Last week, archaeologists from Egypt and the Dominican Republic began a radar survey of three tombs from the temple of Taposiris Magna, with the hope of unearthing the resting place of the losers of the Battle of Actium, the queen and her Roman lover, Marcus Antonius.
Although there may be two titans of history to be unearthed from those ruins, press reports on the excavations have focused almost exclusively on the subject of Cleopatra. Stacy Schiff, in an otherwise thoughtful and academically astute essay on the subject in Wednesday’s New York Times, dismissed Antony as “a bit player in someone else’s story.” Another report, in the South Africa-based Daily Dispatch, described Antony — conquering general, two-time consul and triumvir — in its lede as a “Roman tribune,” which though true is the rough equivalent of saying that President Obama is known for his work as a Harvard Law Review editor.
This is hardly surprising. On a very obvious (and literal) level, Cleopatra is simply sexier. The brilliant Cleopatra was first the lover of Gaius Julius Caesar and then Antony when both were the most powerful and important figures in the world, and possessed a high degree of political acumen and fluency in nine languages. Her trials in attempting to balance femininity and influence represent a timeless, eminently relatable conundrum.
Furthermore, there’s a significantly higher degree of triviality and contentiousness that has attached itself to Cleopatra’s reputation. Generations have long argued about whether or not she was ugly (after all these years, the most likely estimation seems to be Plutarch’s view that she was neither stunningly beautiful nor shrewdish, but posessed many natural charms). More recently, certain academics have tried to raise the question of how “African” she was, though chances are she was almost wholly Macedonian (if she was of mixed race, the other heritage was likely western Asian, not African).
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