Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Cleopatra, Sex and Women’s Rights (2nd Edit)

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 living 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 impression of Cleopatra two thousand years later is one of a sexy seductress; a bedeviling Egyptian siren that lured the two most powerful men of her age into her bed. (Julius Caesar, and later his protégé, Marc Antony) 

But who cares about an ancient Egyptian Queen. What difference does her life and our interpretation of it even matter? And why is Cleopatra still relevant, all these years later?

Considering the number of plays and poems and volumes that have been written about one her, 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. Especially in a culture that prefers simple, binary snapshots of great historical figures.

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. 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 Caesar was certainly one of those men. He’d just defeated his rival, the great general Pompei, when he arrived in Alexandria in 48 BCE, hoping to settle Egypt and collect the massive debt Cleopatra’s father had racked up in buying off the inevitable Roman advance. He did not expect to be captivated by an eighteen year old queen. Certainly not one who had been forced to sneak into her own house to avoid her murderous brother and his army. Cleopatra was not just another queen, however, even for the powerful and accomplished genius that was Caesar. This teenager was the direct descendant of Alexander the Great, a Macedonian Greek and the prodigy of generations of the Ptolemic Empire. She spoke nine languages, was well versed in military affairs, and even in a time when women rulers were no rarity, she stood out. She was a charismatic speaker and the first Ptolemy to learn the language of the people she ruled. And yet though little was said of her beauty (she was likely somewhat plain) she is remembered as a seductress.

Um, what?

Months after the Civil War had ended, Caesar remained in Alexandria, 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. You could make a case she was only protecting her kingdom, that Caesar 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 do the unthinkable and suggest that it was Caesar who seduced the young queen. As great as Cleopatra was to become, Caesar was perhaps the most brilliant and powerful ruler in Western history; a handsome and striking womanizer who we recognize as one of the few humans to change the course of the world. Unlike Caesar, who relied on brains and wit and courage to conquer much of the known world, according to the historians, Cleopatra used her father’s riches and sex to accomplish the same tasks. When we discuss Cleopatra, ultimately the discussion revolves around her looks, ironically the most opaque part of what is known about her. Amazingly, we still find it difficult to imagine a woman using something other than sex to conquer as a ruler.

When Cleopatra later coupled with Marc Antony, years after Caesar had been assassinated, Roman officers still couldn’t fathom a woman being involved in military matters. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence of her ability, they would complain to Antony about her presence in the command tents.

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

More than two millennia removed from one of the greatest leaders in history and many are still wondering when women will learn their “place.” We still have leaders and people who doubt the ability of a woman to rule. Certainly 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, followed the same tradition. What’s inexcusable is how little our so-called religious leaders know their history. A Christian “manual” for women published in 2011, for example, explains that girls are supposed to be soft and feminine and men are designed to be strong. It offers “proof” of this by noting how little girls preferred to twirl in front of the mirror, while little boys prefer to flex their muscles.

That such nonsense dominates our culture is all the more amazing when we realize that two thousand years ago, one of the most brilliant and accomplished people in history faced the same question many women face today, for the very same reason.

She did, however, leave us a legacy we should not soon forget; a continual reminder that dividing people by gender, in regards to power and ability and tendencies, is not only ignorant, but easily exposes the prejudice beneath it. That prejudice here in the West, a legacy of the Romans and their historians, is one we should address, and change accordingly.


NOTE: 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.