man alive who might compete with Octavian in claiming to be Caesar’s heir. Cleo had sent him running as soon as Octavian was approaching, but Octavian’s thugs caught up with him. No more Caesarion.

So August was a big month for Octavian, which is why, when he became Augustus, he named it after himself. Now that I know how these things work, I’m going to try to do something, oh, next November or so. Kluthy. Kluthust. Kluthember. Details to be announced.

The Parthian Shot

Parting Parthian

Parting Parthian

You’ve heard people talk about a “parting shot”, when, for example, somebody makes a miffed exit and on the way out emits a toxic word or two. Well, that’s wrong. It’s not a “parting” shot. It’s a Parthian shot. Who were the Parthians that we name a shot after them?

I bring this up because I’m still reading about Cleopatra as research for my book. And I’m now approaching the bit where Mark Antony, her second lover (after Julius Caesar, the first), is preparing to head east to conquer those Parthians, even as Cleopatra was four or five months pregnant with their third child.

Those are the same Parthians that had succeeded the mighty Persian empire, and who had only a generation before slaughtered an entire Roman army under Crassus, after presenting him his son’s head on a stake. They were utterly not to be messed with. Indeed, Mark Antony, too, would turn back in disaster, with two-fifths of his army killed. The Parthians would remain invincible for another century and a half.

Now to the point: Their most insidious and effective tactic was the retreat, real or feigned. The mounted Parthian archers would suddenly gallop away, drawing the enemy army after them in hot pursuit. But the archers, in full gallop (no reins or stirrups needed), would turn and shoot back, arrow after arrow.

In short, a great party trick, to this day.

From Casanova to Cleo

Well, this is frustrating, but it does happen when you write a book. Sometimes you go down one path in your research before discovering that it’s a dead end.

Then you have a choice: You can somehow finagle it into your book and hope that it works. Journalists do that a lot, because they don’t like admitting (to themselves) that they wasted time searching in the wrong place.

Or you cut your losses, say ‘Oh well’, and keep searching for the perfect and sublime.

That’s what I just decided to do, after much agonizing. As you know from several previous posts, I was reading into the life of Casanova as one of my characters for a particular chapter. He led a fascinating life, but it just doesn’t work in my specific context, at least not perfectly.

I considered replacing him with Mata Hari. (In general, I want more female lives in the book.) Also not a perfect fit.

Now I’m onto Cleopatra.

Con: She’s an “ancient”, as are the protagonists in the book (Hannibal, Fabius and Scipio). So there may be too much of that.

Pro: People love her, she’s fascinating, she’s female, and…. she fits!!!

If you’re trying to figure out what these people have in common and why I need one of them in my book, I’ve dropped a veiled hint here. Feel free to guess.

Bookmark and Share

Hunky Hero Hannibal

What did Hannibal look like? I’ve suggested that the faces on this cover of National Geographic would be a good start. Then again, we could look at old coins, since those might have been circulating at the time of the person depicted. Here, thanks to the Wikimedia Commons, is one that appears to be of Hannibal.

What can I say? He was a stud.

Notice that the eye we see is healthy. That would be his left eye. Or are coins minted in mirror image? I don’t know.

I bring it up because this means either that Hannibal here was younger than thirty (quite possible if this coin was circulating in Spain before he invaded Italy) or that his other eye would have been shut or otherwise disfigured. That’s because, when he was thirty and already in Italy, Hannibal led his army on a surprising speed-march through a swamp in Etruria, today’s Tuscany. For days, the soldiers, mules, horses, and elephants were wading through water and bog. They couldn’t even lie down to sleep except for short catnaps on top of piles of dead pack-animals. Imagine tens of thousands of men and beasts urinating and defecating into a summer swamp and you get an idea of the nasty infections and diseases that must have been going around in the army.

Hannibal was riding on his favorite elephant, Surus (“the Syrian”), which may have been the only surviving one at this point. And he caught a really bad eye infection which festered and blinded one of his eyes. From that point onward, we must picture Hannibal’s face one-eyed. And all the more remarkable for it!

By the way, although I’m no numismatist, a very cursory search does suggest to me that the ancients were surprisingly honest in their depictions of the boss. Take, for instance, this coin of Cleopatra. That’s the same Cleopatra who seduced Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Well, it would appear that she must have had lots and lots of ….. charm!