Queen Cleopatra: More than Egypt’s Sex Kitten

Cleopatra Setup ShotThe exhibition ‘Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt’ premired this weekend at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Blogs and major newspapers have been in awe about the exhibition, featuring the amazingphotographs from the underwater excavations by Franck Goddioand articles about Cleopatra’s glamour and quite disastrous – love life. There’s nothing but praise for the ‘beautiful queen’ and mass coverage on the two quests for her tomb, where she rests with lover Mark Antony. But a true must-read before visiting the exhibition is Rosemary Joyce’s critical blog entry on how we perceive the last Queen of Egypt. She protests quite rightly against how Cleopatra is hardly recognized as historical subject because she ruled Egypt, but rather because of the mythology of her doomed love affair, and the breathless treatment of a ruler as a sex kitten.

Rosemary Joyce is professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley and author of the book ‘Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives: Sex, Gender and Archaeology’ that I’m currently reading. In the book she accessibly explains how archaeology in the past, and today, focuses too much on a male / female division of society, which leads to simplified models and incorrect generalisations. She demonstrates that sex, nor gender, were necessarily how men and woman in ancient cultures distinguished themselves, and makes a good case for less generalisation and more individuality. A reoccurring theme in the book handles noble Maya woman, and the theory that their importance was not limited to producing future rulers, but thatthey had political influence and powerful roles in their society.

Though Joyce hardly mentions Egypt in her book, the parallels are definitely there: we talk about Pharaohs and the rulers as male, and the princesses and wives as hardly worth mentioning, unless to figure out who was King Tut’s mummy… err.. mommy.

As Rosemary Joyce puts it on her ‘Ancient Bodies’ blog:

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 Cleopatras case the men with whom they were sexually involved.

There are a few ‘exceptions’ to the fact that women in Ancient Egypt are forgettable: Nefertiti, known for her beauty, Hatshepsut, known for dressing up like a man and Cleopatra, known for seducing two Roman rulers. Still, all three of them have achieved more than that, and in their times were probably not just regarded as ‘mother of’, ‘wife of’ or ‘lover of’. Joyce on Cleopatra during her reign:

She was regarded asa 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.

Personally, I wonder why were are still ‘romancing Cleopatra’. Surely as an aspiring sole ruler she must have realised how advantageous an affair with the most powerful Roman alive would be? And with him gone, she needed protection once more. Pure political choices, rather than genuine love and romance? Although Antony may not have been the best bet, should Queen Cleopatra not be given more credit for being a cunning political strategist, and less pity for her doomed love affairs?

Looking forward to read your opinions on this! 😉