While I get caught up on my reading for Cleopatra, I’m going to interject a couple of non-chronological posts. First up: glamour.
I know I keep beating this over the head, but it can’t be overstated: the major sources that we have for Cleopatra are all Roman. She was on the losing side of the Antony-Octavian civil war. History is written by the winners, and she lost.
But she is a queen. And her intelligence and glamour comes across in the ancient sources. Plutarch, for example, describes her meeting with Antony:
…she sailed up the river Cydnus on a gold-prowed barge, with sails of purple outspread and rowers pulling on silver oars to the sound of a reed-pipe blended with wind-pipes and lyres. She herself reclined beneath a gold-embroidered canopy, adorned like a painting of Aphrodite…
So what does it mean to be glamorous? Virginia Postrel, in her wonderful book, The Power of Glamour, explains that glamour has three main qualities: mystery, a promise of escape or transformation, and grace.
First, the mystery. We don’t know Cleopatra very well. There are only a handful of ancient sources about her. So we take what we know: she was well-educated and an able governor. Julius Caesar was at least in lust with her, and Antony was definitely in love. But beyond that, we don’t know much. So our minds tend to fill in the details. We don’t fill in details we don’t like or inconvenient truths. We fill in the details with even more luxury or decadence or hard work or intelligence… whatever we want to see.
Which leads us naturally into the promise of escape or transformation. It’s easy to daydream about how awesome being Cleopatra would be. To live in a cosmopolitan place like Alexandria, with the best tutors at your fingertips, with amazing food and luxuries around you all the time. Wouldn’t it be great to live like that? You can pick and choose the details you want. In the early 1900s, the decadence was emphasized. In Stacy Schiff’s book, the intelligence and hard work is. How we see Cleopatra is very much how we see ourselves.
And then the grace. She isn’t always described as beautiful (on her coins she has quite a large nose), but she is universally described as an intelligent, witty conversationalist. She was well-educated, spoke nine languages, could raise armies and managed her country ably. Not to mention that all her official propaganda packaged her as Isis – a goddess. She knew how to present herself with elegance and style.
Cleopatra is definitely glamorous, and exploring that glamour is one of the things I enjoy about her.