Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Some liberties have been taken with Cleopatra

One of my friends likened Neil Oliver to Michael Wood. Both have that same handsome (dare I say, sexy) archaeologist vibe going on. But there is one crucial difference. Wood almost always writes his own material. Oliver very often doesn't. This is important. If you speak your own words, you can ensure that what you say is what you want to say (Marc Morris, who lives just round the corner from me, wrote a very sensible article about this). Act as a mouthpiece, and you are at the mercy of a script concocted by a committee of researchers, producers and executives, some or all of whom may put sensationalism, not confusing the viewer and 'telling a good story' before actual adherence to facts and rules of evidence.

Cleopatra: Portrait of a Killer (and yes, I know you've got less than twelve hours to watch this - I should have posted this last week - but if you have HD it's on again on April 6th) was, I regret to say, a particularly bad example. Towards the end, the programme was full of assertions such as "experts are now convinced", "archaeologists believe", and "beyond doubt", with reference to their theory that the bones of Cleopatra VII's sister Arsinoë have been found in Ephesus. But one has to point out that not all experts are convinced. And I would hope that anyone who was trained in evaluating evidence would see how tissue-thin was the argument presented here.

The programme had two threads. One looked at the relations of Cleopatra with her siblings, portraying her as a murderer. I don't have much to say about this, which didn't have anything significantly new. Anyone who's seen the 1963 Liz Taylor Cleopatra will know that Cleopatra didn't get on with her older brother. The only point worth commenting on is the programme's assertion that Cleopatra's actions resulted in the wiping out of her father's line. In fact, Cleopatra had a daughter by Mark Antony who grew to adulthood. She did not rule in Egypt, but was married to a king a Mauretania, and her son ruled in Mauretania until AD 40, when he was killed by another descendant of Antony, the emperor Gaius.

I will address here the issue of the identification of a body buried in Ephesus with Cleopatra's younger sister Arsinoë. This suggestion was first made by Hilke Thür in 1990, in an article which I have not read and is not online ("Arsinoë IV, eine Schwester Kleopatras VII, Grabinhaberin des Oktogons von Ephesos? Ein Vorschlag", Jahreshefte des Österreichischen Archäologischen Instituts, vol. 60, 1990, pp.43–56). At this point the argument was presumably based entirely around the Octagon tomb from Ephesus, so I will tackle that first.

The tomb dates to the middle of the first century BC. It is ornate, and, unusually, positioned within the city boundaries. This indicates that whoever was buried there was an important figure. The most prominent person known to have died in Ephesus at this period was Arsinoë, killed in 41 BC in Ephesus on the orders of Antony, at the request of Cleopatra. The tomb is decorated with carved papyrus leaves, indicating Egyptian influence on the iconography. It was in octagonal, which is interpreted as a reference to the octagonal Pharos lighthouse of Alexandria. All these are taken as further support of the identification of the tomb's occupant with Arsinoë.

As I said, I haven't read the article, so I don't know how Thür addresses the questions I'm going to raise now. I can only speak about the original programme, which overlooked them.

First of all, why should the occupant of the tomb be someone otherwise known to us? It's a very antiquarian approach to link archaeological evidence with names from the historical record, but it's not often sound unless the archaeological evidence is unequivocal. There are cases where that applies. The tomb of Gaius Julius Classicianus from London, for instance, is almost certainly that of the man mentioned in Tacitus' Annals (but even that was only true once the part of the inscription that named him as Procurator of Britain was found). But the Octagon tomb itself (leaving aside the evidence from the body, which I will get to later) provides no such firm evidence. The presence of clearly Egyptian iconography on the tomb, in the form of papyrus leaves, proves nothing about the ethnicity of the occupant. Egyptian iconography is found on tombs all over the Mediterranean (for example, in a tomb from the early second century BC from Thugga in Numidia). In the latter part of the first century BC there was a particular trend for Egyptianizing monuments, such as the pyramid-shaped tomb of Gaius Cestius in Rome.

As for the alleged reference to the Pharos in the tomb, the programme never addresses the basic question of 'why?' The Pharos is stated to be both symbol of Arsinoë's greatest victory, when she drove Caesar's forces out of the Pharos, and of her greatest humiliation, when a model of the Pharos was carried in Caesar's triumph at Rome, where Arsinoë was exhibited as a prisoner of war. Which is it supposed to be for the Octagon? If an emblem of her humiliation, thus indicating that the tomb was created by her enemies, why allow her to have a rich ornate tomb at all? If the tomb was the work of Arsinoë's friends, would they be allowed to have such an overt reference to her triumph over Roman forces in a city in a Roman province, ruled over by the man who had ordered her death?

Of course, if the forensic evidence can prove that this is Arsinoë, these questions become curiosities. But can it? Let's look at this passage from The Times:

Fabian Kanz, an anthropologist, was sceptical when he began this task two years ago. “We tried to exclude her from being Arsinöe [sic],” he said. “We used all the methods we have to find anything that can say, ‘Okay, this can’t be Arsinöe because of this and this.’”

After using carbon dating, which dated the skeleton from 200 BC-20 BC, Kanz, who had examined more than 500 other skeletons taken from the ruins of Ephesus, found Thür’s theory gained credibility.

He said he was certain the bones were female and placed the age of the woman at 15-18. Although Arsinöe’s date of birth is not known, she was certainly younger than Cleopatra, who was about 27 at the time of her sister’s demise.

The lack of any sign of illness or malnutrition also indicated a sudden death, said Kanz. Evidence of the skeleton’s north African ethnicity provided the final clue.

We'll leave aside the ethnicity issue, as that's a circular argument (this body has North African ancestry, therefore it's likely to be Arsinoë, therefore Arsinoë's family were of North African ancestry). As for the other arguments: the body is female - so was Arsinoë; the dead woman was young - so was Arsinoë; she was slim - so might have been Arsinoë (tenuously argued on the basis that her sister got herself smuggled into Caesar's quarters in a bag); the body is carbon-dated to a range the lower end of which covers the date of Arsinoë's death; the dead woman had had not had a physically hard life - neither had Arsinoë; the woman died suddenly, and not from any disease - such was Arsinoë's fate.

All these arguments seem to indicate that the body could be Arsinoë. But none of them conclusively prove that the body is Arsinoë - the description could possibly cover dozens of young women from the first century BC.

Moreover, I think that the forensic evidence as presented rather points away from the body being Arsinoë. The age is given in the programme as 15-17, possibly 18. With a death date of 41 BC, that would mean that she was born between 59 and 55 BC. This would mean, at the time of the Alexandrian War in 48 BC, she was between 8 and 11.

Yet Arsinoë played an active role in this war. It's generally considered that she was older than her brother, Ptolemy XIII, who is constantly said to have had all his decisions made for him by his advisors. He is known to have been thirteen in 48 BC. (There's a good summation of the issues here.) Certainly the dramatic reconstruction in the programme takes the line that Arsinoë was, if young, older than her brother, and so at least fourteen in 48 BC. That would make her a minimum of twenty-one when she died, older than the forensic evidence allows. (It's always a bad sign when a programme doesn't notice that it's contradicting itself.)

So, to me, the identification of the body with Arsinoë can only be accepted if one fudges both the forensic evidence for the body, stretching it to the top of the age range, and the historical evidence for Arsinoë's age. This is at least one fudge too much for me, and I must conclude that, whilst it's not completely impossible, the evidence makes it very unlikely that this body belongs to Cleopatra's sister.

Given that, the issue that got highlighted in a lot of the coverage, that this skeleton demonstrated that Cleopatra had North African ancestry, becomes irrelevant. There were a lot of caveats anyway; for a start, the forensic study of the skull, as reconstructed from photos taken in the 1920s, only suggested that there were possible indications of North African ancestry in the body, not that this was definite, and also we don't know who the mother of either Cleopatra or Arsinoë was (complicated by the fact that Cleopatra V, most likely candidate to be mother of both, disappears from the historical record about the time of Cleopatra VII's birth), so they might not have been full sisters (though they probably were). But these become moot points if this body is not Arsinoë.

Lest I be accused of Eurocentrically trying to prove that Cleopatra VII was pure-white European, I should add that none of the above proves that Cleopatra did not have North African ancestry. Given the poor state of the sources about the parentage of various Ptolemaic figures, it's not impossible that there was some local blood in her veins (though I would be very careful about eliding the possibility of North African ancestry into a possibility of ancestry from sub-Saharan Africa, which is a different and less likely issue), even if predominantly they considered themselves as belonging to Macedonian Greek culture (Cleopatra was reputedly the first to actually learn the Egyptian language). But this body from Ephesus is emphatically not the conclusive evidence for this theory that this programme alleges it to be.

Meanwhile, over at BBC4, where they still consider that their audiences can think, Waldemar Januszczak's series Baroque! takes an audience through his material without the need from drama-documentary, and not trying to assert that his view is shared by everyone (indeed, he spends a fair time making oblique by identifiable criticisms of Simon Schama's Power of Art). Of course, I don't know the material so well, and it may be that this programme is as weak as Cleopatra: Portrait of a Killer. But I don't think so.

Edit 31/03/09: Rogueclassicism links to an abstract from the forensic team that opens: "Arsinoe IV of Egypt, the younger sister of Cleopatra, was murdered between the ages of 16 and 18 on the order of Marc Antony in 41 BC while living in political asylum at the Artemision in Ephesus (Turkey)." Looks fine, doesn't it? Arsinoë was murdered between 16 and 18, the body is aged between 15 and 18, therefore it all fits. Except that there is nothing in the sources to say how old Arsinoë was when she died. The only reason for assuming that age is because it fits with the age of the skeleton. This is a circular argument.


Altair said...

I'm not sure what your confusion is based upon. At least on these points I disagree:
1) Regarding writing “your own material”—I’m not sure where this places "Peer-review" and scholarly writing. Michael Moore (IMHO and many others) is *no* scholar. To his credit, I don’t think he aspires to that title. Hollywood Oscar, anyone?
2) Regarding "twelve hours", my version of this program lasted much shorter. Olympian spirit on television, anyone?
3) Regarding “…experts now convinced...” Melting glaciers in the Himalayas, anyone?
4) Regarding Cleopatra's daughter--you might well include the program's non-mention of Caesarion, you know, the male heir who could have been named Caesar's heir. If you are going to critique scholarship, you might at least go to the bloody heart of the matter. Cleopatra’s named co-regent, anyone?
5) "First of all, why should the occupant of the tomb be someone otherwise known to us?" Not to be Homerian here (Simpson, that is) but "Duh!" Did you watch the program? A greek victim in a greek colony—a holy sacrilege in a city known for religious observance. I know that it did not spell it out--but a female monarch massacred in a temple refuge (dedicated to a Greek goddess of female virtue) cannot be a cause célèbre? Even the program outlined the outrage in Rome itself! The Romans were so Pantheon-philic, and rational about governance of far-flung empire, that the emblem of her shame and noble triumph might have been financed by plebian donations. Princess Di, anyone?
6) Pyramids in Rome? This was (apparently) the second such pyramid. The first of unknown origin--pre-dating any imperial control over Alexander’s African realm. It does not resemble the pyramids we commonly know nearest To Alexandria and a simple web-searched reference ( states this secondary pyramid was probably meant as a tribute to the owners heroics in a previous campaign (along the lower Nile.) Besides, his monument did not have pillars, an octagon, or a Pharos-like base. The Franco-Greek statue, "Liberty Enlightening the World", anyone?
7) Regarding African influence...even the program failed to mention the fact that Nubians controlled Egypt at one point...hence the nobility of Egypt might very conceivably have a mixed race genetic makeup. (What was unique was the change from a position that the Ptolemaic lineage, at the point of Cleopatra was entirely Greek--which was never realistic.) And, you might include a discussion of “genotype versus phenotype”—Dinah Shore’s grandchild, anyone?
8) Regarding the speaking of Greek by Egyptian nobility (until Cleopatra)--when did English cease to be Norman French vs. Saxon/Celtic/Briton? The propensity of British monarchs to tread lightly on prevailing culture exists clear to the rule of the Hanovers (now self-named the Windsors), anyone?

Tony Keen said...

My "confusion" is based on the programme's argument being, in my view, unsustainable.

1) In peer-reviewed scholarly writing, the scholar takes advice on his writing, but ultimately has responsibility and control over what appears under their name. The presenter who reads someone else's script has no such control, though they will be associated with the words they say. I'm not sure how Michael Moore is relevant.

2) At the time I posted this entry, the link to which I pointed with the programme was going to expire in under twelve hours. I was not saying that the programme was that long.

3) Your elliptical style looks clever, but obscures whatever point you're trying to make here. You seem to be critiquing the assertion that experts are unanimous on this issue, and that their unanimity makes them right. I too was criticising the assertion of unanimity, pointing out that it wasn't true.

4) The programme asserted that Cleopatra's line was extinguished by her actions. Since Caesarion outlived his mother by days, or at most, weeks, his death reinforces the programme's claim. But the survival of Cleopatra's daughter, Cleopatra Selene, more than thirty years after her mother died, and her production of her own offspring, some of who themselves went on to have children, shows that the programme's assertion is untrue. Hence Cleopatra Selene was relevant to the point I was making, Caesarion is not.

5) You don't really address the point you claim to be addressing here, which is that it's unwise to assume that if an ornate tomb is found, there must be someone in the historical record who can be placed in it. What you address instead is my question of why Arsinoë should get an elaborate tomb. The programme indeed mentions outrage in Rome, but it is hard to find solid evidence for this. A number of authors writing over a century after the events were certainly outraged (Josephus, Cassius Dio), but there's no clear evidence for contemporary reactions. In any case, Rome was a long way from Antony's control, and outrage in Rome might not make any difference to him. The Ephesians had to beg Cleopatra for the life of thier priest of Artemis - would they then have anooyed her with an open display of defiance like this? And I know of no evidence for such a publically-subscribed construction as you envisage ever happening in the Roman empire, and it seems unlikely. The comparision with Princess Diana is weak, since she was not murdered on the orders of the Royal Familiy, the Royal Family have far less direct political control, and the voice of popular feeling is more easily carried through the mass media.

Tony Keen said...

6)The tomb of Cestius Epulo does have pillars - two free-standing columns at the ends of the base on the west side. In any case, for all the potential differences, does it really look dramatically less Egyptian than the Octagon in Ephesus? I don't think so, in which case it disproves the notion that an Egyptian-looking tomb must necessarily have an Egpytian buried in it. And there's no proof that Cestius Epulo had anything to do with campaigns in Nuba - it's an attractive suggestion, and may be right, but he may simply have chosen to imitate something he had heard about. I would have thought the Statue of Liberty, where the connections with ancient Greece and Rome are symbolic, rather than direct, supports my argument.

7) Here you have a point. The Numbian rule of Egypt may well have resulted in some sub-Saharan DNA in the Egyptian nobility. But it's not really relevant to the body in the Octagon tomb, as there's no good evidence that she is connected to the Egyptian monarchy. And it's hardly unique to suggest that Cleopatra may not have been pure-bred Greek - people have been making this argument for years. As I say, I don't deny the possibility, but this body is not evidence for it.

8) I don't understand the point here. What exactly are you disagreeing with? The nobility of England started speaking English rather than Norman French in response to a worsening political relationship between the english and French crowns. The House of Saxe-Coburg became the House of Windsor in response to anti-German sentiment. Cleopatra quite possibily had political reasons similar to these for learing Egyptian. But I still don't understand what you are saying I said wrong.

I also notice that you don't address the key point here, which is that the age at death of the body buried in the Octagon is too low to make her credible as Arsinoë.