August 29: That Was No Lady


Yesterday I gave myself over to sexual politics, and today there would be plenty more meat, and spicy meat too, in the form of Plutarch's tale of Antony and Cleopatra, but instead of trying to tease out a Meaning I give myself over to the general awesomeness of the Cleopatra story. Just like a man, I suppose. Still:

...she came sailing up the river Cydnus, in a barge with gilded stern and outspread sails of purple, while oars of silver beat time to the music of flutes and fifes and harps. She herself lay all along, under a canopy of cloth of gold, dressed as Venus in a picture, and beautiful young boys, like painted Cupids, stood on each side to fan her. Her maids were dressed like Sea Nymphs and Graces, some steering at the rudder, some working at the ropes. The perfumes diffused themselves from the vessel to the shore, which was covered with multitudes, part following the galley up the river on either bank, part running out of the city to see the sight.
And Plutarch doesn't even tell my favorite Cleopatra story: how she came to Caesar rolled up in a carpet -- when the servants unrolled it, out she tumbled. She slept with him, too. When you're a small kingdom confronting an empire, you have to use every weapon at your disposal, I guess. Or maybe she just had a thing for Italians. What seems more likely is that she had a thing for rich guys. Plutarch, in a digression which is one of the reasons I enjoy him so, tells this story:
They had a sort of company, to which they gave a particular name, calling it that of the Inimitable Livers. The members entertained one another daily in turn, with an extravagance of expenditure beyond measure or belief. Philotas, a physician of Amphissa... used to tell my grandfather Lamprias, that, having some acquaintance with one of the royal cooks, he was invited by him, being a young man, to come and see the sumptuous preparations for supper.... [S]eeing eight wild boars roasting whole, says he, “Surely you have a great number of guests.” The cook laughed at his simplicity, and told him there were not above twelve to sup, but that every dish was to be served up just roasted to a turn, and if any thing was but one minute ill-timed, it was spoiled; “And,” said he, “maybe Antony will sup just now, maybe not this hour, maybe he will call for wine, or begin to talk, and will put it off. So that,” he continued, “it is not one, but many suppers must be had in readiness, as it is impossible to guess at his hour.
Egypt in 41 B.C., or the 2004 Bear Stearns Christmas party? You make the call! And I may learn to play guitar just so I can have a band called "Inimitable Livers."

Compared to Cleopatra's spring-break-with-money attitude, the Roman women in this passage all seem like Margaret Dumont.

Octavia, Octavian's sister, who is given to Antony, in particular seems like a woman of considerable talent -- she manages to keep civil war from breaking out not once but twice (She "further obtained of her husband, besides this, twenty light ships for her brother, and of her brother, a thousand foot for her husband.") But it's no good, according to Plutarch -- Antony can't quit Cleo, and Actium looms.

The whole thing is a good argument for a government of laws and not of men, for if you invest too much in people's personal qualities you are bound to wind up with someone like Antony eventually; he's a great character for us to consume, but then we're not the ones who have to go fight the civil war.

1 comments:

Lisa Simeone said...

Did you see the HBO series ROME? I thought there were lots of problems with it, not the least being it was often too Hollywood (yes, I know it was a British production), but it was entertaining. And I thought they got the Antony/Cleopatra thing just right. She was quite gorgeous, in an unexpected way, and the actor who played him was . . . oh, well, this is a family blog.