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.

2 thoughts on “rogueclassicism Review: Cleopatra: Portrait of a Killer

  1. I like that the storyteller is the same actor who played the town crier guy in HBO’s Rome. He’s been typecast!

  2. Arsinoe far from being an innocent is recorded by Plutarch as putting Antillas her general to death in 48bc.
    I have just met Hilke Thur and pointed out that for 11 years after the murder Anthony ruled Ephesus and Asia. In 31bc he and Cleo spent the winter there – is it likely the people who put it up would have risked offending him by putting up a mausoleum in a prominanet place ?
    next – the symbols of the Ptolemies, the cornucopia and the eagle and Isis are not found on the decoration.
    HT agrees the skeleton bears no signs of violence and is 15 -20 years old. Too young.

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