Cleopatra’s last public appearance in the city of Rome was in the form of a wax model, complete with model asp, carried in the victory parade of Octavian in 29 BC. Octavian – a bloodthirsty ideologue in the civil wars – was by then well on his way to reinventing himself as Rome’s benevolent autocrat, its first (and almost only) ‘good’ Emperor, Augustus. Three days of triumphal procession through the streets of the capital – to mark his victories over an assortment of Northern barbarians, over Mark Antony’s forces at the battle of Actium and finally over Egypt itself – were to draw a line under civil war and inaugurate the new regime. Along with the wagonloads of booty, the placards blazoning the names of massacred tribes and annihilated cities, the hordes of bedraggled, defeated troops, the prize exhibit in the procession – walking in chains just in front of the triumphant general’s chariot – was to have been Queen Cleopatra herself.
Cleopatra had other ideas, however. She had presumably witnessed Roman triumphs during her stay in Rome as Julius Caesar’s amant en titre and well understood their techniques of humiliation. She would also have known that the most dangerous and distinguished of Rome’s victims never reached the end of the procession: they were put to death in the Forum, just as the general began his ascent of the Capitoline Hill to offer sacrifice at the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus. She pre-empted the humiliation by suicide – either by means of her trademark asp (which, as the symbol of Egyptian monarchy, turned her death into a defiant assertion of her royal power) or, as some ancient writers thought, thanks to some more mundane poison. ‘I will not be triumphed over,’ Livy has her declare.
So Octavian had to make do with an imitation. Triumphal processions had traditionally drawn on all the resources of art and craft that Rome could muster. Paintings depicted the Roman army’s heroic encounters with their enemies; model rivers and towns called to mind the exotic locations of the wars of conquest. Anyone who could not appear in person could always be conjured in paint or plaster, wood or wax. Julius Caesar, in his triumph of 46 BC, had treated the gawping crowds to a series of pictures of the last moments of his rivals in civil war: Cato disembowelling himself ‘like a wild beast’, Scipio throwing himself into the sea, Petreius stabbing himself at dinner. (It is a striking insight into Roman notions of good taste that one ancient commentator should note that Caesar refrained from displaying the names of these casualties – apparently that would have been too much for the sensibilities of the audience.) If the worst came to the worst, the place of even the victorious general himself might be taken by a mannequin. In 118 AD, the Emperor Trajan enjoyed a posthumous triumph for his victories over the Parthians. In its bizarre procession, the part of the triumphant Emperor in his chariot was played by a dummy. All the same, however respectable the tradition of such imitations, however memorable this particular tableau mourant of Cleopatra was, for Octavian it ranked – or so the usual story goes – very much as second best.
That usual story has, however, been doubted by a number of more cynical modern historians, among them Michel Chauveau, whose – necessarily – slim volume attempts to ‘exorcise the myth’ and present the ‘facts’ of Cleopatra’s life and death. Even to fill just eighty pages of main text, those ‘facts’ have to be rather generously defined. The date of her birth depends on trusting Plutarch’s assertion that she was 39 when she died. The ups and downs of her rule over Egypt – first as co-regent with one brother, then rebellion and exile followed by restoration (thanks to Julius Caesar), then partnership with another brother before Mark Antony appeared on the scene – are all based on a perilous series of deductions from fragmentary or flagrantly unreliable evidence.
Her end is predictably murky. Octavian, so the cynical say, may well have publicly paraded his disappointment at Cleopatra’s premature end, but surely he had enough guards and thugs at his disposal to have prevented her death had he really wanted to. You don’t need to go so far as to argue – and Chauveau does not, though others have – that Octavian actually had her murdered; simply that he did nothing to stand in the way of her suicide, or perhaps encouraged it. For, defeated or not, Cleopatra was too hot to handle. It was more convenient to have her off the scene once and for all, and certainly not exhibited, live, in his triumph.
The first problem was a simple dynastic one. Octavian owed his position in large part to the fact that he was the great-nephew of Julius Caesar and had been adopted by Caesar in his will (posthumous adoption being a well recognised Roman legal device). Cleopatra, on the other hand, had been Caesar’s mistress and claimed that her child, Caesarion, was his natural heir – a claim that must have been given credence by the gold statue of her that Caesar placed, next to the cult image of the goddess, in the temple of Venus Genetrix (‘mother’ or ‘ancestor’) at Rome. Alive, mother and son would always pose a threat to Octavian’s claims to rule. It was a threat that was finally removed when, after Cleopatra’s death, young Caesarion, too, who had been (sensibly) making for India, was quickly dispatched.
The second problem lay in the dynamics of the triumphal procession itself. This was partly the thorny question of how to incorporate Cleopatra into the ceremony and its aftermath. Would the Roman audience tolerate the execution of a woman (albeit a dangerous enemy of the state) at the foot of the Capitoline Hill? And if not, what was to happen to her when the procession was over? How could you safely pension off a Cleopatra? But it was also a question of the awkward ambivalences in the triumph as a spectacle more generally. Like most major public displays, however carefully it may have been choreographed, the triumph always risked rebounding on those it was supposed to honour. There was always a danger of mixed messages, at best; at worst, of things going terribly wrong.
In 61 BC, for example, in the triumph of Pompey the Great – then victorious over King Mithridates, though later defeated by his arch-rival Julius Caesar in the civil wars of the early 40s BC – the extravagance of the artwork proved counterproductive in the eyes of some. In his encyclopedic Natural History, Pliny the Elder gleefully bemoaned the effeminate luxury of one particular portrait of Pompey that was carried in the procession: it was a head made entirely of pearls and was, Pliny crowed, an uncomfortable omen of Pompey’s ultimate, undignified fate – to be beheaded by a eunuch on the shores of Egypt. For us, this bit of smug moralising is a neat reminder that the Romans themselves could sometimes see the sheer oddity in their characteristic form of portrait bust; as if the hint of nasty decapitation could still show through the sculptural convention of those rows of marble heads, cut off at the neck or shoulders.
On other occasions, for all the splendour of the triumphing general himself – who appears to have been regularly dressed up in the costume of the god Jupiter, borrowed from his temple on the Capitoline – the ‘wrong’ characters stole the limelight. In a famous procession in the second century BC, the eyes of the crowd all fell, not on the Roman victor, but on the pathetic infant sons of the defeated Eastern king, who were walking with the captives. And Octavian must have known of the impact that Cleopatra’s sister, Arsinoë, had made when she was displayed in Julius Caesar’s procession in 46 BC: no rejoicing at her well-deserved fate, but pity and sympathy at the sight of an exotic princess in chains, and tears shed by the onlookers as her misfortune reminded them of what they themselves had suffered in the wars. Octavian may well have been secretly relieved to dispense with a live, walking-talking Cleopatra in his own victory parade.
Roman triumphal processions could prompt a whole set of divergent reactions. While many spectators no doubt applauded the bloody successes which the parades celebrated, and the lavish booty they put on display, others took a dissident view of these jingoistic extravaganzas. The Latin love poets of the first century BC, well known for their subversion of the Roman military ethos (they served, they insisted, in the army of Love, not fighting barbarians on the frontiers), predictably enlisted the triumph into their own counter-culture. In the Art of Love, his spoof didactic poem on how to pick up a partner, Ovid recommends a triumphal procession as a good place to find a girl. Girls, he advises his learner-lover, are likely to be utterly confused by the paintings and models carried past in the procession, so he suggests impressing them with confident identifications of all those distant rivers and towns. Of course, the boy may also be a bit uncertain about what exactly everything is, but so long as he sounds plausible, he is sure to make his own conquest – in the shape of the girl beside him. In another poem Ovid pictures himself, together with ‘Conscience’ and ‘Modesty’, as a wounded captive walking in the triumph, not of a human general but of an all-vanquishing Cupid, riding a chariot drawn by doves. Propertius, too, offers a wry angle on the triumphal procession, best observed, he suggests, from (in Maria Wyke’s paraphrase) ‘the vantage point of his mistress’s embrace’.
For Wyke, the mistresses celebrated in this poetry are no less fictive than Octavian’s model of Cleopatra. The first half of The Roman Mistress comprises a series of essays – all already published, but substantially revised here – which combine to form a sustained assault on romantic readings of the poetry of Propertius in particular, though the other two members of the famous trio of ‘elegiac poets’, Ovid and Tibullus, also get a look in. It has always proved tempting to read the elegies of Propertius as the written record of a ‘real’, flesh and blood affair: the lovesick poet documenting the ups and (mostly) downs of his relationship with the gorgeous but wayward ‘Cynthia’ – the arguments, the separations, the jealousy, the occasional blissful afternoon. It is a temptation that goes back to the ancient world itself; in the second century AD, Apuleius, the author of the Golden Ass, was happy to read Cynthia as a simple poetic sobriquet for a woman whose real name was Hostia, while Tibullus’ Delia, he says, was a cover for the poet’s girlfriend Plania. Armed with this ‘information’ – itself no more than ancient speculation – even some of the most distinguished modern critics have proceeded to slaver over a reconstruction of the girl in question: ‘She had a milk-and-roses complexion . . . Those attractive eyes were black. She was tall, with long slim fingers’; ‘a woman of fine artistic accomplishments who is also fond of the lower sympotic pleasures . . . plaintive, if she chooses . . . pleasurably passionate – again if she chooses.’ And so on, and worse.
Wyke, quite rightly, raps this ‘critical laxity’ over the knuckles. As she repeatedly emphasises, it is the realist rhetoric of this poetry that has set the trap into which so many modern readers have fallen; but realism as a literary trope is a very different thing from ‘real life’. Wyke’s own approach to this poetry is to see it as an experiment in writing, rather than a (failed) experiment in love and passion; if the poets are in love with anything, it is with a pen, not a woman. Some of these essays have already become classics in their field, but they have historical as well as literary implications. The first century BC has long been taken to be a rare – perhaps the only – period of female emancipation in the ancient world: in contrast to the virtual seclusion of elite women in, for example, fifth-century BC Athens, wealthy women in first-century Rome are said to have enjoyed a considerable degree of freedom of action, independence and sexual power. This has been an agreeable image, particularly for some modern feminist historians. But drawn very largely from the poetic world created by Propertius and his friends, it is, as Wyke’s work shows, very largely just that: an image.
The second half of the book explores those images of Roman women through the lens of modern film, television and advertisements. It includes two previously unpublished chapters on the cinematic career of Messalina, wife of the Emperor Claudius and symbol of ancient female excess: the well-known story of her competition with a professional prostitute goes back to Pliny; Messalina is supposed to have won, with 25 couplings in a single day. The material that Wyke has unearthed, largely from the penumbra of the publicity and advertising campaigns that launched the most notable ‘Roman movies’, is an extraordinary mixture of kitsch, glamour and classically inspired wit. One of the most memorable images is Susan Hayward’s 1955 advertisement for Lux soap, which pointedly contrasts the star’s role as Messalina in Demetrius and the Gladiators – ‘one of the hardest women in history’ – with the sweetness, charm and softness of her skin. The ad shows Hayward quizzically examining a marble bust of herself in the role of the Roman Empress, under the caption ‘How do you see Susan?’ Messalina may still seem an unlikely vehicle for the promotion of ‘pure’ cosmetic soap, but, as Wyke observes, the (fake) ancient sculpture is made a convenient metaphor for distancing sweet little Susan from the monster she plays: it asserts the surface resemblance but more than hints at the difference of ‘inner character’.
The two parts of The Roman Mistress are held together by the figure of Cleopatra, with one essay on her image in Rome under Augustus leading into two chapters on Cleopatra movies from the early 20th century to Joseph Mankiewicz’s 1963 ‘Lizpatra’, as the Taylor/Burton epic was nicknamed. The first essay makes it clear why Chauveau’s attempt to ‘exorcise the myth’ of Cleopatra and concentrate only on the ‘facts’ was doomed to be so short. Very little evidence survives from her native Egypt. A few sculptures appear to show her in standard royal Egyptian mode; the earliest preserved image, presumably designed for her father Ptolemy XII before his death, represents her as a man. There is also a handful of coins, including one very crude issue from Cyprus, which Wyke optimistically identifies as ‘Cleopatra suckling Caesarion’. But by and large Cleopatra is, as André Malraux once put it, ‘a queen without a face’, drawing the contrast with the much illustrated but mysterious Nefertiti, ‘a face without a queen’.
After Cleopatra’s death in 30 BC, the quantity of material – mostly from Rome itself – increases vastly. But, even for the most hard-headed of historians, the real Cleopatra is impossible to extricate from her Roman myth – or, for that matter, from the complicated and loaded myths of gender, passion, desire and transgression woven by the love poets, in whose work she plays a significant part. There is plenty of excoriation here. The ‘whore queen’ (meretrix regina), as Propertius once calls her, becomes a symbol of the Oriental excess that threatened, by her relationship with Mark Antony, to unman the very centre of Roman political and military authority. If Octavian can be seen ‘as the champion of male liberty’, then Cleopatra and her paramour are his dangerous anti-types – with their debauchery, drunkenness and mosquito nets (strongly associated by both Propertius and Horace with the furthest reaches of effeminate luxury).
But it’s not so simple. For at the same time as Propertius jibes at the influence of Cleopatra on traditional Roman values, he also identifies himself in his relations with ‘Cynthia’ with the passion of Antony for his exotic queen. It is part of his erotic counter-culture to suggest that every lover is an Antony at heart, every mistress a Cleopatra. No modern historian has been able to unpick this ambivalent nexus of cultural myth. If Chauveau solves the problem by limiting his text to eighty pages, most – as Wyke suggests – have simply reflected the ‘erotic fascination’ with Cleopatra and the historical double standards of the ancient writers, traceable from the Augustan poets through Plutarch’s Life of Antony right up to Shakespeare and beyond. Occasionally, Wyke’s own agenda lets her down here, however. Clearly hoping to make the characteristic modern treatment of Cleopatra a male failing, she mistakenly turns the ‘Hellenistic historian’ E.E. (Ellen) Rice into a man.
Wyke picks up the story of Cleopatra’s image in the 20th century with the fascinating story of the Italian Marcantonio e Cleopatra of 1910, Fox Film’s 1917 Cleopatra, starring Theodosia Goodman under the name ‘Theda Bara’ (significantly, no doubt, an anagram of ‘Arab Death’), Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra of 1934 and finally the 1960s Mankiewicz extravaganza. In each of these, there was a whole variety of echoes of different aspects of the ancient myth, even including a wax model of DeMille’s star, Claudette Colbert, as Cleopatra – not in a triumphal procession this time, but modelling a special ‘Cleopatra hat’ in Selfridge’s window. Surprisingly, the version that stands apart from the others in offering a different view of Cleopatra is the Taylor/Burton production. Although this has become famous for its ridiculous budget, troubled production and the on-screen/off-screen romance, Wyke points to its explicitly political dimension – most of which was lost when the final cut was put together. The original script and early publicity material stress, alongside the glamour of Cleopatra, her visionary political aims. In one scene she was scripted trying to persuade Julius Caesar to unite the Eastern and Western worlds; and in a preliminary version of the screenplay she was called ‘an early day Kennedy’ – or, as one commentator later put it, ‘a kind of Eleanor Roosevelt captivated by the ideal of one-world unity’. It was largely, in the end, the glamour of Taylor and her newsworthy affair with Burton that swamped what would have been a radically different, United Nations style Cleopatra.
The chapters on Messalina that follow the discussion of Cleopatra are meant to represent a contrasting image of another ‘Roman mistress’. They work well enough. But it is tempting to wonder whether another Eastern queen, though not exactly a ‘mistress’ in Wyke’s sense of the term, would not have done the job even better: Zenobia, the third-century AD Queen of Palmyra, who appears to have claimed descent from Cleopatra herself. Zenobia decided to challenge the Romans in the Eastern part of the Empire, took control of Egypt and parts of Asia Minor and gave herself and her son Roman Imperial titles. She, too, has had a glamorous posthumous life in fiction and film – including Nel segno di Roma, a lavish epic starring a glacial Anita Ekberg. But it is in her defeat that she offers the most piquant contrast with Cleopatra. For the Roman Emperor Aurelian did eventually crush the rebel forces, scoring as devastating a victory as Octavian had over Antony and Cleopatra. On this occasion there was to be no need for a wax model. The Emperor brought her to Rome, where she walked – fettered with gold chains, it is said – in his triumphal procession of 274 AD. And afterwards, by what must have been some very neat political footwork, Aurelian managed to pension her off. She is said to have lived out the rest of her days as a comfortable Roman matron, on a nice estate near Tivoli. No asp for Zenobia.