Cleopatra: A Sign of the Times
by Diana Lerman
"For Rome, who had never condescended to fear any nation or people, did in her time fear two human beings; one was Hannibal, and the other was a woman" (Lefkowitz 126). Abstract
Cleopatra VII, the last reigning queen of Egypt, has intrigued us for centuries. Her story is one that has been told many times, and the many different and vastly varied representations of her and her story are solely based on the ways in which men and society have perceived women and their role in society throughout history. By looking at the perceptions of women starting from the Hellenes, the Greeks who greatly influenced Roman ideals, and following those perceptions through to the end of the 19th Century, it is easy to see how Cleopatra has been used to represent the "good woman." In other words, she has been used as a role model for women, to show what was their acceptable role in society and to shape their actions and beliefs into an acceptable form. The earliest writers saw her as an evil temptress, as attitudes changed she became a victim and now in recent representations she is seen as "a feminist hero and a savvy politician" (Nilsen 1). Following this history, one can see how the story of Cleopatra is a story that has been told many times to fit each time period's own allegiances. * * *
The negative image of Cleopatra that has presided throughout history can be traced back to 5th Century Athens and their perceptions of women. During this time period the Greeks pit their own bourgeoisie ideal of femininity against their counterparts in "barbaric societies" (Nyquist 89). This barbarism was also associated with Orientalisms and therefore Egypt was considered barbaric. The barbarians and the Greeks were considered to be complete opposites and this could be seen in many ways. The barbarians ruled with a system of "monarchy" or "tyranny" and the Greeks were run by a democracy (Nyquist 88). "They were assigned systematically with ethical or psychological traits; avarice, cruelty, lawlessness, hierarchalism, luxuriousness, effeminacy, unrestrained emotionalism" associated with the barbarians, and, "moderation, judiciousness, lawfulness, equality, simplicity, manliness and reason" associated with the Greeks (Nyquist 88). The Greeks constructed female rule as barbaric to stigmatize the "other," to keep the female in their place and, most of all, to propagate white male rule. The Romans during Cleopatra's reign adopted these ideas of barbarism from the Greeks, and the negative image of Cleopatra was encouraged by the clash in Roman and Egyptian culture. In Egypt there was less differences between the rights of males and females, and the ability for females to have control over their lives was seen as scandalous in Rome. The "Romans did not subscribe to the‚Ä¶concept of tryphe, which included the demonstration of power through the display of luxury" (Hammer 5). This rejection, in combination with female power, made it so that Cleopatra's displays of herself missed their mark and the political force of her display was lost in the cultural difference (Hammer 18). After having been conquered, the various representations of Cleopatra are politically motivated. "The Romans who conquered her used her image as a sign of their own military and cultural superiority" (Hammer 4). The winner of a battle gets to tell the tale and Octavian's propagandists "depict Cleopatra as an atavistic, amoral Queen driven by a voracious sexuality and a ruthless lust for power" (Nyquist 96). A great emphasis was placed on sex and the differences between gender and how they should be marked and maintained was an issue. Foreign women like Cleopatra were threats to Octavian's authority and he "wanted to move away from the model of the powerful political woman-a model that nearly cost him his power" (Haley 26). Everything possible was done to mark Cleopatra as a woman, as evil and as incapable for rule. The reduction of female...
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