Figures of Legend in History essay

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Conventional literature would
come to see Cleopatra as an exploitive whore, responsible for the downfall
of virtuous men like the Ptolemies, Julius Caesar and, inevitably, Marc
Antony as well. So is this reported by historical accounts such as that by
Cassius Dio who reflected that "Indeed she so enchanted and enthralled not
only Antony but all others who counted for anything with him that she came
to entertain the hope that she would rule the Romans as well, and whenever
she took an oath, the most potent phrase she used were the words, 'So
surely as I shall one day give judgement [sic] on the Capitol.'" (Cassius
Dio, 39) The argument given here in defining her persona would be the
clear understanding of her imperialist intent, so to say that it had been
always an ambition for this ruler to extend the Egyptian influence to new
heights. The Roman perspective turns our attention to some correlation
between the two distinct personas which depicted Cleopatra as a powerful
ruler and a seductive and sexually driven woman.
Of course, in rhetoric and political action, the Romans had their own
imperial aims, making the union between Antony and Cleopatra an
inevitability gone awry. As the prevailing power in its context, the
Romans had longed kept a wary eye on affairs in Egypt, recognizing it both
as a power and as a resource. Thus, "the Romans watched the unfolding
royal saga with a proprietorial interest. They believed that they had a
valid legal claim to Egypt, which had been gifted to them seven years
earlier in the vexatious will drawn up by Ptolemy X." (Tyldesley, 11) It
was thus that with the eventuality by which Cleopatra had become Queen of
Egypt, the Romans would perceive both with caution and entitlement the
events unfolding there. Especially insofar as Cleopatra VII seemed to
dismiss this latter entitlement based on her own vision of Ptolemic
expansion, her ambitions would represent the final threat from the Eastern
conqueror.
To the point, her ambition would be realized to a geographical range
unseen for many centuries in the fertile crescent. The threat felt by the
Romans was very real, for quite to the point, one only needed the events of
her rulership to verify that this expansion of absolute imperial majesty
was her intent. It would, in fact, be the last gasp for the once great
Egyptian kingdom, with Cleopatra seeing it to its most tautly stretched
influence before these ambitions would cause it to unravel. In her time
though, "the dramatic reign of Cleopatra VII closed one of the most
brilliant periods in ancient Egyptian history. For almost three centuries
her ancestors ruled Egypt and extended Egyptian influence throughout the
Aegean and western Asia and deep into African and Arabia. Not for over a
thousand years had Egyptian power and influence been felt over so wide an
area." (Burstein, 1) Not coincidentally, this expansion which was an
extension of the same Greek ethnicity that produced the city of Alexandria
and the lineage to which we can attribute Cleopatra's birth, came at a time
of Roman decline. (Grant, 4-6)
To this exact point, it is important to note that the author of the
image of Cleopatra which would have us believe she was a sex-hungry
mastermind of deception who conquered men for power was also her nemesis:
Our image of Cleopatra is ultimately drawn from sources close to
her enemy, Julius Caesar's great-nephew and heir Octavian, later
Augustus, the first emperor of Rome. Living another forty-four years
after Cleopatra's suicide in 30 BC, Octavian had plenty of time to re-
cast recent history to his liking. Cleopatra was represented in
literature of the day as the whore of the Canopus, the foreign queen
who had unmanned Antony, and made him un-Roman." (Walker, 1)


Certainly, this is the image of Cleopatra that has persisted in our
most popular depictions like Shakespeare's play, which is perhaps the best
known literary treatment of her fabled love affair with Antony and the
division that it incited within the Roman Empire. Herein, Shakespeare
reinforces an image of Cleopatra as seducing Antony and then dominating
over him in such a way as to explicitly emasculate him.
But even beyond the dominating use of deception and sexuality which saw her
to the exploitation and death of every man with whom she came into romantic
contact, there are so many nuances of her character which, in their
description of her vanity and excess, blur irrevocably the line between
history and legend. In a notorious anecdote, an alleged representation
of her ostentatious tactics in mystifying Marc Antony to subservience of
her desires and political aspirations, Cleopatra is said to have expressed
the extravagance of her love and devotion to Antony by dissolving a
priceless pearl in her wine and ingesting it for his amusement. She told
him that this was an indication of her willingness to pay any price for
just a second of his 'diversion.' Ultimately, as her supposed devices
become more evident, this gesture takes on a more sinister implication, an
example of the extravagance which she devoted not to love but to illusion.
"When the exotic Egyptian queen takes into her body the pearl worth "Six
Million Sesterces," she becomes herself a part of the luxurious treasure of
empire. This treasure, so frivolous and yet so powerful, seduces the manly
Anthony and confounds the Roman Empire." (Gadeken, 2).
This anecdote provides the seed for the ultimate rift in Rome, with
Octavian, direct lineage of Julius Caesar, driven to declare war on
Cleopatra. Sensing her influence over Antony, and recognizing the
opportunities that this represented to divide and undermine the pervasion
of Roman authority in exchange for the priorities of Egypt, Octavian
launched an attack on Alexandria, against the prodigal lovers. Antony is
famously depicted as having been incapable of mounting his duties as a war
strategist or as an effective general, ceding both priorities to his desire
to be with Cleopatra. "Distracted by incessant frivolity, and charmed by
sensuous luxury, Anthony neglects his civic duties for personal pleasure,
allowing Cleopatra to speak of him as though he were a prisoner of war and
she the conqueror." (Gadeken, 5) This was to the advantage of Ocatavian,
who would soundly defeat Antony's army and capture Cleopatra.
In his victory is formed the biases against Cleopatra though, leaving
us as yet fully undetermined that she has received just treatment by
history. Her suicide is notorious for its dramatic manner, as she is said
to have taken her life while in captivity of the conquering Octavian by
applying the poison of a live asp to her body. At age 39, she passed into
death and left rule of Egypt to the Romans. "Alexandria remained capital
of Egypt, but Egypt was now a Roman province. The age of Egyptian Monarchs
gave way to the age of Roman Emperors, and Cleopatra's death gave way to
the rise of Rome." (Ashmawy, 1) Consistent with the opportunity which
history provides to the victor to depict his conquered, Octavian authored
the unflattering image of the adulteress and lying Cleopatra. Doubtless,
the biases enforced by his desire to defend the integrity of Rome, and its
misled leaders such as Caesar and Antony, could have contributed
substantively to the description of the malicious methods she is said to
have employed. She is assailed by depictions that immediately followed her
death that contradict those purported by admiring Egyptian historians,
which have placed her in a position of retreat during the famous battle of
Actium. This "Egyptian defeat was often attributed to the early withdrawal
of a coward Cleopatra from the battle scene, although this claim is now
discredited by most historians." (Ashmawy, 1)
Other detracting opinions have not been discredited though. There
has been extensive discourse over the role of patriarchal social structures
and a prevailing misogyny, especially reflected in Octavion's influential
depiction of the guilty male parties as mere pawns on her chessboard.
However, it is still most widely accepted that her primary role in history
was as a destructor of the virtues of powerful men, with the focus not on
her skills as a leader or statesperson, but as an object of desire who
feigned femininity while operating on a decidedly masculine plane of
ruthlessness. In Shakespeare reading, it is not simply that Antony has
become emasculated but that he has become effeminate. Even more than that,
he and Cleopatra are said to have reversed gender roles, with she as the
masculine authority. Indeed, the Roman army which Antony commanded to war
against Octavian is actually believed to have been headed by "Mardion the
Eunuch, Photinus, Iris, and Charmian, Cleopatra's women, who were become
Anthony's Counsellors and Prime Ministers of State' (p. 111). Fielding thus
identifies the effeminized Anthony with eunuchs and women." (Gadeken, 5)
Likewise, it does offer substantiation that she had used her talents to
supplant Antony's influence with her own.
It is crucial to keep context in mind though,…[continue]

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