The Sexualization of Cleopatra: patriarchal roots

Roman literature depicts Cleopatra’s ability to seduce men and her control over them. From a gendered viewpoint, we can see how the authors of the Roman literature about Cleopatra’s wooing and scheming of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony defined manliness and acceptable manifestations of male and female sexuality. According to my perspective, the literary depictions of the queen disclose to us not only how Romans saw women but also how they saw males. The fact that these materials were written by Greco-Roman upper-class males, whose ideals reflected prevailing patriarchal structures and male control, I think, sets up the scene for a pretty biased and emotionally driven interpretation. The majority of the audience and readers were male members of society, who frequently included members of the aristocracy. Unfortunately, there are no works about Cleopatra written by Greek or Roman women who would have provided different depictions of the monarch and her connection with these Roman males.

From a modern viewpoint, ancient Rome was a very patriarchal culture that accepted and even codified the concept of men’s superiority over women. We can contend that hegemonic masculinity in ancient Rome encompassed the crucial concepts of power and domination if we approach the premodern world using the “hegemonic masculinity”

As is frequently mentioned, under the ideals of the Roman male-centered society, both strong men and effeminate men were in charge of women. There was a risk that a man may lose his manliness and be seen as effeminate if he allowed a woman to command him or otherwise dominate him. The need to be active and not passive in sexual interactions represented the ideal of dominance: Females, prostitutes, and slaves were viewed as passive players to be penetrated, while “true” men were supposed to be the dominating sexual penetrators. In particular, among the elites, maintaining the public perception that men participated actively in sexual interactions was vital.  (Levin-Richards and Kamen, 2015)

On the other side, a lifestyle centered on pleasures like luxury and sensuality was seen to render men effeminate and was used as evidence to show that a man had lost dominion or control over his body and his impulses, in accordance with the ideal of hegemonic masculinity. Men allegedly strove to portray themselves as “real men” who could control their sexual and physiological urges and thereby dominate over others.

Cleopatra VII has been the subject of many works of art, including paintings, sculptures, and movies. She has been portrayed as a seductive and powerful woman. Cleopatra VII has been sexualized, and her accomplishments have been minimized. The purpose of this blog is to examine the sexualization of Cleopatra VII and to discuss the impact it has had on her historical significance.

Cleopatra VII Philopator, the “Ptolemaic” Egyptian queen, is frequently represented as being excessively hypersexual in popular culture. There’s a strong possibility that if you’ve learned your history online, you’ve heard a lot of wild tales about how she allegedly plunged herself into absurd sexual situations. In actuality, only two men—Julius Caesar and Marcus Antonius—are known to have had intercourse with Cleopatra with absolute certainty over the course of her lifetime. The widespread perception of Cleopatra as a ravenous nymphomaniac has its origins in a ruthless Roman propaganda attempt to reduce her (modern authors, filmmakers, video game developers, and internet factoids still continue this trope).  

Notably, the 2017 video game Assassin’s Creed Origins features a sequence in which Cleopatra says she will have sex with anyone as long as they consent to be killed the next morning.

The depiction of Cleopatra in Ptolemaic Egypt represented nea Isis, a supreme and heavenly mother figure. The moralizing and pessimistic overtones that dominated her reception in Roman literature did not characterize her regal image in Egypt. Cicero regularly refers to her as “queen” in his works (regina). A few decades later, the geographer Strabo refers to Cleopatra as the “Egyptian woman.” In Horace’s Epodes, Cleopatra is referred to as the “woman,” whilst Ovid refers to her as “the Egyptian mistress” (coniunx Aegyptia) in his Metamorphoses (femina). (Heering 2016) Horace also referred to her as a “frenzied queen” and an “accursed monster” (fatale monstrum) elsewhere in his Odes (regina dementes). Cleopatra is referred to as Antony’s “shameless Egyptian spouse” (nefas Aegyptia coniunx) and “queen” by Virgil in his Aeneid (regina). Propertius and Pliny, the Elder refer to her twice as Regina Meretrix. (Jones 2006) Based on this nomenclature, it is evident that Cleopatra’s gender and race were important ways to describe her in the Roman mind. The fact that Cleopatra is a woman, a foreign woman, and a ruler over esteemed Roman males is crucial. With only these three characteristics, she becomes more than just a representation of otherness; she also represents a feminine force that challenges or threatens the conventional ideas of Roman masculinity and male domination. Because of Antony and Cleopatra’s strong association, Alexandria gained significance over Rome as a city, and the threat posed by Cleopatra as a non-Roman directly undermined the (male) power of the Roman senate.

In literature of all times, the archetype of a seductive and cunning lady is unquestionably there. These characteristics are likely most prominent when it comes to how Cleopatra was received in Roman culture. This Egyptian queen challenged the Roman male values, according to which a manly man must continuously maintain his dominance over other men and particularly women, by knowing how to bring them to their knees. Some Roman historians give Cleopatra particular praise for her beauty and suggest that her attractiveness helped her earn the affection of esteemed Roman men. To me, it seems as though she cannot be intelligent and calculated without being temptingly beautiful. It’s as though it would be unimaginable if she didn’t have something up her sleeve (her sexuality) to help her get what she wanted. 

Women were mostly kept out of positions of authority in Rome. Emperors and senators were invariably men, reflecting the notion that only men should hold positions of power in society. Additionally, kings (reges) and kingship (regnum) were viewed with suspicion in Republican Rome (even in the late Republic). When compared to the cultured Romans who had a patriarchal system, barbarian peoples who were ruled by queens (reginae) highlighted their inferiority. When there was no man of legal age in the position of authority, Egypt was significantly different from Rome in that women could reign, even if it was just as a sort of regent. Therefore, the concept of women having access to authority meant extreme otherness and an existential danger to normative gender roles for the Roman upper classes. (“Women of Ancient Egypt [Ushistory.org]” 2019) Cleopatra is a symbol of the hunger for power of a queen who ventured to confront Rome but was overthrown by Octavian in the Augustan poetry of, Horace, Virgil, and Propertius. She is portrayed as a menacing female character from an epic who strove in vain to leverage her relationship with Antony to overthrow Rome. As opposed to Roman historiography, which frequently explains what was behind the queen’s magnetism and how she persuaded Caesar and Antony, Augustan poetry’s lyrics on Cleopatra are very brief.

The image of Cleopatra is one of a woman who was conscious of both her intellectual and sexual allure, as well as the fact that men found it difficult to resist her charms. Gender and race are inextricably linked to the pervasive over-sexualization and even fetishization of Cleopatra in the west. During a time when women were expected to be quiet, modest, and subservient, Cleopatra was a formidable political figure. She may be made to fit within a patriarchal framework by being transformed from the strong and dangerous woman she actually was into a simple object of male desire. This does not imply that we should discount Cleopatra’s sexuality; according to the ancient texts, she was not asexual and did experience sexual arousal and desire. However, we should be careful not to overstate her sexuality either; otherwise, we run the risk of succumbing to the Orientalist, sexist narrative that I have described here.

The myths surrounding Caesar’s and Antony’s love for Cleopatra, as well as the idea of Octavian as a man impervious to the queen’s persuasive abilities, established the boundaries of manhood. They show how males are afraid of women’s dominance and control over them. The worst-case scenario, in the eyes of Roman men, was the dishonor of being subject to a woman’s control. Roman men may have relationships with women, including those from other countries, as well as inferior (non-citizen) men, but these relationships should be brief and should never put the Fatherland in danger. Strong feelings for any woman are therefore forbidden, despite the fact that they may be extraordinarily attractive and intelligent.

Heering, Shlomit. 2016. “Cleopatra and Berenice: The Perception and Presentation of Two Queens.” Penn Arts & Sciences, November, 1–40. https://repository.upenn.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=&httpsredir=1&article=1000&context=classics_seniorpapers.

Jones, Prudence J. 2006. Cleopatra : A Sourcebook. Norman: University Of Oklahoma Press, Cop.

Masterson, Mark, Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz, and James Robson. 2015. Sex in Antiquity : Exploring Gender and Sexuality in the Ancient World. London ; New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

“Women of Ancient Egypt [Ushistory.org].” 2019. Ushistory.org. 2019. https://www.ushistory.org/civ/3f.asp.

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