Cleopatra and other queens: Is this part of an archaeology of sex and gender?

Posted on June 5, 2010


“Her name is synonymous with power and glamour”: so starts an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer prompted by the opening of a new exhibit that opened this week at The Franklin Institute.

Which raises the question: what is the relation between an archaeology of sex and gender and the long-standing fascination of the public, shared by archaeologists, for the women who ruled in ancient states?

Cleopatra represents an extreme example: along with Hatshepsut, one of two pharaohs widely known to have been women, and like Nefertiti, celebrated as an icon of beauty– hence the Inquirer‘s pairing of the terms “power and glamour”.

The article goes on to say that “archaeologists are working to add to our collective knowledge of the legendary Egyptian queen”. And indeed, some of the research reflected in the Cleopatra exhibit has specifically identified places associated with her life, if not so much inspired directly with finding her tomb or illuminating her life alone.

But much of the hype around this exhibit illustrates why ancient queens are problematic subjects for an archaeology of sex and gender.

First, there is the fact that queens tend to be treated as exceptions that prove a rule, so that the existence of women rulers never erases an assumed abnormality for women as political agents. This is obviously the case with discussions of Hatshepsut, who is presented as an exception to an apparent rule that pharaohs should be males– although other women apparently served as regents for their children or as pharaoh in their own right.

But the same wonderment at a woman in power also runs through discussions of Cleopatra, a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, in which women and men were both eligible to serve as pharaoh.

Discussions of ancient queens almost always display a concern with how they came to power that assumes women ruling were abnormal. This in turn leads to an emphasis on their relations with powerful men– the fathers they succeed, the sons for whom they serve as regents, or– as in Cleopatra’s case– the men with whom they were sexually involved. So, as the Inquirer notes, the Cleoptra exhibit features a granite fragment from a male portrait head that is very loosely linked to Mark Antony:

The tomb in which Cleopatra and her lover Mark Antony rest has yet to be found, but Zahi Hawass, the maestro of Egyptian archaeology, believes they are somewhere inside Taposiris Magna, a temple west of Alexandria. This granite fragment of a face, archaeologists say, might depict Mark Antony – attributes such as the cleft chin match written descriptions of him.

If Mark Antony were the only person in antiquity with a cleft chin, this might be more convincing. But primarily, it shows how Cleopatra herself barely registers as an historical subject except for the mythology of her doomed love affair. The breathless treatment of a ruler as a sex kitten extends to other artifacts, as in the gratuitous comment that ends this passage about statues of Ptolemaic pharaohs as Isis:

Headless, she stands 4 feet 11 inches tall and was carved from granodiorite during the third century B.C., well before Cleopatra’s birth in 69 B.C. The statue, of an unidentified Ptolemaic queen, features an Isis knot on its robe. Many Ptolemaic women saw themselves in the goddess, and commissioned works melding characteristics of both. Cleopatra later declared herself the reincarnation of Isis and had such statues made. She dressed as Isis for Mark Antony’s first visit.

So, how does an intractable subject like an ancient queen serve as a case study in an archaeology of sex and gender? Precisely as a case study of how modern attitudes about gender infect our attempts to understand the past.

A possible antidote to the glamor image of Cleopatra is provided by an article in Smithsonian. As the authors of that article, which tacks back and forth successfully between the politics Cleopatra navigated and modern and historical fascination with her, put it, “ancient historians never characterized Cleopatra as a great beauty, and in her time she was not considered a romantic heroine”. What she was regarded as was a ruler: the political leader whose strategies make her an excellent example of how independent kingdoms tried to contain the expansion of the Roman empire. Because she cannot be reduced to a type– a generic woman– she serves as a possible way into the thorny thicket of treating women (and men) in the past as actors with their own motivations, not reducible to generic categories.