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.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Afternoon Play

A quick mention of BBC Radio 4's Afternoon Play from Monday, an adaptation by Salley Vickers of her own novel, Where Three Roads Meet, a retelling of the Oedipus story from the Canongate Myth series. It wasn't publicized much, but it's worth catching. You have until next Monday afternoon to listen to it.