Thursday, April 16, 2009

Ancient history through a very modern lens *

Archaelogists believe they may have found the site that holds Cleopatra’s tomb. Among the treasures found at nearby digs are coins that bear Cleopatra’s image and a bust of her.

You’d think these coins would be treasured primarily as priceless ancient artifacts or mementoes of a beloved queen. But they are valuable for another reason. A couple of years ago,** scholars examined another coin bearing Cleopatra’s image and determined: “The popular image we have of Cleopatra… that of a beautiful queen,” was wrong. Apparently, the news that Cleopatra might not have looked like Elizabeth Taylor was shocking to some.

Thus, we have the problem of figuring out what to do about Cleopatra--when you tie most of a woman's achievements/activities to her "incomparable" beauty, how do you now, when she is (ridiculously) judged by current standards to be "ugly," tell her story? How does it change? To what do we attribute Caesar's and Antony's "weakness" (as affection or regard for a woman is so often called)? Surely, Cleopatra's intelligence or cleverness or personality could not have been enough?

These new coins rescue us, again, from those questions.
Zahi Hawass, Egypt's chief archaeologist, said the coins found at the temple refuted "what some scholars have said about Cleopatra being very ugly".

"The finds from Taposiris reflect a charm... and indicate that Cleopatra was in no way unattractive," he said.
So she is, indeed, worth our continued fascination.
*Though ancient cultures had their own beauty standards and such ephemeral things as beauty standards are subject to change.

**Though the debate about Cleopatra's beauty predates this.


Anonymous said...

A long time ago I got to visit the Cultural History Museum in Vienna, Austria. One of its treasures is a small collection of portraits of Egyptians, not in the style we all know, but face portraits on wooden boards, meant to capture the subject's ordinary likeness. Because of their age they are behind glass and heavy curtains to keep off even indirect sun. One portrait of a woman showed the light mustache on her upper lip, each hair lovingly brushed in. I got the feeling (no, I knew) that the artist found that little mustache charming. So, it was. That one detail gave me a powerful sense of connecting with another life across the millennia — probably just because it up-ended my received ideas of what should be emphasized and concealed in a woman's features. I don't think I'll ever forget that moment.

Kim said...

I guess I can't help commenting on bunches of your posts today. Probably because I'm supposed to be finishing my diss today. I've always taught my students that Cleopatra's beauty was in her intelligence, which is how she is presented in the sources. The medieval woman Heloise is always seen as beautiful in modern accounts, but in the medieval account she "shines brighter than all others in letters" and isn't unattractive. We are talked into skin beauty when mind beauty has always mattered to some.

Revelations and ruminations from one southern sistorian...