rogueclassicism Review: Cleopatra: Portrait of a Killer

Editor’s note: you might want to read our previous thoughts on this program/claim/issue (made prior to viewing, obviously):

As a sort of followup to all the hype about this program, I thought it might be useful to provide a reviewish sort of thing of this program since it has appeared in pieces on YouTube. So I’ll intro each section, and perhaps give you some things to look for.

In part one we get the basic background to the tomb claimed to belong to Arsinoe. Outside of the host’s (Neil Oliver) penchant for carrying around a kerosene lamp (which I find to be very distracting; who does he think he is … a latter day Diogenes?), we should note here the discovery of the tomb in the 1920s. The bones are said to have been found in a sarcophagus full of water. When the archaeologists left, they “resealed” the sarcophagus. When Hilke Thur reentered the tomb much, much later (date not given, but obviously not “nearly a century later”), she tells us she found the bones ‘partly in one niche’ and ‘partly in the other niche’ of the barrel-vaulted tomb. The rest of the segment deals with the initial identification of the occupant as being Arsinoe, Rome’s growing interest in Egypt, and some Ptolemaic genealogy:

Part II opens with Cleo being sent into exile by her brother, then seeking Roman help to regain her position. We then get Fabian Kanz (UVienna) talking about the skeleton. There’s good forensic stuff going on here but I can’t help but wonder about the carbon dating now that we know that the bones were disturbed at some point (I honestly don’t know if this is an issue). I’m not sure it’s really relevant that the bones being of a ‘slender’ person is a significant tie to Cleopatra, but it is used as a segue to the story of Cleo smuggling herself back into the palace.

Part III returns to Ephesus and Fabian Kanz returning to the tomb “last summer” in the hopes of finding more bones which belong to the skeleton, which he did (amazingly enough). Still no skull, though. Then we hear of Dr Thur tracing the skull to Germany in the 1920s and subsequently disappearing during WWII –but some archaeologist had made measurements of the skull. He is said to have mentioned that the skull reminded him of skulls he had seen from Egypt. Whatever the case, the much-hyped reconstruction was made according to this archaeologist’s notes, photos, and measurements. Some important things to note here … the reconstruction is based on ‘remapping’ a similar skull of similar gender and ‘ethnicity’ (we are told, but it isn’t really explained); it’s not even a complete skull, the jaw is missing. Again, the beauty of the erstwhile owner of the skull is used as a link to Cleopatra and provide a segue to the little ‘war’ between adherents of Cleopatra and adherents of Ptolemy. The segue leads to the Pharos of Alexandria and eventually to Arsinoe’s proclamation as queen by the “rebels”.

Part IV opens back at the octagonal tomb in Ephesus and the question of the identity of its owner. The archaeologists back in the 1920s had taken some objects from the tomb back to Vienna, including an interesting ‘column’ torch holder thing which is clearly designed to look like a bundle of papyrus (suggesting, of course, an Egyptian owner). Meanwhile, Hilke Thur and a some engineers have been trying to track down bits of the tomb and are doing a virtual reconstruction of it (this is very interesting!). Eventually, we see that the connection is made between the Pharos of Alexandria (as a symbol of the Ptolemies) and the tomb as being belonged to Arsinoe. That’s the segue clue back to the events at the Pharos, with Caesar ultimately swimming for his life. And so, the Pharos becomes a symbol of Arsinoe’s victory. The ensuing political events are then related … culminating in Arsinoe being paraded (in front of a Pharos) in Caesar’s triumph back in Rome.

Part V opens with Caesar’s sparing of Arsinoe’s life and banishing her to Ephesus, specifically, to the Temple of Artemis. We then get a segment on the Temple, of course, including its popularity as a place for asylum. There follows the political events following the death of Julius Caesar, including Mark Antony’s partying in Ephesus and his eventual liaison with Cleo. It culminates with Cleopatra planning to get rid of Arsinoe.

The final segment returns to the present and the bones purported to belong to Arsinoe. Fabian Kanz notes that the bones belonged to a person who appeared to be healthy, had an easy life, and died young. Then, of course, we cut back to the ancient narrative and the murder of Arsinoe on Cleopatra’s request and Antony’s orders. It is characterized as “the biggest crime of this period” to violate the sanctuary of the Artemesion. We are then told that:

… this skeleton is the first forensic evidence of Cleopatra’s family ever found. The shape of the tomb, its similarity to the Pharos — these are all parts of a code and the whole of it comes together to make a complete picture. At last we can solve the mystery beyond doubt of who the skeleton actually is. None other than Cleopatra’s sister Arsinoe …

We then have to find out what she looked like and we get the ‘rebuilding’ of the skull. After Drs. Kanz and Thur marvel at the skull, we get the ‘big announcement’ that the skull is elongated but also has European features, and so indicates mixed ancestry. Oliver then announces:

Our revelation backs up the controversial theory that the princess, and therefore her sister Cleopatra, also had African blood.

Then comes the suicide of Cleopatra and the political results thereof. The program ends with a facial reconstruction of “what she might have looked like” (interestingly, the only use of speculative language in the program).

Unfortunately, the YouTube version doesn’t preserve the credits, so I can’t give any more detail on researchers etc. (if, as, and when I do get this info, I’ll add it). I can note that the woman playing Cleopatra (fwiw) actually matches my own conception of what Cleo probably looked like; the Caesar and Antony aren’t even close. It’s interesting to have the tale of Cleo narrated by the same guy who was the herald in HBO’s Rome series, but other than that, there was nothing in this program to change my mind from things already said. The most serious is that it ignores the fact that we do not know who Cleopatra’s mother was, but you can revisit my previous posts for the full picture.

Roman Skeleton From Kingsholm

Interesting little item … here’s the incipit:

A ROMAN skeleton which was found in Kingsholm is being investigated by archeologists who are keen to trace his origins.

The male skeleton was discovered in 1972, north of Kingsholm Square and ever since experts have wondered where he came from. Now, the Gloucester City Museum has had funding for the analysis of the skeleton using new technology to work out where he originated. Member and former president of The Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, Carolyn Heighway, said: “We believe he was a special person in the late Roman period in Gloucester, judging by his grand belt and buckles and that sort of thing.

“Subsequently it was judged by academics that he could have been of eastern European origin and was probably part of the Roman army.”

The body had been placed in the floor of a mausoleum and the man, aged between 25 and 30 years old, was wearing distinctive military gear which included a silver belt buckle, shoe buckles and strap end, and a knife with a strip of silver set into the handle.

It was found by city archaeologist Henry Hurst and was thought to date from the late 4th century, or the early years of the 5th.

Oddly, no photos or further info at the museum’s website

Babbling About Biscotti

Okay … this is a claim I’ve come across several times over the past few years, most recently in the Morning Call:

‘Biscotti are cheap to make and last a long time,” Anselmo says of the cookies, which were staples of the Roman legions and moved Pliny to remark that he thought they lasted forever.”

Typing ‘pliny’ and ‘biscotti’ into Google will bring up a pile of results, all of which say almost the exact same thing (sometimes ‘forever’ is replaced by ‘centuries’). In addition to the Roman legion connection, sometimes the biscotti are made analogous to “Parthian Bread”. Taking my cue from that, the only thing I can find about Parthian Bread in Pliny comes from Book 18.27 … here’s the version at Google Books:

Text not available
The natural history of Pliny By Pliny, John Bostock, Henry Thomas Riley

Text not available
The natural history of Pliny By Pliny, John Bostock, Henry Thomas Riley

… seems a bit of a stretch to me to find the origins of biscotti there. Is there some other passage I’m missing?

UPDATE (just a few minutes later): I think we’ll add ‘hardtack’/panis nauticum to this one too …

Covering the Lyceum

There’s an AP story making the rounds on how a Greek betting service will be financing construction which will turn Aristotle’s Lyceum into an outdoor museum. The incipit:

The remains of the ancient school where philosopher Aristotle taught his pupils nearly 2,500 years ago are to be turned into an outdoor museum thanks to a donation from a betting company, Greece’s Culture Ministry says.

The project in central Athens is slated for completion next year at a cost of euro4.5 million ($5.9 million). But it will not use funds from the government, which has promised spending cuts amid the global financial crisis.

Aristotle, who lived from 384 to 322 B.C., studied under Plato and tutored Alexander the Great. Later, in Athens, he taught in the grounds of the Lyceum, a public sports complex frequented by the city’s young men.

The outdoor museum will involve building a translucent roof over the site, Culture Minister Antonis Samaras said Wednesday.


Hmmm … imitations of the Lysistrata’s ‘sex strike’ seem to be happening more and more, so maybe we’ll start keeping a closer eye on them. The latest comes from Kenya, where women are “boycotting sex” (is “withholding their cervixes” offensive?) “to push for reforms and constitutional review”. Increasingly (as noted on the Classics list), there seems to be no connection made to the Classical precedent, alas. Here’s some representative coverage:

A couple weeks ago, we mentioned in passing a post at Spectre Footnotes, which also seems to be gathering these things. There’s also a nice piece at Experience A.R.T. (which does make the Lysistrata connecton) on same. Naturally there will be some duplication of items in those places and what follows, of course.

In December 2008, Neapolitan women threatened same in an attempt to prevent fireworks injuries (!):

In April 2008, an Orthodox feminist group in Israel was encouraging a somewhat indirect version … suggesting women don’t bathe until mikveh workers were paid:

Back in 2006, women in the Columbian city of Pereira staged a similar strike in an attempt to get their hubbies to not be so criminal:

In November 2003, Cameroon women brought to an end a three-month strike aimed at encouraging their hubbies to end their scrapping about grazing rights:

In 2002, Sudanese women attempted to use their strike to end the war there:

In 2001, women in the Turkish village of Sirt went on ‘strike’ in an effort to get their water supply fixed:

In 1996, women in the town of Palestina in Brazil appropriately called a sex strike until their partners were tested for HIV:

Sadly, I suspect this post will result in rogueclassicism being blocked in assorted places …

Another Resort in Bulgaria … Another Bust

Wow … it seems every time a hotel is built or expanded in Bulgaria, there’s some archaeological find. Here’s the latest coverage from Novinite:

The regional unit for combating organized crime in Bulgaria’s Burgas have seized a hidden treasure dating back to 3rd century BC.

The treasure was discovered in October 2008 during the construction of a new hotel in the Black Sea resort of Nessebar, which is also an ancient town with many ancient and medieval monuments.

Instead of turning it it, however, the hotel owners decided to keep the priceless treasure for themselves, and tried to conceal it.

The police learned about the treasure through its own local sources, and seized the treasure, which is now transferred to the Nessebar Archaeological Museum, and will be on display there starting May 15.

The treasure in questions is exceptionally elaborate and consist of several pieces of jewelry and decoration. It was discovered in what was the burial site of a women from a well-off family who lived in the town in 3rd century BC, during the Hellenistic period. Only the gold parts of the treasure weigh more than 200 grams.

Nessebar was initially a minor Thracian settlement but was later turned into a Greek colony to become part later of Rome and Byzantium, and was later conquered by the First Bulgarian Empire.

Echoes, somewhat, of previous finds of a thracian priestess burial or that statue of Cybele find from Balchik

Millefiori-Millefiore Bowl

This one received quite a bit of press attention this past week … conservators at the Museum of London have (painstakingly, no doubt) reassembled a Roman millefiori bowl which was found with a burial thought to come from the cusp of the second/third centuries. Some snippets (the journalists seems unsure how to spell millefiori and have caused me to question my own spelling, alas):

Curator Jenny Hall dixit (in the Evening Standard):

“This find indicates an important person was cremated.

“The fact they placed these objects suggests significant money was involved.

“In the first and second centuries AD the fashion was more for cremations, then later it changed more to burials. This seemed to have taken place around the time the fashion was changing.

“The dish was certainly made abroad as the skill to make it did not exist here. The owner would have regarded it as one of their most valuable possessions. It may have been a traded item, or brought by someone coming from where it was made – possibly Italy or further afield. Londinium was a real cultural melting pot.”

She adds (in Reuters coverage):

“For it to have survived intact is amazing. In fact, it is unprecedented in the western Roman world … We are still checking out whether there are similar examples surviving in the eastern part of the empire, in ancient Alexandria for example, but it’s the only one in the West.”

Conservatrix Liz Goodman told AP:

“Piecing together and conserving such a complete artifact offered a rare and thrilling challenge … We occasionally get tiny fragments of millefiori, but the opportunity to work on a whole artifact of this nature is extraordinary.”

Guy Hunt — one of the archaeologists working at the site — gives an idea of its extent (in Reuters):

“No-one knows how big the cemetery really is. Some think it could be up to 16 hectares (40 acres), disappearing under roads and buildings.”

… so I suspect we’ll be hearing  of more finds from this site …

Cleopatra Trailer Fest

While poking around YouTube for assorted items this past week, it came to my attention that I could put a little minifilm festival of Cleopatra movie trailers together here to start our weekend blogging off … so, in chronological order:

The 1934 DeMille version starring Claudette Colbert:

Possibly the worst ever … the 1945 version starring Vivien Leigh:

The 1963 version with Elizabeth Taylor: