How do you see Susan?

Mary Beard

  • Cleopatra: Beyond the Myth by Michel Chauveau, translated by David Lorton
    Cornell, 104 pp, £14.95, April 2002, ISBN 0 8014 3867 5
  • The Roman Mistress: Ancient and Modern Representations by Maria Wyke
    Oxford, 452 pp, £40.00, March 2002, ISBN 0 19 815075 X

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 full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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