Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Ides of March

The Ides of March: Cleopatra VII’s Egypt at the Dawn of the Roman Imperial Era

On March 15th, 44 B.C.E. Julius Caesar was assassinated. The Ides of March has long been associated with the beginning of the juggernaut known as the Roman Empire, an empire that would span the Mediterranean and lay the foundations for much of our modern Western society. Yet this history-changing event would also lead to the downfall of Pharaonic Egypt and be seminal in the life of Cleopatra VII (image at left), the last Egyptian Pharaoh and one of the most famous personalities from the ancient world.

Descended from Ptolemy I Soter (Ptolemy “the savior”) who arrived with Alexander the Great’s army about 300 years prior, Cleopatra VII came from a Macedonian Greek lineage that would rule Egypt as monarchs who were sometimes out of touch with their people. Even though great building projects were undertaken during their time consistent with traditional Egyptian themes, the Ptolemies outwardly appeared more focused on their heritage across the Mediterranean. Their statuary was kept consistent with the idealistic yet still fluid representations of Greek Kings and Queens, while their living quarters, palaces, dining tendencies, writing and overall day to day life resembled that of their home country, until Cleopatra VII took the throne.

She was the only one of her dynasty recognized as having learned the ancient Egyptian language, Cleopatra often identified herself with the goddesses Isis and Hathor (Two very similar goddesses representing magic and love/beauty respectively), and held parades and rituals in traditional Egyptian style. Her statues were also portrayed in the age-old Pharaonic manner with the left foot forward, a straight and rigid body posture, the goddess Wadjet adorning her brow, and a stoic countenance.

During the rise of Rome’s military might, Cleopatra formed a political and personal union with the most celebrated and revered general of that country, Julius Caesar. Their alliance kept Cleopatra on the throne and Egypt free of Rome’s ever-expanding armies. The Egyptians were able to go about their lives as they had for millennia past. Unfortunately, Roman sympathies were not with Caesar and his new ally. Egypt, to the egalitarian Republic of Rome, was a land of absolute monarchy where the Pharaoh was a god incarnate and had unqualified say over the populace’s governance, morals and values. Caesar’s dalliance with Cleopatra caused the Romans to fear he would make himself King to her Queen, ruling by her side not only in Egypt but perhaps in Rome as well. These fears culminated on March 15th, 44 B.C.E., where Julius Caesar was mobbed and stabbed by a gang of Senators in Rome, leaving Cleopatra without her Roman connection.

Living in Rome at the time, Cleopatra fled back to Egypt with the angry sentiments of the Roman populace focused upon her. For the next few years she was able to hold Egypt’s sovereign position by forming an alliance with Marc Antony, another powerful Roman general. Ultimately though, Egypt and Cleopatra’s hopes for continued autonomy had died with Caesar. The Romans, fearing that another of their leaders had a taste for ultimate power, backed Caesar's nephew Octavian (later to become the first Roman Emperor, Augustus) in war against the partnership of Marc Antony and Cleopatra. Octavian invaded Egypt, and further expanded Rome into a true Empire.

He was successful, and with the death of both Marc Antony and Cleopatra, Egypt would become a province of Rome, and a new chapter in the history of Egypt was to begin. The Ides of March marked the beginning of the end for a governmental system that had persisted for close to 3,300 years. During the ensuing 600 years of Roman rule, Egyptian, Hellenistic and Roman culture would blend into a new, and ultimately Christian society, the Coptic culture.

In the Museum’s Kingship gallery stands a statue of Cleopatra VII, only one of seven that survive to this day. Please be sure to visit this magnificent testimony of this moment in history and enjoy an audio presentation of her story upon your next visit.

(above) Roman-Egyptian Mask (30 BCE - 4th century CE) Romans, like Egyptians, practiced a form of ancestor worship. This mask of a woman was probably venerated by her family. While it is of the Roman style, it does possess Egyptian traits. The top of the head is surmounted by a scarab beetle and solar disk for protection. The woman was probably of a prominent Romano-Egyptian family.

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