GETTING READY FOR AA100
Extract 1: Cleopatra According to the Romans, from Book 1 Chapter 1, ‘Cleopatra’, by Trevor Fear
Cleopatra's status as a famous historical figure in the Western tradition depends precisely upon her role in the bitter struggles in Roman history in the first century BCE. If Cleopatra had not come into contact with the Roman world, then in the west at least she would be just another peripheral historical figure whose name would mean little. Her fatal interaction, though, with such prominent figures in Roman history as Julius Caesar, Mark Antony and Octavian (who became Rome's first emperor under the name of Augustus) and her various roles as the lover, ally and bitter enemy of these men have served to define her in the western tradition. For instance, the Roman historian, Cassius Dio (born c. 164, died after 229 CE) said in conclusion on Cleopatra that "she captivated the two greatest Romans of her time, and because of the third, she destroyed herself."
What has most defined Cleopatra's image is the fact that she ended up on the losing side in these conflicts. After the assassination of Julius Caesar she became the ally of Mark Antony but their combined forces were defeated by Octavian at the battle of Actium (off the coast of Greece) in 31 BCE, and by the following year both Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide as Octavian took control of Egypt.
We are familiar in our world with the manipulation of public opinion by the media and politicians, of how things can be made to look a certain way through putting a `spin' on them. Cleopatra was the victim of a vicious propaganda campaign that was waged between Octavian on the one hand, and Mark Antony and herself on the other in the lead-up to the decisive battle of Actium. Unfortunately for Cleopatra she lost and as the winners tend to write history it is their images of the losers that tend to stick.
Roman political life was a tough affair and one's own reputation had to be continually defended and that of rivals brought down. Allegations of sexual impropriety and general debauchery were quite normal in the Roman law courts and political oratory. Imagine the sort of stories that appear in the tabloid press about modern celebrities being delivered about rival politicians with the rhetorical skill and gravity of a Winston Churchill in the House of Commons and you start to get an idea of the verbal brutality of Roman political life. In this climate of vicious satirical exchange Antony's association with Cleopatra became ammunition for Octavian and his allies to use against him.
To explore the nature of ancient history a little further and to start our investigation into the Romans' characterization of Cleopatra, you’ll find below a condensed version of the historian Cassius Dio’s version of a speech Octavian gave to his army before the battle of Actium. As you read through this extract think about the manner in which this speech presents a negative image of Antony through his association with Cleopatra and Egypt.
Cassius Dio, The Roman History, extracts from Bk. 50. 24-27
We Romans are the rulers of the greatest and best parts of the world, and yet we find ourselves spurned and trampled upon by a woman of Egypt. Would we not utterly dishonour ourselves if, after surpassing all other nations in valour, we then meekly endured the insults of this rabble, the natives of Alexandria and of Egypt, for what more ignoble or more exact name could one give them? They worship reptiles and beasts as gods, they embalm their bodies to make them appear immortal, they are most forward in effrontery, but most backward in courage. Worst of all they are not ruled by a man, but are the slaves of a woman.
Who would not tear his hair at the sight of Roman soldiers serving as bodyguards of this queen? Who would not groan at hearing that Roman knights and senators grovel before her like eunuchs? Who would not weep when he sees and hears what Antony has become. He has abandoned his whole ancestral way of life, has embraced alien and barbaric customs, has ceased to honour us, his fellow-countrymen, or our laws, or his fathers’ gods. He is either blind to reason or mad, for I have heard and can believe that he is bewitched by that accursed woman, and therefore disregards all our efforts to show him goodwill and humanity. And so, being enslaved by her, he plunges into war with all its attendant dangers which he has accepted for her sake, against ourselves and against his country. What choice, then, remains to us, save our duty to oppose him together with Cleopatra and fight him off.
And even if at one time he showed some valour when he served with our army, you can rest assured that he has now lost it beyond recall through the change in his manner of life. It is impossible for anyone who indulges in a life of royal luxury and pampers himself as a woman to conceive a manly thought or do a manly deed, since it cannot but follow that a man’s whole being is moulded by the habits of his daily life.
To sum up, if it were a matter of being called upon to cavort in some ridiculous dance or cut some erotic caper, Antony would have no rival – for these are the specialities in which he has trained. But when it comes to weapons and fighting what has anyone to fear from him?
Discussion: Antony is characterised in this speech as a shadow of his former manly Roman self. He has embraced a foreign and decadent way of life and become bewitched and enslaved by Cleopatra to such an extent that he is fighting against his own country on her behalf. Antony has been emasculated, his self-indulgence has made him soft and no longer a threat and he has become a lover and a dancer instead of a fighter.
In addition to this specific abuse of Antony, there is also a general contrast that Octavian draws between Rome and Egypt. Rome is the ruler of the world and her citizens should be embarrassed to even be at war with such an opponent as Egypt. What honour is there for them in fighting against a nation whose way of life (slaves of a woman, worshippers of reptiles and beasts) is so repugnant to Roman tastes and traditions? Egypt and what it stands for, according to Octavian, is contrasted sharply with Rome and its way of life. One only has to look, Octavian says, at what has happened to Antony to see what threat this strange country is to Rome and its citizens. What option, he says, do we have but to resist and defend our own way of life and its values.