Fred A. Reed
Who’s your favourite on-screen classical-era seductress? Claudette Colbert, Elizabeth Taylor or Adele James? And to further refine the search ask: who has the biggest hair, the most expansive teasing and, collaterally, the most modest acting skills.
Already claims are being made, factions are forming, angry crowds are lining up on opposing sides, historians are rushed into the breech, experts are assuring, ideologies are shifting and historical accuracy—well, what used to pass for historical accuracy (note that I did not write ‘truth’)—is shunted aside.
Or, to rephrase the entire question: was Cleopatra, last ruler of Ptolemaic Egypt, descendent of the Hellenistic dynasty that succeeded Alexander the Great and ruled from the city he founded, Alexandria, some tint or shade of black? Or was she the pure blooded descendent of her Macedonian forbears who would have been pale skinned?
The recently televised Netflix “documentary” series Queen Cleopatra pays scant eye service to these vital questions while pandering—if that’s the appropriate word—to those who feel that there can never be too much diversity, and are itching to add another letter or two to the ever-expanding LBCTQ+ acronym.
Don’t count on me to scratch that itch.
Even before the unfortunate four-part series aired, it came under attack from Egyptian archaeologists who had seen a preview. "Statues of Queen Cleopatra,” they contended, “confirm that she had Hellenistic (Greek) features, distinguished by light skin, a drawn-out nose and thin lips." There were calls to ban the series in that country, with accusations that it “promoted Afrocentric thinking.”
This accusation has some validity. In 1987 Martin Bernal, who was definitely not of African origin, published Black Athena, which affirmed that ancient Greek civilization had Egyptian, thus African, ethno-linguistic antecedents. The Athenian archaeological establishment and its influential colleagues in museums and classics departments howled with outrage. Bernal stood his ground but his hypothesis was less successful and entered into an eclipse that may be ending. Or not.
Clearly not. Netflix parades before us a series of precious, preening prima donna talking heads/PhD candidates, one of whom asserts that there is no evidence to indicate the Ptolemaic queen’s skin colour. And yet, from that short step in one long jump, Cleopatra in the less-than-regal person of Ms. James, is displayed as African, although not exactly the Nubian variety who carry Claudette Colbert’s palanquin through the streets of Rome in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1934 epic.
(Let me remind readers with short memories that Colbert’s bath in a tub-full of mare’s milk, in which her breasts—gasp!—are clearly visible, inspired the Legion of Decency to clamp down on the lasciviousness then rampant in Hollywood. No ladies’ intimate parts were to be henceforth shown, and couples would be depicted only in twin beds and clad in pyjamas.)
But in our enlightened era such notions appear quaint indeed. The Netflix series does display nude bodies: those of Cleopatra’s two mighty and ill-fated, muscular British-English speaking Roman rulers and lovers, Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, while Adele James coyly respects Legion of Decency guidelines, showing no breast and only glimpses of thigh.
But there’s worse. In the Netflix version Cleopatra dies by self-administered poison, eschewing the more lurid tale of the viper concealed in a basket of figs. She is discovered dead, sound asleep alongside her two faithful ladies in waiting.
By refusing to kill the queen by snake, the series only draws further attention to it. By way of reverse—or perverse—symbolism, Cleo in the Netflix version, should herself be seen as the fatal asp. For concealed in her bosom, one less bountiful that those of Colbert and Taylor, she harbours the symbolic reptile that brought down two of the empire’s most powerful men.
In his version of the tale Shakespeare did his homework, relying primarily on Plutarch, the principal source of Cleopatrean info-legend. He was not insensitive to the racial issue; the queen is described as “tawny” and as a “gypsy.” But he was fascinated above all by Cleopatra’s hypnotic powers, and by the spell she cast over the two mighty generals. There, after all, is where the story lies.
Nothing in the character played by Adele James betrays even a hint of such powers. Yes, she has immense hair done in an ‘Afro’ coiffure, extravagant teasing and luridly painted eyelids, in the pseudo-Egyptian fashion. Everything else about this extraordinary queen is flat, dull and prosaic. Where she should be at the center of an epoch-spanning historical fresco, she seems instead to be an extra, some over-paid walk-on friend of the producer in an anti-historical fiasco.
But then, everything about Queen Cleopatra suffers from manifest budget, not to mention imagination deficit woes. Where Claudette Colbert and Elizabeth Taylor enter Rome to the adulation of the masses, having employed extravagant stratagems to ensnare their intended victims/sex objects/boy toys, today’s version manages to muster a couple of dozen random guys dressed as Roman legionaries and/or oarsmen who propelled the galleys at Actium.
Of that sea battle that engaged hundreds of ships, and of the land battle, where thousands fought and died, we hear only whispered rumours. Cleopatra was there, but realizing that she was defeated, sailed southeast toward Alexandria. The besotted Marc Antony, his heavy triremes rammed by the more agile Roman imperial fleet, followed her to certain doom.
Here, where history jostles with legend, fact with semi-fiction, our best guides are those with an eye for the dramatic. From this perspective there is no finer authority than the 18th century master G.-F. Handel, the transplanted Saxon who composed the coronation anthem Zadok the Priest that accompanied King Chuck, scion of Saxe Cobourg-Gotha down the aisle at Westminster Abbey.
Handel had early on mastered the tones of pomp and ceremony, of truculence, of sensuality and danger that describe and express Cleopatra far better than any film or television series. His masterwork Giulio Cesare in Egitto (Julius Caesar in Egypt) sets the Roman general in place of Marc Antony. Caesar is indeed seduced by Cleopatra in her bath, to music of such melting beauty as to cause the onlooker to pay no heed to the object of his fascination but to listen instead, ravished.
So emblematic have Cleopatra’s bathing habits become that several municipalities on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey claim recognition of this forested cove or that isolated strand of shore. Having visited one of these places, in Alanya, I would happily agree, had I been Marc Antony, to wait for a glimpse of the Queen and to promptly fall in love with her.
Back, however, to the realities of show business. (I take the series’ “documentary” aspect as baloney.)
Where Handel excels, and where Queen Cleopatra fails, is his grasp of the mighty and the ceremonial, in the entrances that display the ruler and his and her retinue to the Roman populace and to our furtive eyes: a fact that DeMille and Joseph Mankiewicz grasped instinctively and presented grandiosely.
Queen Cleopatra’s conceit lies in its attempt to depict the Ptolemaic monarch as shrewd political practitioner dedicated to preserving the ancient kingdom to pass on to those of her offspring she does not kill. One of them, her daughter Cleopatra Selene, married the Roman dignitary Juba who was appointed regent of Mauretania, today’s Morocco. These dry and hard lands the couple transformed, by all accounts, into a flowering and fruitful land; and left nothing except for a few surviving ruins. Not unlike Actium, which I visited in the ‘80s, and where the Roman battlements lay crumbling and deserted, populated only by sheep.
Cleo’s brief rule marked the last flowering of the Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt. After her and Marc Antony’s deaths, the state passed into Roman hands. Alexandria, which her royal lineage had entrusted to her, managed to preserve its character as a meeting and blending place of ancient cultures, the Egyptian and the Hellenic and as a city unlike any other.
This was the city that the C. P. Cavafy so poignantly evokes in his poem The God Abandons Antony, Anthony here being Cleopatra’s doomed lover, and Bacchus, the God to whom he, as a good Roman, owes obeisance.
When suddenly, at midnight, you hear an invisible procession going by with exquisite music, voices, don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now, work gone wrong, your plans all proving deceptive—don’t mourn them uselessly. As one long prepared, and graced with courage, say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving. Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say it was a dream, your ears deceived you: don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these. As one long prepared, and graced with courage, as is right for you who proved worthy of this kind of city, go firmly to the window and listen with deep emotion, but not with the whining, the pleas of a coward; listen—your final delectation—to the voices, to the exquisite music of that strange procession, and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.
(Translated by Edmund Keely and Phillip Sherrard)