Friday, February 17, 2012

From the Scrolls: Cleopatra, Sex and Women’s Rights

Cleopatra VII ruled Egypt for twenty-two years. She lost a kingdom, regained it, amassed an empire, and lost it all. A goddess as a child, a queen at eighteen, she was an object of speculation and veneration, a myth in her own time. At the height of her power she controlled virtually the entire eastern Mediterranean coast, the last great kingdom of any Egyptian ruler, and for a brief moment she held the fate of the Western world in her hands. She died – spectacularly and sensationally – at the age of thirty-nine, a generation before the birth of Christ. Shakespeare spoke of her infinite variety.

He had no idea.

And yet the enduring image of Cleopatra conjures two thousand years later is one of a sexy seductress. A bedeviling Egyptian siren who lured the two most powerful men of her time into her bed. (Julius Ceasar, and later his protégé Marc Antony) It doesn’t help that the burning image of Cleopatra was last provided by one of the most beautiful women of the 20th Century, Elizabeth Taylor, in the 1965 film.

But so what? Who cares about an Egyptian Queen? And why is Cleopatra still relevant, all these years later?

Considering that plays and poems and volumes have been written about her, one of the most powerful and fascinating people in history, it’s impossible to cover a fingernail’s worth of the complexity of her story. There are occasions, however, when even a quick overview like this can be helpful.


Historically women have been viewed in two ways.

Madonna. (Virgin, the Mother) Or Whore. (Seductress, Siren)

These are, generally speaking, not only the historical definitions of women, but the way we still tend to categorize them. A woman is either a “slut” or “really nice” and “motherly”. Interestingly, most people don’t realize that the gender division in Western culture was largely fostered by the Romans (especially during the Republic), who had very clear ideas about men and women and their roles in culture.

Julius Ceasar was certainly one of those men. When he arrived in Alexandria in 48 BCE, he did not expect to be captivated by an eighteen year old queen who was forced to sneak into her own house to avoid her brother and his army. He’d just defeated his rival, the great general Pompei, and hoped to settle Egypt along with collecting the massive debt Cleopatra’s father had racked up in buying off the inevitable Roman advance. But Cleopatra wasn’t just another queen, even for the most powerful and accomplished genius that was Ceasar. No, this teenager was the direct descendant of Alexander the Great, a Macedonian Greek (she was not Egyptian) and product of generations of the Ptolemic Empire. She spoke nine languages. She was well versed in military affairs. Even in a time when women rulers were no rarity, she stood out. (Cleopatra was the only female to eventually rule alone and play a role in Western affairs.) She was a charismatic speaker and the first Ptolemy to learn the language of the people she ruled. And yet she is remembered as a seductress, though little is said of her beauty, little enough to presume that she would have been somewhat “plain”.

And yet, Ceasar was so fascinated, he not only stayed in Alexandria, he very nearly became trapped when the Alexandrians fought back, upset over the presence of a Roman General who seemed to believe that Egypt was subject to Rome. And yet, months after the Civil War had ended that year, Ceasar stayed. And there’s little doubt that he stayed because of Cleopatra and shared her bed.

That harlot.

At least, that’s how she was considered by Roman historians like Plutarch. I suppose that you could make a case she was only protecting her kingdom, that Ceasar was purely a political conquest and she needed a powerful ally if she was going to keep Egypt independent. You could also consider those who wished her dead (which in the tradition of the highly interbred Ptolemies, meant family members regularly murdered on another) and suggest that she had no other choice.

Or, you could suggest that it was Ceasar who seduced the young queen. (Quick quiz: did you even consider that when you were reading the above paragrpah?) No ancient historian made that case, however, it was never even considered. I find that disturbing and ironic. As great as Cleopatra was to become, Ceasar was one of the most brilliant and powerful rulers in history. A handsome and striking womanizer who we recognize as one of the few humans to change the course of the world. Unlike Ceasar, who relied on brains and wit and courage to conquer much of the known world, Cleopatra apparently used her father’s riches and sex (or feminine “wiles”, whatever the hell that is) and has worn the mantle of seductress for over two thousand years. When we discuss Cleopatra, ultimately the discussion revolves around her looks, ironically the most opaque part of what is known about her. We can’t imagine a woman using something OTHER than sex to conquer as a ruler.

When Cleopatra later coupled with Marc Antony, years after Ceasar had been assassinated, Roman officers still couldn’t fathom the presence of a woman, even one as accomplished and powerful as Cleopatra, when it came to military matters. They would complain to Antony about her presence in the command tents. And this, even in the face of overwhelming evidence of her ability.

The irony, sad as it is, is that Rome’s legacy (Western Culture), still divides its culture by gender two thousand years later.

Here it is, 2012, millennia removed from one of the greatest leaders in history and we are still wondering when women will learn their place. We still have leaders and people who doubt the ability of a woman to rule. Most of the major religions have little time for women in leadership, with only some exceptions. Christians continued the Roman tradition of the Republic and later the Empire regarding its view of women. And Islam, an offshoot of Judaism and Christianity, continued the tradition as well. What’s inexcusable is how little our so-called religious leaders know their history.

This past week, I was flipping through a book in the religion section of the bookstore, a “Christian manual” for women published in 2011. The two male authours “explained” that girls were supposed to be soft and feminine, and men were designed to be strong. It offered “proof” of this by noting how little girls preferred to “twirl” in front of the mirror, while little boys flexed their muscles.

I wonder what Cleopatra did in front of the mirror as a child. Or perhaps, and I’m just spitballing here, IT DOESN’T F****** MATTER.

It amazes me that such nonsense still dominates our culture, that so many men still feel threatened by the idea of equality. That people dare still use words like “headship” based on gender without understanding that it’s a Roman tradition, not a religious one. Many Christians defend such terms as “biblical”, when in fact they aren’t biblical at all, they’re ideas from the Roman Republic centuries earlier. (Pater familias)

How sad and ironic that two thousand years ago one of the most brilliant and accomplished people in history faced the same question many women face today. She did, however, leave us a legacy we should not soon forget. A continual reminder that dividing people by gender, in regards to positions and ability and tendencies, is completely ignorant. The other legacy Cleopatra’s story reveals is that the prejudice we find today in religious “manuals” was found in the officers’ barracks two thousand years ago. Now that'd be one legacy we’d do well to change.


NOTE: Grateful to Pulitzer Prize winning author Stacy Schiff for her book Cleopatra: A Life. (And some of her notes in her introduction, which I borrowed for the beginning two paragraphs of this post) A wonderfully well-written biography, and the best of the ones I’ve read regarding Cleopatra. )I highly recommend it.)

NOTE II: Ancient Egypt had some of the most egalitarian laws in history. Women had nearly as many rights as men, and they were known for their advancement and culture and education. Following Cleopatra’s death, however, those rights slowly eroded, and when Islam eventually became the religion of the land those rights disappeared altogether. This was clearly in evidence in 2011 during the riots in Egypt, when Egyptian men were caught on video screaming at the protesting women to go back into the kitchen and mind the house, something an ancient Roman would have said.