Arts, Culture & Humanities

Cleopatra and other powerful women

Rosemary Joyce

“Her name is synonymous with power and glamour”: so starts an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer prompted by the opening of a new exhibit last week at The Franklin Institute.

This opening, and the exhibit itself, reflects the long-standing fascination of the public, shared by archaeologists, for women who ruled in ancient states, and the ambiguous way they are regarded.

Cleopatra represents an extreme example: along with Hatshepsut, one of two pharaohs widely known to have been women, and like Nefertiti, celebrated as an icon of beauty — hence the Inquirer‘s pairing of the terms “power and glamour”.

The article goes on to say that “archaeologists are working to add to our collective knowledge of the legendary Egyptian queen”. And indeed, some of the research reflected in the Cleopatra exhibit has specifically identified places associated with her life, if not so much inspired directly with finding her tomb or illuminating her life alone.

But much of the hype around this exhibit illustrates why ancient queens are problematic subjects for contemporary archaeology, including the archaeology of sex and gender that Berkeley has long pioneered.

First, there is the fact that queens tend to be treated as exceptions that prove a rule, so that the existence of women rulers never erases an assumed abnormality for women as political agents. This is obviously the case with discussions of Hatshepsut, who is presented as an exception to an apparent rule that pharaohs should be males — although other women apparently served as regents for their children or as pharaoh in their own right.

But the same wonderment at a woman in power also runs through discussions of Cleopatra, a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, in which women and men were both eligible to serve as pharaoh.

Discussions of ancient queens almost always display a concern with how they came to power that assumes women ruling were abnormal. This in turn leads to an emphasis on their relations with powerful men — the fathers they succeed, the sons for whom they serve as regents, or — as in Cleopatra’s case– the men with whom they were sexually involved. So, as the Inquirer notes, the Cleopatra exhibit features a granite fragment from a male portrait head that is very loosely linked to Mark Antony:

The tomb in which Cleopatra and her lover Mark Antony rest has yet to be found, but Zahi Hawass, the maestro of Egyptian archaeology, believes they are somewhere inside Taposiris Magna, a temple west of Alexandria. This granite fragment of a face, archaeologists say, might depict Mark Antony – attributes such as the cleft chin match written descriptions of him.

If Mark Antony were the only person in antiquity with a cleft chin, this might be more convincing. But primarily, it shows how Cleopatra herself barely registers as an historical subject except for the mythology of her doomed love affair. The breathless treatment of a ruler as a sex kitten extends to other artifacts, as in the gratuitous comment that ends this passage about statues of Ptolemaic pharaohs as Isis:

Headless, she stands 4 feet 11 inches tall and was carved from granodiorite during the third century B.C., well before Cleopatra’s birth in 69 B.C. The statue, of an unidentified Ptolemaic queen, features an Isis knot on its robe. Many Ptolemaic women saw themselves in the goddess, and commissioned works melding characteristics of both. Cleopatra later declared herself the reincarnation of Isis and had such statues made. She dressed as Isis for Mark Antony’s first visit.

So, how does an intractable subject like an ancient queen serve in an archaeology of sex and gender? Precisely as a case study of how modern attitudes about gender infect our attempts to understand the past.

A possible antidote to the glamor image of Cleopatra is provided by an article in Smithsonian. As the authors of that article, which tacks back and forth successfully between the politics Cleopatra navigated and modern and historical fascination with her, put it, “ancient historians never characterized Cleopatra as a great beauty, and in her time she was not considered a romantic heroine”.

What she was regarded as was a ruler: the political leader whose strategies make her an excellent example of how independent kingdoms tried to contain the expansion of the Roman empire. Because she cannot be reduced to a type — a generic woman — she serves as a possible way into the thorny thicket of treating women (and men) in the past as actors with their own motivations, not reducible to generic categories.

Note: A version of this post was previously published on Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives. I was motivated to repost it here by the rhetoric since Tuesday’s elections about women who won many of the races. It seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same: it is still seen as unexpected for women to be in positions of political power, even in a state with two women as Senators.

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Comments to "Cleopatra and other powerful women":
    • Cleopatra

      True. Cleopatra was a personality of bravery and valor. The role of women in society has been changing from ancient periods. From hooking up in just four corridors of house to flying in a spacecraft, women are representing the topmost position in the society. Be it political leader, judge or doctor, women are meeting shoulder to shoulder with men in each and every area.

      [Report abuse]

    • Jen

      You know it still amazes me that the premise of the historical meaning behind Cleopatras hierarchy is lowered because of her confidence as a woman. Yet we both know that if it were a man in her position he is considered a God and is honored as such.

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    • Anthony St. John '63

      Re your Note: “It seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same” especially as long as far too many people fail to care enough to fight for and protect our rights anymore.

      A fact of political life in California is that two current candidates refused to even vote, Meg Whitman failed to vote for 28 years, plus Carly Fiorina’s campaign said she voted in only six of 14 elections in California since 2000 plus while living in New Jersey for the previous 10 years she never voted.

      I wonder what some of the greatest citizens in the history of democracy, who risked their lives to gain voting rights for women such as Susan B. Anthony, Emeline Pankhurst and Mary Wollstonecraft, would say about Meg and Carly giving up their voting rights?

      But what the heck, Meg and Carly are just two more republicans whose rhetorical style of hypocrisy and lies follow in the footsteps of the likes of Bush, Cheney and Yoo who tried to overthrow American Democracy and the U.S. Constitution during the Bush Autocracy.

      [Report abuse]

    • anna maria lopez lopez

      Cleopatra and Hatshepsut two great examples of women power. Nowadays there are many Cleopatras and Hatshepsuts among us, but maybe the actual century is not so magnificent as the antique ones and it´s more difficult to shine.

      The true glamour is inside!

      anna

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    • Anthony St. John

      Re: “— women who ruled in ancient states, and the ambiguous way they are regarded— It seems that the more things change, the more they stay the same: it is still seen as unexpected for women to be in positions of political power, even in a state with two women as Senators. ”

      Or, maybe not. By coincidence, in this mornings L.A. Times, Ron Brownstein’s Opinion “In jobs, a gender gap reversal” concluded “The recession may widen the long-standing political divide between college-educated white women, who lean Democratic, and the rest of the white electorate, which bends Republican. In the same way, the downturn seems likely to reinforce the shifting workplace fortunes of women and men, a dynamic that will reverberate from the shop floor to the kitchen table for years.”

      Is it possible that this a conclusion that future anthropologists will confirm as a turning point in history when things no longer stayed the same?

      [Report abuse]

    • India Seo

      True. Cleopatra was a personality of bravery and valor. The role of women in society has been changing from ancient periods. From hooking up in just four corridors of house to flying in a spacecraft, women are representing the topmost position in the society. Be it political leader, judge or doctor, women are meeting shoulder to shoulder with men in each and every area.

      [Report abuse]

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