Cleopatra: A Sphinx Revisited

Cleopatra: A Sphinx Revisited

by Margaret M. Miles (Editor)

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Cleopatra—a brave, astute, and charming woman who spoke many languages, entertained lavishly, hunted, went into battle, eliminated siblings to consolidate her power, and held off the threat of Imperial Rome to protect her country as long as she could—continues to fascinate centuries after she ruled Egypt. These wide-ranging essays explore such topics as Cleopatra’s controversial trip to Rome, her suicide by snake bite, and the afterlife of her love potions. They view Cleopatra from the Egyptian perspective, and examine the reception in Rome of Egyptian culture, especially of its religion and architecture. They discuss films about her, and consider what inspired Egyptomania in early modern art. Together, these essays illuminate Cleopatra’s legacy and illustrate how it has been used and reused through the centuries.

Editorial Reviews

Bryn Mawr Classical Review (BMCR)

After reading, and perhaps re-reading, the contributions to this remarkable set off essays, the reasons contributing to the posthumous super-status of Cleopatra VII become self-evident.

Prudentia - Alastair Blanshard

"Supplements our current understanding of a rich tradition with new layers."

From the Publisher

"After reading, and perhaps re-reading, the contributions to this remarkable set off essays, the reasons contributing to the posthumous super-status of Cleopatra VII become self-evident."--Bryn Mawr Classical Review (Bmcr)

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520243675
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 09/01/2011
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 250
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

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A Sphinx Revisited

By Margaret M. Miles


Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-24367-5


Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt

Sally-Ann Ashton

The legendary Cleopatra the public knows—the passionate, infinitely various woman of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra and the stylized beauty of the 1930s and 1960s films—has little to do with the historical Cleopatra, and we can gain a sense of the historical woman by considering her alongside her predecessors, the earlier Ptolemaic queens. Such an account of the last Cleopatra, who ruled Egypt from 51 to 30 B.C., can also give us a wider understanding of both the late Ptolemaic period and, to some extent, her use of earlier traditions to support her aspirations. Here I shall examine how the historical Cleopatra was presented in name and images to her several human and divine audiences: native Egyptians, the multi-ethnic and polyglot Alexandrians, the priestly hierarchy that still controlled the essential infrastructure of Egypt, the larger world of eastern Mediterranean kingdoms, and the deities of Egypt. She relied primarily on the traditional imagery and nomenclature of religious ritual developed over several millennia as a way of expressing contemporary authority, and added to that the nearer example of imagery created by earlier Ptolemaic queens, some of whom had faced dynastic challenges similar to her own. The minute iconographic details of her portraits reflect the artistic subtleties and visual sophistication of the two cultures, Greek and Egyptian, that were merged in Ptolemaic Egypt.


The Ptolemaic queens played an important role in both religious and political contexts from early in the dynasty: the royal pair Ptolemy II and Arsinoe II, full brother and sister as well as husband and wife, were deified as the Theoi Adelphoi, or sibling gods, during their lifetimes. This was part of the effort of the Ptolemies to make their rule as outsiders, Macedonian Greeks, acceptable to Egyptians by assimilating themselves into the traditional Egyptian religious hierarchies and categories, while not denying their Greek origin and heritage. A salient feature of the old pharaonic system had been inter-family marriage, and now this pair established a precedent for the Ptolemies to continue the custom. Following Arsinoe's death, the queen was deified in her own right; textual references show that her temples in the Faiyum were distinct from those of the Theoi Adelphoi. In dating formulas their successor Ptolemy III always refers to the Theoi Adelphoi as his parents, even though his mother was Arsinoe I. He advertised his respect and close association with Arsinoe II by images carved on the great portals of the temple at Karnak, where he is shown as pharaoh making an offering to her and Ptolemy II as the Theoi Adelphoi (Fig. 4). The promotion of the Theoi Adelphoi gained added impetus from a direct link with the cult of the deified Alexander the Great, who had conquered Egypt when it was under the Persians and had been declared the son of Amun-Ra by the oracle of Zeus Ammon at Siwah in 331 B.C.

In contrast, the cult of the Theoi Soteres or Savior Gods (titles given to the founders of the dynasty, Ptolemy I and Berenike I) had originally stood alone, and it was not until the reforms of Ptolemy IV that the cult of the founders of the dynasty was joined to the original cult of Alexander and the subsequent Ptolemaic rulers: a consolidation of ritual attentions that then linked the conquering hero, his general Ptolemy, and Ptolemy's family and successors. Even after these reforms, the native priesthood chose not to add the names of Alexander and the Theoi Soteres to the dating formulas. Thus, the Theoi Adelphoi became a convenient reference for assertions of dynastic authority going back to Alexander. Arsinoe II, positioned in the religious and political sphere as one of the Theoi Adelphoi and then deified in her own right following her death, stood as a powerful antecedent and became a model for later royal women. These names, titles, and the visual images in sculptured reliefs on temples and sculpture in the round helped establish the Ptolemies as rightful rulers in the age-old traditions of Egypt, where imagery had long held deep ritual significance and by itself (and its location) conveyed authority.

The Egyptian iconography adopted by the Ptolemaic queens drew on that of royal women from earlier dynastic periods, most especially from the eighteenth and nineteenth dynasties (sixteenth–thirteenth centuries B.C.), when powerful royal women such as Hatshepsut and Nefertiti were prominently featured as companions of their male consorts or were venerated in their own right, often depicted in specific cultic roles. Imagery and symbols associated with the goddess Hathor were especially favored for portraits, such as a headdress with double plumes, a sun disk and cow's horns, and these symbols promoted the Hathoric aspects of the queen. A vulture crown was used to indicate posthumous divinity in many representations of Ptolemaic queens that served as cult statues of them as gods. (It was worn originally in images of Nekhbet, the vulture goddess and protectress of Upper Egypt.) From the time of Cleopatra III, when the queen was deified in her own right during her lifetime, the Ptolemaic queens wore vulture headdresses even in contemporary images. Finally the uraeus was added: originally this was a symbol of solar kingship, but for royal women, a uraeus also signified the cobra goddess Wadjet, protectress of Lower Egypt, and more generally, status as Hathor, the daughter and eye of Ra, as Robins suggests.

Arsinoe II was the first to adopt a distinctive, more specific iconography, which then remained consistent for queens throughout the Ptolemaic period, a type illustrated by her posthumous representation. This new type would have aided recognition of the ruler and also distinction among rulers, especially when they shared temples with other deities (with a ritual title, "temple-sharing goddess"). The need for an established procedure for royal portraits is reflected in the texts of the Canopus and Rosetta decrees. Immediate visual recognition was especially important during the Ptolemaic period because few images were inscribed, and it is particularly useful for the identification of individuals on temple reliefs, where the cartouches often remained empty.

Fortunately, two inscribed Egyptian-style statues of Arsinoe II provide positive evidence for this new mode of representation: a statue showing Arsinoe as one of the Theoi Adelphoi during her lifetime, now in the Vatican Museum, and a posthumous representation of the queen (probably second century B.C.), now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The first statue shows the queen with a double uraeus and the other, with Greek attributes, shows the queen with a double cornucopia (a double horn of plenty). The double uraeus appears on images of royal women from the eighteenth dynasty: in them, one cobra wears the crown of Upper Egypt and the other the crown of Lower Egypt, thus together symbolizing their unification, a constant theme in Egyptian royal imagery. In the case of Arsinoe II, the double uraeus complements the double cornucopia, and they may have had a similar meaning. It should be noted, however, that the uraei of the Ptolemaic period do not wear the crowns; only once, in the case of the fragment of a sculpture from Koptos and now in the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, are three uraei decorated, but with cow's horns. Cleaning of the crown by the British Museum Department of Conservation has revealed that the cobras were completed in stucco and then gilded, traces of which survive around the uraei, thus making the cobras the focal point of the headdress. Details such as the cobras and their crowns formed part of a visual language in an era when literacy—especially in Egyptian languages—was limited to a few.


Cleopatra II, like her far more famous namesake Cleopatra VII, suffered difficult political and dynastic struggles after the death of her mother, Cleopatra I, in 176 B.C., and her response to her situation helps illustrate the vital authority and evident skill for dynastic survival exercised by Ptolemaic queens. She had two brothers and was married to the elder, Ptolemy VI, in 176 B.C., probably in an attempt to avert potential family feuds. Cleopatra II and Ptolemy VI took on the title Philometores, Mother-loving Gods, thus honoring Cleopatra I and establishing continuity with her. Six years later the younger brother, Ptolemy VIII, joined his siblings so that the three became joint rulers of Egypt. The union was short lived, since Ptolemy VI was removed from power after outside intervention from the Seleucid king Antiochos IV, and Ptolemy VIII and Cleopatra II were set up as joint rulers. According to Livy (45.11.6) it was Cleopatra II who brought about peace, and the three siblings attempted to rule together once more. But problems continued to vex the reign and indeed this entire period of Ptolemaic rule: not just the Seleucids but also Roman generals became involved in the internal struggles between the siblings and their factions, and between Alexandrians and the rest of Egypt. Each time, however, Cleopatra II is shown to be the constant member of any alliance, her seemingly unenviable role in fact allowing her more flexibility and power than either of her brothers. Following the death of Ptolemy VI, Cleopatra II ruled jointly with Ptolemy VIII. Conflicts continued and in 132/1 B.C. the queen organized a revolt against her brother and declared herself queen in Upper Egypt, taking the titles Queen Cleopatra, Philometor ("mother-loving") goddess, Soteira ("savior"), thus resurrecting the title that she had used with Ptolemy VI. Diodorus (34–5.14) and Justin (38.12–13) record her brother's response: he murdered their son, and sent the body to his sister. Such terrible dynastic strife threw the country into a state of civil war. Yet Cleopatra II continued to rule with Ptolemy VIII, even though he had her son Ptolemy VII executed, and despite his rape of and subsequent marriage to her daughter, Cleopatra III. This resulted in a second triple rule, equally fraught with troubles and power struggles.

Even from the grave it seemed that Ptolemy VIII was capable of wreaking havoc: Egypt was effectively left to Cleopatra III (Justin 39.3.1), although her mother was still alive and ruled with her daughter for the first year following their husband's death. This placed the younger queen in an apparently strong and yet still vulnerable position, since according to the will of Ptolemy VIII she was permitted to choose which of her sons would be her co-ruler. In reality, she was forced to alternate her allegiance between the two, and she depended initially on her mother's favorite and then on whomever was most popular with the Alexandrians. She was finally murdered for her trouble in 101 B.C. by Ptolemy X. The queen herself is generally depicted by historians in a sympathetic light, as a victim of her uncle Ptolemy VIII's lust in her early years, which resulted in the unhappy joint rule of her mother Cleopatra II, herself, and one of her sons (Justin 38.8).

Behind these later literary impressions, however, existed an Egyptian queen who clearly aimed to advance her power and status. Papyri indicate that Cleopatra III believed herself to be Isis and that she adopted the priestly roles, such as priest of the cult of Alexander the Great, typically held by the male ruler. She promoted her own cult as herself, in addition to herself as Isis, Cybele, and Aphrodite. The queen also claimed five out of the nine Alexandrian eponymous priesthoods for her own cults. Her visual images also reveal an ambitious response to her individual power: Cleopatra III can be found to take the dominant position on relief scenes, such as standing in front of Ptolemy IX, her son, in an offering scene at the Karnak temple. Interestingly, this particular queen adopted a more masculine image in both her Greek and Egyptian-style sculptural representations. The use of the religious apparatus of ruler-cults, hieratic nomenclature, and official sculpture in temples was an important expression of ruling authority for Cleopatra III and her mother Cleopatra II, and formed part of the royal heritage for Cleopatra VII.


In comparison with those predecessors, Cleopatra VII managed to escape her marital and family ties more easily: her alliance with Julius Caesar freed her from Ptolemy XIII, and Ptolemy XIV's young age put him at a disadvantage in the face of her strengthened position and her son Ptolemy XV (Caesarion). Like all her predecessors, Cleopatra VII was obliged to have a male consort, essential to the pharaonic system, which depended on male and female pairing, and when she is shown in images making an offering to the gods herself, her consort can be found in a parallel register doing the same.

The actual circumstances of her life were more complicated than this suggests, and the complications gave rise to artistic dilemmas and problems in official nomenclature. In the Hellenistic Greek tradition it seems to have been possible to present an extended family and the queen's lovers, but Egyptian priests and indeed even artists must have felt at the least confused and stymied, since some of her official relationships really had no traditional parallel in pharaonic imagery. Her male associates included her father Ptolemy XII, her brothers Ptolemy XIII and XIV, Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, and her son Ptolemy XV Caesarion. Paternal, maternal, and sibling relationships all had visual and titular precedents earlier in the Ptolemaic period, as illustrated by the titles Philopator, Philometor, and Philadelphos, but Julius Caesar and Marc Antony created a new problem for the Egyptian priesthood (and for the queen): how should her association with these two Romans in Egypt be represented, particularly since they were the fathers of royal children? This truly mattered, because of the deep symbolism attached to visual representation in Egyptian religion: the visual stood directly for the actual and had to be conveyed by a formulaic, conservative tradition then at least 3,000 years old.


The images of Cleopatra VII do not offer the same masculine interpretation as those of Cleopatra III, and unlike earlier queens such as Hatshepsut, she did not appear in the guise of a pharaoh. Her youthful, idealized image, found in both the Greek and Egyptian-style representations of Cleopatra VII, is very different from those of what might have seemed the most logical role models, Cleopatra II and III. Instead, Cleopatra VII associated herself with Arsinoe II, stylistically and iconographically in both reliefs and sculpture in the round.

Cleopatra's choice of the esteemed and successful Arsinoe II as a model may also have had ideological implications. Arsinoe's secure reign and close relationship with her brother and consort in no way resembled that of Cleopatra with Ptolemy XIII or XIV but it does accord with the presentation of the queen with her son Caesarion, Ptolemy XV. Yet Cleopatra's imagery did move in bold directions, since she was sometimes depicted by herself, such as her appearance alone in scenes on the temple at Armant that may designate her divine status as much as her role as ruler. In contrast, at the temple at Philae, Arsinoe II stands behind Isis receiving offerings from Ptolemy II as a goddess but never appears by herself as one of the Theoi Adelphoi making an offering.

A link with Arsinoe II may be seen again in that Cleopatra is also described in official nomenclature as "Daughter of Geb," a title used only by the two queens, since other Ptolemaic queens preferred to be associated with Ra. The association with Geb the creator god was probably chosen deliberately, and in the case of both queens, the title was used during their lifetimes. For Arsinoe II, this meant she held the title before she was deified in her own right, since the epithet appears on her statue now in the Vatican Museum.

Earlier in the dynasty, when deification of individual rulers was made posthumously, there was little confusion in this official imagery in the temples. But later rulers can be found making an offering to themselves in temple imagery, after the Ptolemies took on the role of priest or priestess for their own cults beginning in the second century B.C. (as had earlier rulers in the eighteenth and nineteenth dynasties). By the first century B.C. the age-old assimilation between ruler and god had expanded. Now the royal family was considered to be divine in its own right, as illustrated by the adoption of the title Thea ("goddess") by Cleopatra at the start of her reign and the title New Isis (Plutarch, Life of Antony 54).


Excerpted from Cleopatra by Margaret M. Miles. Copyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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