We wish you all a very happy International Lego Classicists Day! As official partners this year, we have been getting very excited and we have two big treats for you – Lego Cleopatra (this post) is by me, and the stop-motion Lego history of the alphabet is by Philip.
It’s hard to avoid that very striking popular cultural image of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, with almond eyes and sleek black hair, made most famous perhaps by Elizabeth Taylor in a 1963 Hollywood epic (or Amanda Barrie in Carry On Cleo if you prefer!) – and immortalised in series 5 of Lego’s collectable sets of minifigures. A lot has been said about what she might really have looked like, but are looks everything? For instance, did you know that it is quite widely believed that we have a signature on a piece of papyrus that could be in Cleopatra’s very own hand?
Let’s start with the basics and consider what we mean when we say that Cleopatra was an Egyptian queen. She came to the Egyptian throne in 51 BC, and reigned until her defeat and death in 30 BC, aged 39. This is all rather late in the timeline of ancient Egyptian history, actually. If what you are picturing is pyramids, huge temples, hieroglyphs everywhere and possibly the odd cursed mummy running around, then you may need to rethink your view of Egypt in Cleopatra’s time. For sure, the huge monuments were still there, but by this time they were already hundreds and thousands of years old and Egypt itself had become part of the Macedonian empire and subsequent Ptolemaic administration (the first Ptolemy of this dynasty was Alexander the Great’s general and ended up with a lot of his empire after his death) – basically it was now closely interconnected with other areas of the Mediterranean where Greek was the language of administration. And Cleopatra’s entanglements with Rome were soon to lead to Egypt’s change of status to a Roman province just after her death.
What does all this mean? Well firstly, Cleopatra was essentially Greek, and certainly Greek would have been her first language. But she also seems to have been particularly interested in laying claim to a longer Egyptian cultural heritage to fortify her power base, and we find powerful images of her in full Egyptian garb as for example in the monumental decoration of a temple at Dendera. In one dedication to Cleopatra, we even see her depicted as a traditional Egyptian male pharaoh, in a representation that has a lot more to do with her position of authority than her gender or personal image.
The Greek historian Plutarch, who wrote about the life of Cleopatra’s lover Marc Antony, tells us that Cleopatra had an unusual interest in languages. He says (Antony 27, translation from here): “… her tongue, like an instrument of many strings, she could readily turn to whatever language she pleased, so that in her interviews with Barbarians she very seldom had need of an interpreter, but made her replies to most of them herself and unassisted, whether they were Ethiopians, Troglodytes, Hebrews, Arabians, Syrians, Medes or Parthians. Nay, it is said that she knew the speech of many other peoples also, although the kings of Egypt before her had not even made an effort to learn the native language…” This quite strongly implies that, unlike her ancestors, Cleopatra had bothered to learn some Egyptian for herself. This may well have proved useful for a queen negotiating a very difficult balance between internal and external affairs, who was using her position as a traditional Egyptian pharaoh as a barganing chip in her dealings with the Roman world whereby she first gained the favour of Julius Caesar and, following Caesar’s death, of his now powerful general Marc Antony.
So far Cleopatra is coming across as a very clever woman, someone who was negotiating dangerous political territory using all the means at her disposal. Even her interest in languages is portrayed as a political tool by Plutarch, who mentions it in the context of her “interviews with Barbarians”, signalling leaders or emissaries of other groups whose language was not Greek (originally, barbarian specifically means non-Greek-speaking, and may be derived from an imitation of strange-sounding foreign people whose speech sounds like “bar bar bar”).
While Greek was Cleopatra’s first language and the language of Egyptian administration in this period, we know that the old Egyptian language continued to be used. This was not just a matter of whether you could engage with already-ancient hieroglyphic inscriptions of earlier Egyptian rulers, but also one of connecting with the contemporary Egyptian populace. Hieroglyphs, the most famous writing system used for the Egyptian language, were still used, especially for monumental purposes. But for everyday writing in Egyptian, the Demotic script was now used, a cursive development from the system known as Hieratic (which itself is closely related to the famous hieroglyphs). A stone inscription mentioning Cleopatra’s son, Caesarion, in fact combines the use of hieroglyphs next to traditional Egyptian deity figures with a long text in Demotic.
I mentioned at the beginning of this post that we just might have Cleopatra’s own signature. Now this is all a bit controversial (for more thoughts see this nice post by Jenny Cromwell), because the evidence is entirely circumstancial. It appears in a Greek papyrus document, discovered re-used as a mummy wrapping, which deals with tax exemptions for an individual apparently made in Cleopatra’s name. The handwriting in which the main document is written is presumably that of a scribe whose job would have been to write up contracts of this type, but at the end an extra word has been added in someone else’s handwriting: γινέσθωι, which means something like “make it happen”.
The assertion is that it was Cleopatra herself who added this extra inscription to the papyrus, signing off on the contract as she may well have had to do on many others during her reign.
Whether or not you accept that we have an example of Cleopatra’s own handwriting in this document, it is no reason to doubt that Cleopatra was most likely as literate as she was highly educated.
Much as I love Elizabeth Taylor’s interpretation of Cleopatra, and indeed many other representations of this remarkable woman in film and literature, it’s quite nice to look beyond all her decorative trappings and make-up to imagine an intelligent, literate woman who put a lot of hard work into her powerful position – even if, sadly, her political machinations were to be her downfall in the end.
I hope you enjoyed this Lego-fuelled look at Cleopatra’s life and linguistic interests, and I wish you a very happy International Lego Classicists Day. Don’t forget, all you need is some Lego and a bit of creative thinking to start making your own creative forays into the ancient world!
~ Pippa Steele (Principal Investigator of the CREWS project)
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