Antony, Cleo, and What They tell Us Now

  • 2020-21
Antony, Cleo, and What They tell Us Now

I knew that Julius Caesar was the lover of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra and that they had a son together, Caesarion. Julius Caesar was 51 and Cleopatra just 21 when the affair took place. Perhaps there exists the equivalent of #Metoo in hieroglyphics.

What I didn’t know was that Cleopatra was actually in Rome on the very day that Caesar was assassinated, 15 March 44 BCE.

I knew that Marc Antony was also the lover of Cleopatra and that they had twins together. I didn’t know that they formed their own drinking society known as the ‘Inimitable Livers.’

Plutarch provides the famous historical account. Shakespeare then mythologised the love story. T.S. Eliot repurposed the description of Cleopatra’s beauty in Part 3 of The Waste Land. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor embodied their celebrity counterparts in Hollywood, while Carry on Cleo, a slapstick British comedy, made fun of the whole thing.

What I didn’t know until recently, though, was that when Marc Antony had Cicero killed (beheaded as he was escaping from his villa on a litter), Antony’s first wife Fulvia - incensed by Cicero’s personal and political criticism of her and her husband – pulled out Cicero’s lifeless tongue and stabbed it repeatedly with a hairpin. Ouch!

Cicero’s punctured head and hands were subsequently put on public display in the Roman Forum as a warning to anyone else who dared question the integrity of Antony and his wife. 

Aside from the torrid love affairs and violence that make these stories seem part of a compelling telenovela, what do we learn from this fascinating example of celebrity sex and murder? Several things, I think.

Firstly, it has become a commonplace to see the story of Marc Antony and Cleopatra (later manipulated by his rival Octavius, Augustus Caesar) as a parable of Western reason and civilisation being corrupted by Oriental splendour and decadence.

This becomes clear in most productions of Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra. The sobriety and martial character of Rome is usually contrasted with the languor, voluptuousness and luxury of ancient Egypt.

More recently, this phenomenon of exoticising the East has been theorised by the Palestinian cultural critic, Edward Said, as ‘Orientalism’. The practice involves the romanticisation of the East as a place of adventure and primitive mystery. Orientalism also embodies a Western colonial contempt for the East as an inferior culture.

According to Edward Said, this perspective has damaged relations between East and West, mystifying perceptions, developing a stereotypical view of Eastern ‘otherness’, and even justifying military and cultural imperialism over the years.

Films such as Fu Manchu, the idea of the ‘Yellow Peril’, and the prejudicial view of Muslims as predisposed to terrorism, all stem from this Orientalist idea. The story of Antony and Cleopatra is fundamental to this notion, cleverly exploited and developed by early Roman propaganda that characterized Egypt, and Cleopatra in particular, as alien and foreign.

The story also establishes another binary – that of masculine rationalism warped and distorted by female wiles and sexuality. Cleopatra becomes a stereotypical seductress, a kind of proto-femme fatale

The story of Antony’s first wife, Fulvia, and her assault on Cicero’s tongue also reveals the power of language. Cicero mercilessly lampooned the power couple in the Roman Senate, leading to what we call these days, serious ‘reputational damage’ for Antony.

The texts of Cicero’s speeches in which he publicly satirised Antony and Fulvia still exist.  The thirteen attacks – known as Philippics – were delivered in just two years. Cicero complained of Antony’s excess, his corruption, and gross abuse of power. It prepared the way for later attacks on his relationship with Cleo.

The account of Cleopatra’s arrival to see Marc Antony by Plutarch represents Cleopatra as a beautiful sensuous woman, fanned by servants, and borne upon a perfumed barge. It rhymes with her first mythical encounter with Caesar, when she was allegedly unrolled like a magical gift from a rich red carpet. 

To seduce Julius Caesar was one thing, but to conquer Marc Antony as well? The morality of Rome was clearly made to totter by this Eastern temptress. At least this is Plutarch’s narrative purpose. He successfully created a tension or dialectic between East and West, as well as male and female.

While making a film in China in 1972, the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni wanted to send a telegram home. The clerk in the post office at Nanking had never heard of Italy. Antonioni spelled the word out for her. She consulted her manager. They finally located the little peninsula called Italy on a world map, but the employees burst into laughter at how small it was.  

Perhaps in the twenty-first century, East and West may change places. Europe and the United States could become centres for yoga, meditation, a quiescent and secular Buddhism (already evident in the cult of well-being and mindfulness), while the East – China, Japan, the UAE – could well become the driving motors of industry and technological change. 

Trying to unpick the history from the myth, to tease out the legend from the individual, to trace the development of an idea from its origins and understand the politics of it are all skills we try and teach, and that students need to learn in order to navigate the contemporary distortions of social media and fake news.

The story of Antony and Cleopatra also serves to illustrate that, in the words of Sarah Bakewell, ‘Ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so.’

Chris Greenhalgh
Principal & CEO

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