Friday, December 30, 2011


Margaret M. Miles (ed.), Cleopatra. A Sphinx Revisited. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011. Pp. xii, 238. ISBN 9780520243675. $49.95.

Reviewed by Robert Steven Bianchi, Fondation Gandur pour l'Art, Genève (

Version at BMCR home site

[Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]

The volume represents the printed versions of papers presented at a symposium held at the University of California, Irvine, in March 1999. The papers by Erich Gruen and Peter Green are reprinted here; that by Sally-Ann Ashton was submitted after the symposium.

Margaret Miles introduces the volume and its themes, describes European interest in ancient Egypt, focuses on the obelisk in New York's Central Park, briefly mentions underwater archaeological activity at Alexandria, Egypt, and concludes with a survey of recent research on Cleopatra and Egyptomania.

Sally-Ann Ashton places Cleopatra VII in the historical context of her predecessors in order to gain an enhanced understanding of the role of art within the queen's political agenda. To that end she reviews her initial suggestion about the triple uraeus as a royal marker before positing that certain images of the queen portray her as the goddess Isis. Her essay will be extremely informative to art historians of the period because she avoids a pedantic insistence on whether a putative mixed school, in which pharaonic and Hellenistic stylistic features are commingled, existed. Instead, she argues, refreshingly, that the multiplicity of artistic styles represents the queen in a plurality of guises, each appropriate for a different audience to which it is addressed.

Erich S. Gruen takes as his point of departure the iconic scene in which Cleopatra (played by Elizabeth Taylor) triumphantly enters Rome in the film by Joseph Manciewicz. He suggests that Cleopatra's actual entry into that capital was quite the opposite: low key, and perhaps hardly noticed. He argues for two trips, each of short duration, against an extended stay of almost a year and a half. Her first visit in 46 BC was to secure official recognition from Rome in the form of a signed and sealed treaty of alliance aimed at bolstering her position at home and abroad. Her second in 44 BC was to protect the interests gained from the first. Both trips were extremely short, and the thesis Gruen offers for their brevity is eminently defensible. I am less certain about the motivation he suggests, because official recognition of her regime by Rome would have had little currency in Egypt, whose elite were notoriously xenophobic. Furthermore, the queen's power base at home must have been extremely solid. If it had not been, her absence, even for the briefest of periods, would have been an open invitation for a coup.

Robert A. Gurval frames his narrative in the form of a multiple-choice question raised in the Hollywood film, Ball of Fire (1941) in which one is asked to identify how Cleopatra VII died. He then rehearses the suggestions, both ancient and modern, about how the queen committed suicide, focusing on the subjects of a serpent and poison. He begins by discussing the symbolic meaning of the asp in Egyptian, Greek, and Roman culture and presents a rather detailed interpretation of Horace,Ode I.37, which leads into discussions of passages in the Aeneid, narratives of death in both Plutarch and Galen, and considerations of the early Christian and Chaucerian interpretations of the queen's death. The narrative is interesting and informative in the extreme, but I would simply question the validity of the author's stated position, namely, that the asp is the uraeus. Egyptian royal iconography appears to have distinguished between the uraeus, or cobra, and a non-hooded viper.1 Such a distinction seems to be implied in the concluding identification of the serpent in this essay as "a small snake," which would not normally be reflected in the size of a cobra.

Sarolta A. Takács begins with the poem, Cleopatra to the Asp, by Ted Hughes in order to introduce the rather complex topic of the appearance of Egyptian material culture in Rome during the early Principate, in light of the seeming antipathy of Augustus to all things Egyptian. She reviews the literary testimonia to suggest the extent of Augustus's activities during his brief sojourn in Egypt, before assessing the historical impact of the cult of Isis on Rome and the relationship between that goddess and Cleopatra. She suggests, correctly to my mind, that adherents to the cult were not members of the demi-monde before she engages in a discussion of the Roman reception of Egyptian Isis in general as reflected in monuments in both Campania and Rome. This sets the table for her compelling conclusion that "Ptolemaic Egypt's dynastic etiology and ideology swam ever so gently toward Rome."

Brian A. Curran concentrates on the papacies of Julius II (1503-13) and of Leo X (1513-21), his successor, framing the career of the former in the role of Julius Caesar and of latter in that of Augustus. Central to his discussion are the roles of Rome's obelisks, specifically the Vatican, and the Egyptian hieroglyphs, particularly as they were interpreted by Giovanni Nanni, better known as Annius of Viterbo.2 The discovery of The Laocoon and the acquisition by Julius II of The Sleeping Ariadne, then identified as an image of Cleopatra VII, reveal the importance of things Egyptian in framing political agenda, and helps to explain why the symbolist approach to the ancient Egyptian language of the hieroglyphs was so long-lived in Europe as an impediment to its decipherment.

Ingrid D. Rowland's principal objective is to identify the author of Letters on the Infamous Libido of Cleopatra the Queen, allegedly exchanged between Marc Antony, Cleopatra VII, and her physician, Quintus Soranus of Ephesus. She builds her case for the identification by placing that work within the context the Priapeia, sometimes ascribed to Virgil, and several literary works allegedly written by Cleopatra VII. These discussions provide valuable background information for a deeper understanding of the reception of the plays by William Shakespeare and Samuel David on themes of Cleopatra and do much to further the continuance of the posthumous salacious nature of Cleopatra's character.

Margaret Mary DeMaria Smith treats Cleopatra VII as the subject of a particular aspect of the oeuvre of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. She does this against the background of Egyptomania and Orientalism in Europe, suggesting that Edward Said's critical approach is problematic from many points of view, not the least of which is his attempt to collapse "all cultural production into one pretext."3 Her analyses of these paintings are meticulous, as seen in her conclusion that the setting of his painting The Meeting of Anthony and Cleopatra: 41 BC is Alexandria and not Tarsus. She paints a convincing picture of just how responsive that artist was to prevailing market trends which dictated subject matter, indices of which can be gauged by how his audience either received or rejected the themes conveyed by those Egyptianizing works.

Maria Wyke and Dominic Montserrat demonstrate that sensational archaeological discoveries are not the only events that trigger Egyptomania. They review how the Victorians received Cleopatra VII, focusing on her portrayal in contemporary literary works, only one of which was by a practicing Egyptologist, Georg Ebers. Many of these works rely on the trope of her sexuality, which motivated the characterization of the queen by Sarah Bernhardt and later Theda Bara, whose publicists suggested that she actually aver that she was the reincarnation of the queen. As the film industry developed, so, too, did associated marketing strategies, pioneered by Cecil B. DeMille, to accompany his film featuring Claudette Colbert in 1934. All of this is presented against the background of excavations at Amarna and the West's embrace of Akhenaten and Nefertiti.4 Their narrative concludes with a discussion of "Lizpatra," in which, as one critic remarked, "It was hard to tell whether Liz and Burton were reading lines or living the parts."5

Giuseppe Pucci presents a diachronic survey of how different epochs each created an image of the queen as an embodiment of their own fantasies and desires. He observes, as do Wyke and Montserrat (pages 178-81), that the queen is at once erotically alluring and inherently murderous, particularly when she is regarded as a sinister, vampire-like creature whose sexual allure may lead those seduced to their death. He then explores manifestations of this "bifurcated image" of the queen in painting and literary works, before discussing her characterizations in the nineteenth century. He furthers the discussion of the statue acquired by Pope Julius II (pages 114-116), which influenced a painting by Artemisia Gentileschi. He concludes with a brief survey of the ways in which Cleopatra VII is treated in the cinema, and how the costumes of patrons at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada, suggest she is idealized even now.

The volume ends with Peter Green's poem, Cleopatra. The Sphinx Revisited, which provides its title.

I think it fair to state that one is still imperfectly informed about the life, career, and death of Cleopatra VII. The contributors to this volume understand just how opaque those issues are. Consequently, they do not pretend to present any definitive historical assessments. Instead, they each in their own way attempt to frame specific issues with the objective of furthering the understanding of a number of prominently held misunderstandings about those issues. After reading, and perhaps re-reading, the contributions to this remarkable set off essays, the reasons contributing to the posthumous super-status of Cleopatra VII become self-evident.

There is, however, one salient feature of this volume which deserves comment. Whereas a conscious decision was apparently made to include many of the literary references in both their original language and an accompanying English translation, the same decision was apparently set aside when it came to illustrating each of the visual works of art discussed by various contributors. Whereas practical issues of fees for rights and reproductions may have been a very real issue, of course, without illustrations, the discussions of these works cannot be fully appreciated.

Table of Contents

Illustrations, vii
Preface, xi
Margaret M. Miles, Cleopatra in Egypt, Europe, and New York. An Introduction, 1
Chapter 1-Sally-Ann Ashton, Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, 21
Chapter 2-Erich S. Gruen, Cleopatra in Rome. Facts and Fantasies, 37
Chapter 3-Robert A. Gurval, Dying like a Queen. The Story of Cleopartra and the Asp(s)in Antiquity, 54
Chapter 4-Sarolta A. Takács, Cleopatra, Isis, and the Formation of Augustan Rome, 78
Chapter 5-Brian A. Curran, Love, Triumph, Tragedy. Cleopatra and Egypt in High Renaissance Rome, 96
Chapter 6-Ingrid D. Rowland, The Amazing Afterlife of Cleopatra's Love Potions, 132
Chapter 7-Margaret Mary DeMaria Smith, HRH Cleopatra. The Last of the Ptolemies and the Egyptian Paintings of Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 150
Chapter 8-Maria Wyke and Dominic Montserrat, Glamour Girls. Cleomania in Mass Culture, 172
Chapter 9-Giuseppe Pucci, Every Man's Cleopatra, 195
Epilogue-Peter Green, Cleopatra.The Sphinx Revisited, 208
Bibliography, 213
Contributors, 233
Index, 235


1.   Alan Henderson Gardiner, An Egyptian Grammar33 (Oxford/London, 1969), 476, Sign List I 9 - I 13; Serge Sauneron, Un traité égyptien d'ophiologie. Papyrus Brooklyn Museum nos. 47.218.48 et 85 (Cairo:L'institut français d'Archéologie orientale, 1989) [Bibliothèque Générale XI], 156-157; and Jack A. Josephson, "A Variant Type of the Uraeus in the Late Period," The Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, 29 (1992), 123-130.
2.   The career of this notorious Dominican friar can better be understood within the context of other contemporary Italian forgeries, for which see now, Ingrid D. Rowland, The Scarith of Scornelo. A Tale of Renaissance Forgery (Chicago/London: The University of Chicago Press, 2004).
3.   There is a growing revisionist approach to the principles expounded by Edward Said, for which see, too, John Rodenbeck, "Edward Said and Edward William Lane," in Paul Starkey and Janet Starkey [ed], Travelers in Egypt (London/New York: I.B. Tauris Publishers, 1998), 233-43.
4.   Explored at length by Dominic Montserrat, Akhenaten. History, Fantasy, and Ancient Egypt (London/New York: Routledge, 2001).
5.   Page 190, with footnote 52, citing W. Wanger, My Life with Cleopatra (1963), 134.

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