Augustan Propaganda

Augustan Propaganda By Any Other Name: Contemporary Screen Representations of Cleopatra

By Rachael Kelly (PhD)

This essay was originally written for a special collection to be published following the Echoes of the Past conference at Newcastle University in 2009. Although the piece has been extensively peer-reviewed and was accepted for publication, the collection never came to pass and the essay is published here for the first time.

In Spring 2009, BBC 1 aired a one-off documentary about Cleopatra VII. Screened at 9pm, to appeal to a prime-time evening audience, the programme generated considerable interest in the British press in the weeks leading up to the screening as newspapers and websites (see note 1) sought to report the revisioning of the life of the Egyptian queen outlined in the narrative. The film was entitled Cleopatra: Portrait of a Killer, and it heralds a new wave of Cleopatra-backlash that is already firmly, if covertly, rooted in modern popular culture, even as it purportedly attempts to recuperate her as a feminist icon.

The last ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty retains a central role in the socio-cultural collective consciousness:  in the past few years, Hollywood has announced plans for two separate films of her life, one starring Catherine Zeta-Jones, the other starring Angelina Jolie. Yet the nature of the BBC film – and its voracious consumption by the press – suggests something other than the a desire to revisit a story with a long history of popular-cultural recycling (and an established box office appeal). This was not a recreation of the Augustan or Shakespearean fable of gender-transgression and immoderate love: it was an attempt to envisage Cleopatra as a calculating despot, cold-bloodedly murdering her only surviving sister for political gain. Moreover, this killer-Cleopatra was presented as though the concept ought to be discursively startling – as though Cleopatra had never previously been made to perform this role in her popular cultural incarnations. In fact, the ‘standard’ Cleopatra – positioned in the documentary as the fictional product of romanticised pop-culture – that the text seeks to reject is in fact a very recent reading of the Cleopatran mythology, one positioned by third wave feminism as a response to the patriarchal construction of Augustan propaganda. The decision to reject this model is, therefore, revealing.

Cleopatra is one of a number of high-profile historical women of power whose lives are repeatedly subjected to cultural scrutiny, and whose bodies are used to alleviate the threat they represent; however, she is a particularly important example for a number of reasons. Firstly, and possibly most simplistically, of the various iconographical women of history – a list which must include, among others, Joan of Arc, Elizabeth I (see note 2), and so on – Cleopatra’s historical situation allows for the longest period of socio-cultural reproduction, and thus a wide variety of semiological interpretations of her mythology. Secondly, Cleopatra’s iconography encompasses not only female power, but also specifically female sexual power, with all of the concomitant gender pedagogy associated with the threat of the sexual woman. Finally, there is the question of her shifting ideological status – especially in the past half century – that prompts a wider debate about the status of the woman of power in contemporary cultural production and the competing appeals made to and by her iconography.

Of course, there is nothing new in arguing that the icon of Cleopatra is now and has historically been the site of negotiation for ideologies of femininity, and particularly the negotiation of contemporary ideas of hegemonic femininity. Feminist scholars such as Lucy Hughes-Hallett in Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams and Distortions (1990), and Francesca T Royster in Becoming Cleopatra: The Shifting Image of an Icon (2003) have engaged with Cleopatra’s iconography and interrogated the patriarchal anxiety engendered by her position as a woman of power.  Hughes-Hallett examines the function of the Cleopatra-icon over centuries of the changing semiological status of Woman, tracing her construction from her medieval reception as the Good Woman who refuses to live without her lover, through Shakespeare’s iconic interpretation of Plutarch’s ‘fatal influence’ (Ant. 36), up to the legendary Elizabeth Taylor vehicle, Cleopatra (1963). Royster, on the other hand, examines the iconography of Cleopatra from a racialised perspective. Drawing on Saidean Orientalist theory (which, as we will see, continues to be manifested and performed in the body of Cleopatra), she situates Cleopatra as a liminal figure, performing both white and black female sexuality. Both Hughes-Hallett and Royster are agreed, however, that Cleopatra, as an avatar of socio-cultural anxieties around gender reversal and the emasculating woman of power, is engaged in a constant process of evolution, adapting and being adapted in line with shifting gender norms. Neither, however, has specifically interrogated screen engagements with Cleopatra: both periodically investigate Cleopatra’s appearance on screen, but Hughes-Hallett’s research pre-dates third wave feminism (and in any case deals more broadly with socio-cultural configurations of Cleopatra across history), and Royster considers Cleopatra’s screen incarnations as they impact on her wider thesis of Cleopatra as embodiment of (white) racial anxieties. Given the recent resurgence of interest in Cleopatra’s mythology, and given the threat she presents to the patriatchal status quo, I want to use this article to examine the ways in which Cleopatra-as-avatar has been shaped and influenced, first by third wave feminism, and, more recently, by the post-feminist backlash.

During the 1990s, there appears to have been an effort, in scholarly and literary works, to recuperate Cleopatra as an icon of female empowerment. This recuperative effort, I posit, assumes that such a thing exists as a hegemonic Cleopatra – the Cleopatra of Augustan rhetoric whose unnatural appropriation of masculine power leads inevitably to ruin and defeat (see note 3) — and specifically rejects it as a patriarchal construct. Whilst not limited to the past twenty years, it is striking that the 1990s are characterised by a sudden concerted effort and a high volume of cultural output engaging with a re-positioned Cleopatra, not least of which is the sudden re-emergence, after thirty-six dormant years, of a series of screen Cleopatras in the western, English-speaking territories (see note 4).

Superficially, these screen texts appear to engage with the literary recuperation, in that there is a clear effort (in most) to reject the Cleopatra of earlier, explicitly negative screen positioning. Leonor Varela’s Cleopatra in Cleopatra (1999) is positioned as a caring mother and concerned ruler, seeking social justice for her subjects: in the sequence that leads to the birth of her son, Caesarion, she is demonstrably horrified by the news that the people of Egypt are starving while the royal stores are full of grain for export to Rome, and goes into labour as she breaks open the granaries and begins to dole out food to the grateful masses. Later, she is shown taking an active part in both the Battle of Alexandria and the Battle of Actium, dressed for the latter in an improbable gold-plated suit of armour and expertly wielding a sword against a Roman attacker. Three years later, the Cleopatra of Julius Caesar (2002) is allowed to deny her sexualisation in her initial meeting with Caesar when she says, ‘I do not have to seduce with my body. I have something much better than that: my country’ (Edel, 2002). Such explicit disavowal of the aesthetic/erotic in favour of the political is unusual in earlier portrayals of Cleopatra (with the key exception being – arguably – 1963’s Cleopatra, in which she is allowed a degree of political intelligence), and is expanded upon in Rome (2005-7), which considerably de-romanticises Lyndsey Marshal’s Cleopatra. Marshal is conventionally attractive, but her facial and bodily features mark a significant departure from her predecessors’, all of whom have been selected as representative of contemporaneous standards of extreme female beauty (Elizabeth Taylor, indeed, has been regularly referred to as the most beautiful woman in the world). By de-emphasising Cleopatra’s legendary beauty (which has no basis in the ancient sources – Plutarch states that Cleopatra was not physically attractive, but that her charm derived from her intellectual and conversational abilities – Ant. 27), Rome subtly erodes the discourse that traditionally aligns Cleopatra’s power with the erotic, and underlines this discursive shift by highlighting her political and tactical abilities in her initial interview with Caesar (2005.8).

However, I want to problematize the notion that an effort towards recuperating Cleopatra as a positive symbol of female empowerment is the same thing as actually positioning her as such. Angela McRobbie, discussing western post-feminism, talks about the ‘instrumentaliz[ation]’ (1) of feminism: the insidious ways in which feminism and feminist ideals are institutionalized and ‘claimed by Western governments, as a signal to the rest of the world  that this is a key part of what freedom now means’ (McRobbie 1). In this paper, I examine some of the ways in which Augustan rhetoric persists in twenty-first century constructions of the Cleopatra-icon and is used to covertly critique even apparently positive reconfigurations of her mythology, as suggested by McRobbie’s ideas of ‘claiming’ feminism. Using a series of screen texts from the past eleven years, I interrogate the superficial engagement with third wave feminism embodied in these texts, in line with recent scholarship which configures as misleading this meta-narrative of female empowerment prevalent in contemporary media artefacts – what McRobbie calls ‘faux feminism’ (1).

 

The recuperative effort: Pop-Culture Cleopatras and Third Wave Feminism

Cleopatra as a sign-system has, historically, demonstrated a considerable semiological fluidity – Hughes-Hallett (1990) is especially illuminating in terms of the shifting and often contradictory femininities she has been used to manifest, as hegemonic notions of female and womanhood have been revised. As a screen icon, her incarnations have coincided with the series of renegotiations of gender roles and concomitant gender anxieties of the twentieth century, and she has consistently been used to embody and exorcise the spectre of the power-seeking woman. However, the spectre itself is not stable, in that perceived threats to the patriarchal status quo take different centres of focus at different historical moments. As such, it is extremely difficult to talk in absolutes about the screen iconography of Cleopatra, although it is striking – and significant – that the following fundamental attributes largely remain constant in all her incarnations:

  • Highly sexualised
  • Duplicitous
  • Excessively ambitious
  • Orientalised appearance and behaviours

Each is closely tied to the Augustan narrative and echoes Roman gender norms. The first three tropes will be easily identifiable as signifiers of deviant screen femininity, and in fact have remained remarkably stable indices across centuries of cultural discourse. The fourth – Orientalism – signposts a plethora of additional pejorative associations, as I will discuss in detail. Whilst it is not quite fair to say that female, in Roman discourse, is inherently pejorative, Oriental undoubtedly is (see note 5). Cleopatra, therefore, fails on two counts, being both female and Oriental, and, in defiance of strictly gendered Roman societal standards separating the masculine public sphere from the feminine domestic sphere, a third count of female power-seeking. Excessive sexuality is not uncommon as a Late-Republican index of gender-deviance (see note 6); it is used pejoratively against women who present a threat, however conceived, to the res publica (the public sphere), or against the wives/daughters/mothers of men that the accuser wants to discredit.  Its application, therefore, can be considered as an indication that the female target herself is gender-transgressive, or that the male associate of the female target is feminized by her gender-transgression. Since Roman political invective rhetorically links feminization with unfitness-to-rule, an Augustan charge of sexual excess against Cleopatra is only to be expected, since it comments both on her unnatural usurpation of the masculine position of power, and Antonius’ feminization-by-association and consequent unfitness-to-rule.

Early screen incarnations of the Cleopatra-icon tend unproblematically to reproduce the Augustan model, advocating varying degrees of censure, and it is reasonable to state (albeit equivocally) that Cleopatra initially embodies Janey Place’s notion of the Spider Woman. This is most clearly seen in Cleopatra (1934) and Serpent of the Nile (1953) in which Cleopatra’s key source of power is her sexuality, which she uses to entrap Antony. The former, indeed, explicitly outlines Cleopatra’s sexual threat, when Octavian stirs up the Roman mob by asking, ‘Who is this poisonous snake that wrecks our men? Caesar first and now Antony!’ (DeMille, 1934) Serpent of the Nile, on the other hand, underlines her gender reversal in terms of sexual duplicity: Antony’s love for Cleopatra is so immoderate that he is powerless to act against her, yet she repeatedly confesses her love to another man, Antony’s close friend Lucillius (Castle, 1953). As with Place’s Spider Woman, the Augustan Cleopatra is constructed as overtly sexual, and her sexuality is coded non-feminine by virtue of the fact that, not only is it unconstrained by the social boundaries of marriage, but it is also performed on Cleopatra’s terms, and generally in the service of her ambitions. In this respect, although she cannot be generically linked to the femme fatale of film noir, her sexuality must be understood in these terms: autonomous and directly threatening to male authority.

A more positively-positioned Cleopatra is found in 1963’s Cleopatra, in which the text seeks actively to recuperate the explicitly negative earlier receptions, relocating Cleopatra’s performance of femininity within a more hegemonic framework. There is, however, no implicit appeal to female empowerment in the text, and it is more properly viewed as a product of the tail-end of the cycle of historical epics, which was almost exhausted by the time of its release (see note 7). The more recent texts are of course afforded additional significance by virtue of the thirty-six year abrogation of the narrative. This sudden re-focus on Cleopatra –  what I call the Cleopatra Revival – is predicated on a rejection of the Augustan model as inherently misleading and the product of a patriarchal status quo, both in origin and reproduction. This position is undeniable, and feminist Cleopatra-scholarship of the Revival has created a detailed framework from which the cultural output has drawn legitimacy and a truth-claim rooted in feminist outrage, grounded in the re-assessment of the validity and motivation of the ancient sources from which the Augustan mythology is drawn. Moreover, the historical epic has, traditionally, and particularly in those narratives set in antiquity, tended to itself be rooted in socio-cultural anxiety (Fitzgerald: 2001), which it seeks to mitigate by appeal to an idealized past and especially an idealized (read: essentialist) gender protocol. This makes Cleopatra, as a gender-deviant subject, an especially unstable avatar for the projection of modern feminist sensibilities, and, as I will show, the very screen texts that purport to venerate her anti-hegemonic gender positioning, in fact covertly undermine her apparently positive positioning at every stage.

The texts in question are listed above, and it should be noted that all were made for, and premiered on, television. This marks a departure from the tradition of big-screen, big-budget cinematic spectacle, and impacts on a variety of factors, such as the variant conventions informing narrative on the large and small screen, and the fact that the available run-time for television series is generally considerably longer than that for a self-contained movie, which allows (and, indeed, demands) closer engagement with character. While this trend towards shifting the locus of the historical epic from the large to the small screen undoubtedly warrants detailed discussion, this article is not the place to do so, and I note it for its impact on Cleopatra’s position within the narrative. Much more so than the cinematic epics of the twentieth century, the twenty-first century television series are ensemble pieces in which Cleopatra is rarely the central character, and, indeed, is relegated to an extremely minor role in at least one (Julius Caesar, 2002). Furthermore, only Rome has had any serious resonance within the wider sphere of popular culture – Cleopatra, 1999, was heavily publicized but received overwhelmingly negative reviews, while Julius Caesar (2002) and Augustus (2002) were much smaller-scale European co-productions. Viewing figures are unavailable for the latter three, but Rome typically attracted audiences of between 3 and 6 million in the UK, and has a considerable fan presence on the internet, while Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and Augustus are largely invisible. As such, despite the considerable scholarly effort that has been employed in the recuperation of the Augustan Cleopatra in line with third wave feminism and notions of the woman of power, the production conditions have altered the way in which her mythology is presented on screen to such an extent that there is less opportunity for the popular cultural sphere to engage with the recuperated icon. This alone need not necessarily imply a post-feminist attempt to re-write the recuperated Cleopatra, but the manner in which the screen narratives purport to position her as a positive icon of female empowerment is more telling, as I shall now discuss.

 

Sexuality, Power and Romance in Cleopatra’s Performance of Womanhood

I have briefly noted above four basic and recurring tropes across the totality of Cleopatra’s screen constructions. For reasons of brevity, this list has been vastly over-simplified and, in fact, the creation of an axiomatic catalogue is itself problematic, in that, for almost every feature that could be considered ubiquitous, there tends to be an exception. For instance, I could paraphrase Mary Hamer and argue that the Cleopatra-icon’s power is transmuted into a kind of predatory sexuality, or at least a sexuality that is difficult to contain (Hamer 272), and that would almost always be true, but, of course George Bernard Shaw’s Cleopatra, who appears on screen in 1945 in Gabriel Pascal’s adaptation of Caesar and Cleopatra, is specifically not a sexual being, but rather a child on the verge of womanhood. Issues of sexuality and power, however, whether by conspicuous presence or conspicuous absence, are key to Cleopatra’s performance of womanhood, both historically and culturally. The historical figure unquestionably exploited her gender in order to forge alliances first with Julius Caesar, and then, following Caesar’s assassination, with Marcus Antonius. Both were calculated political moves, both by Cleopatra and her Roman lovers, yet the semiological connotations attached to both liaisons, while undoubtedly complex and layered, excise the political motivations and instead seek to explain the allegiances through the gender-knowable structures of either melodramatic romance or rapacious female sexuality. In a sense, therefore, it becomes meaningless to talk about the spectrum of positive positioning available to the Cleopatra-avatar while she is constrained by and limited to these two gender-specific matrices – we can talk about sympathetic or non-sympathetic constructions, but the constructions themselves are bounded by patriarchally-mediated frameworks of womanhood. Furthermore, the extent to which her positioning can be gauged as sympathetic or unsympathetic is dependent on her interaction with her male protagonists. Her positioning as woman is understood by and through her relationship to, and the positioning of, man.

The implications of transposing the political to the romantic are not necessarily as simplistic and manifest as they might appear, and, to infer that attaching an ahistorical discourse of melodrama to two inherently political liaisons is necessarily reductive would be to ignore the work of Tania Modeleski in Loving With A Vengeance: Mass Produced Fantasies for Women (1982), or of Janice Radway in Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy and Popular Literature (1984).  Both Modeleski and Radway highlight the pervasive practice of equating ‘female’ genres with ‘low’ art in critical discourse, and the concomitant tendency to dismiss these genres as unimportant, either because they are female-oriented, or because their status as female-oriented marks them as ideologically suspicious under feminist interrogation. Discussing the Freudian concept of female masochism and the attempts of some feminist scholars to situate consumption of the romance genre along these lines, Modeleski says that, ‘it is an important part of my project to show that the so-called masochism pervading these texts is a “cover” for anxieties, desires and wishes which if openly expressed would challenge the psychological and social order of things’ (30). By calling the subversion of the political to the romantic reductive, where it operates within Cleopatra’s mythology, I do not want to imply that the discourse of romance is itself less empowering, as Modeleski in particular has shown that the obverse is often true: ‘once it becomes clear how much of women’s anger and hostility is reflected in (albeit allayed by) these seemingly simple “love stories,” all notions about women “cherishing the chains of their bondage” become untenable’ (Modeleski 47). A romance-discourse does, however, attach a discourse of gender-appropriateness to the figure of Cleopatra, and begins to recuperate her back into the fold of hegemonic womanhood. It is therefore unsurprising to note that where the theme of doomed romance is strong within the narrative, Cleopatra is sympathetic. Cleopatra (1963) is a particularly good example, as it both allows Cleopatra to disavow the romantic and later re-align herself with the hegemonic. ‘No – your master must not be love,’ she tells Antony.  ‘Never love. Give yourself to love and you give yourself to forgetfulness – of what you are and who you are and what you want.’ Later, however, seeing Antony in despair after his defeat at Actium, she is repentant:

How wrong – how wrong I was!  Antony, the love you followed is here…Without you, Antony, this is not a world I want to live in, much less conquer.  Because, for me, there would be no love anywhere. Do you want me to die with you? I will. Would you want me to live with you?  Whatever you choose’ (Mankiewicz, 1963).

The obverse, that where the theme of sexual motivation is forefront, Cleopatra is less sympathetic, also generally holds true. She is positively-positioned only to the extent to which she conforms to female screen gender norms. While this is clearest in her twentieth-century incarnations (see note 8), it remains critical – though covert – in the twenty-first century, and feeds into two separate (but linked) discourses: Cleopatra as Siren and Cleopatra as Femme Fatale.

As Siren, Cleopatra is generally directly responsible for the death of Caesar (Antony’s defeat, while closely tied to Cleopatra’s actions, is usually attributed to his deficient performance of masculinity – see Kelly, 2010: 1-16), not by any deliberate act of malice but simply because her imperfect grasp of political realities causes her to demand imprudent action from Caesar, and the allure of her body causes him to accede despite his better judgement. Cleopatra (1999) has her argue with Caesar the day before the Ides of March because he is hesitant to follow her insistence that he crown himself king; Julius Caesar (2002) has Caesar appear with Cleopatra and Caesarion in the Forum the day before his assassination, ostensibly to declare that he has no intention of crowning himself king, but the mise-en-scene, music, and positioning of Cleopatra and the baby give the lie to his words. Caesar appears before the Roman forum, dressed elaborately in purple and gold, to the enthusiastic approbation of the crowd, who chant his name. The non-diegetic music clashes with their adoration: it is sinister and threatening, and cutaways to the stricken face of Brutus confirm that we are to read against what Caesar says in favour of what he does. He says, ‘I need no crown to act on your behalf,’ but with his next gesture he motions Cleopatra forward, carrying their son in her arms, swaddled in a rich, turquoise cloth. She is heavily Orientalised, conspicuously dressed in the imaginative and spectacular trappings of Egyptian monarchy, and Caesar has called her forward to witness him unveil a gold statue in her likeness. Brutus, dismayed, looks first at the putative royal family and then towards a statue of Caesar on which some members of the mob have placed a paper crown. The camera frames each of these separately, returning each time to Brutus’ face to reiterate his alarm, and the dialogue makes it clear that Cleopatra’s presence, her Other-ness, and her manifest embodiment of eastern autocratic rule, is enough to convince the conspirators to act:

CASSIUS: Do you still believe that ours is not a just cause?

BRUTUS: I’m with you.

(Edel, 2002)

The extent to which Caesar and Cleopatra’s affair was an historical contributory factor in his assassination is unclear, as is the extent to which the fact of his association with a member of the Egyptian royal family was an influence in his apparent ambitions to set himself up as a new king of Rome; however, the screen narratives are much less ambiguous.  

Cleopatra-as-Siren is not directly maligned by the narratives; indeed, this is a character arc that is closely associated with the theme of doomed romance and, as such, she is generally sympathetic. However, by re-positioning her as a player in a gender-appropriate melodrama, she is effectively evicted from the public sphere and her actions within it are at best ineffective, at worst directly damaging. Cleopatra-as-Siren has no place in the masculine world of politics, and her efforts to act as politician are undermined by a discourse of inadequacy. There is, however, considerable overlap between Cleopatra as Siren and Cleopatra as Femme Fatale (and I use the term for its discursive connotations, as an index of the woman who uses her sexual power to manipulate men, not as an effort to link these texts to the film noir cycle), and it is not impossible for her to act as Siren and Femme Fatale at different points within the same narrative. As Femme Fatale, the political threat embodied by Cleopatra is transposed into a sexual threat, which, while scandalous, is knowable in gender terms and therefore manageable. Furthermore, by sexualising her motives and modus operandi, the narratives also make direct reference to the filmic archetype of the femme fatale, who, by convention, will always ultimately be punished for her gender transgression. In short, even without the teleological advantage afforded by knowledge of the historical story, cursory knowledge of film linguistics tells us that the threat of Cleopatra’s sexuality will ultimately be contained.

The spectacularisation of bodies, especially male (but also female), is a generic convention of the historical epic, and this is undoubtedly a contributory factor in the trope’s endurance. As Kim Shahabudin says of the postwar cycle of historical epics, in The Appearance of History (2010), ‘Borrowing the authority of academic history enabled studios to show images of eroticism, violence, and dubious morality, banned from films with contemporary settings but immensely popular at the box office’ (108) – in other words, the appeal to a quasi-historical ‘accuracy’ inherent in the epic allowed for a degree of bodily display that was both narratively expedient and financially lucrative, and Cleopatra’s supposed sexual availability provides filmmakers with a legitimizing discourse for female bodily display. Thematically, therefore, costuming Cleopatra as Femme Fatale in these texts is consistent with her preceding screen tropology.

There is, however, a much more covert discourse operating in the twenty-first century texts under the aegis of Cleopatra as Femme Fatale. Texts such as Augustus (2002) and even, to an extent, Julius Caesar (2002) use the mechanism above to mark Cleopatra as excessive and therefore mitigate her political threat. Rome (2005-7), however, presents a considerably more astute and complex characterisation which, at first sight, appears antithetic to her previous incarnations and has contributed to a highly positive scholarly appraisal of the agency, albeit anachronistic, afforded to the women of the series. However, this requires closer interrogation in line with post-feminist ideas of female sexuality.

Feminist media studies theorists have worked to unpack the discourse of female sexual availability in the mass media. Rosalind Gill expresses this notion very concisely in her book Gender and the Media, where she titles one of the chapters ‘Irony Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry’ (110). Gill’s point is that the female body is unquestionably as available to the gaze as ever, but that the object of the gaze is now required to collude in her objectification by means of a post-modern meta-discourse that implies that, because she is aware of the gaze and aware of her to-be-looked-at-ness (to paraphrase Mulvey), she is rendered, ironically, in control of the gaze herself. Laid out in such deconstructed terminology, the logic behind the meta-discourse quickly falls apart; however, because it is covert, and therefore internalised, Gill says, it becomes much more difficult to identify in the first place, much less critique. Sexual objectification is therefore portrayed as the woman’s choice. Her power resides in sexual objectification, so by choosing to be objectified, she appears to choose power. The idea is continued in Stephanie Genz and Benjamin Brabon’s (2009) idea of ‘do-me feminism’.

The do-me feminist consciously employs her physical appearance and sexuality in order to achieve personal and professional objectives and gain control over her life. She expresses her individual agency not by politicising her relationships with men and her status as sexual object but primarily through the re-articulation of her feminine/sexual identity. (Genz and Brabon, 92)

This divorcing of sexual agency from political agency clearly re-domesticizes and re-constrains the expression of female agency. Moreover, by presenting it as iconic of female emancipation, post-feminism actively encourages women to participate in the process of objectifying themselves. Gill calls this ‘the shift from objectification to subjectification’ (255). She continues, ‘Women are not straightforwardly objectified but are presented as active, desiring sexual subjects who choose to present themselves in a seemingly objectified manner because it suits their liberated interests to do so’ (258). We can link this back to McRobbie’s idea of ‘faux feminism’ (1) – the idea that ‘the new female subject is, despite her freedom, called upon to be silent, to withhold critique in order to count as a modern, sophisticated girl’ (McRobbie 18). ‘Indeed,’ McRobbie continues

This withholding of critique is a condition of her freedom. There is quietude and complicity in the manners of generationally specific notions of cool, and more precisely, an uncritical relation to dominant commercially produced sexual representations which actively invoke hostility to assumed feminist positions from the past, in order to endorse a new regime of sexual meanings based on female consent, equality, participation, and pleasure (18).

What is framed as an expression of modern, liberated female sexuality, therefore, may in fact be no more than sexual objectification re-visioned as putative sexual power, where dissent is denied as ‘uncool’ – or, in keeping with Gill’s notion of irony-as-manufactured-consent, indicative of one who is hopelessly out of touch with what it means to be a ‘modern’ woman.

Considered in line with these arguments, it becomes much more difficult to justify a positive reading of the power/agency possessed by the women of Rome. For one thing, their power is largely sexual – and therefore domestic – which, while it might well be more in keeping with Late Republican social norms (although the extent to which women of the Republic were able to exercise power at all remains hotly debated), renders it extremely vulnerable to manipulation by the meta-discourse outlined above. Female full-frontal nudity is abundant in both seasons of the show, but, by contrast, male full-frontal nudity is considerably less frequent and is generally accompanied by a discourse of derogated power, as is the case with the naked slave Atia sends to Servilia (1.6) or Antony’s numerous full-frontal appearances (see Kelly, 2010). Cleopatra’s sexual availability is marked from her first appearance on screen, where the camera starts at her chained ankles and moves languorously along the length of her body as she lies on a bed in captivity, and is repeatedly underlined by shots of her lying on a bed while the camera films her from between her legs. These pornographic references clearly mark her excessive sexuality, and make it very difficult to sustain a political discourse around her use of that sexuality. Finally, in case anyone misses the point that Cleopatra represents a very dangerous sexuality for Rome, the narrative presents a staple of Augustan propaganda that has nonetheless never before been seen on screen: the charge that Caesar did not father Caesarion, the son Cleopatra claimed was his. This is an allegation that was levelled against Cleopatra during and after Caesar’s lifetime, and, clearly, can never be definitively proven one way or another, but, whatever previous screen texts have made of Cleopatra’s dangerous sexual power, they have never previously questioned Caesarion’s paternity. That Rome chooses to do so is a way of tacitly acknowledging that Cleopatra’s sexual availability is perhaps not all that scandalous to a twenty-first century audience; sexual duplicity, however, strikes at a specifically (and literally) patriarchal anxiety and marks her as a threat. There is lip-service paid to political intent, when she talks about her need to give Caesar a son; however, this is easily forgotten when the scene descends into the tropes of a sex-comedy, as Vorenus is comically horrified by Cleopatra’s no-frills attitude to seduction. Furthermore, while the political ambition behind the baby’s conception is not referenced again outside this episode (1.8), his paternity is – and regularly.

In a narrative sense, sexual politics may achieve material gain for its female practitioners, but in the filmic sense, it is woman-as-spectacle, the Other-ing of the Roman female body for viewer pleasure. Furthermore, the most skilful practitioners of female sexual manipulation are also the women who pose the greatest threat to the public sphere: Servilia, who is determined to destroy Caesar; Atia, whose concerns are dynastic rather than for the public good; and, of course, Cleopatra. Such an inherent critique of the use of female sexual agency considerably undermines any attempt to positively position it, and echoes McRobbie’s  notion of ‘quietude and complicity’ (18): the female sexual body is celebrated only in as far as it is contained within the domestic sphere.

 

Sexuality, Politics and Motherhood

Cleopatra’s progenerative use of her sexuality provokes a concomitant interrogation of images of Cleopatra as Mother. The relationship between screen performances of femininity and screen performances of motherhood is extremely complex, and therefore images of Cleopatra as Mother are a rich source of information as to the extent of her conformity to the hegemonic paradigm. In Motherhood Misconceived: Representing the Maternal in US Films (2009), Heather Addison, Mary-Kate Goodwin-Kelly and Elaine Roth note that ‘the representation of motherhood on screen and in related discourse has served an ideological agenda.

Indeed, Hollywood’s fascinating misconceptions of motherhood suggest that hegemony is maintained through the management of maternity. Mothers reproduce dominant ideology (quite literally), yet also become ready targets if they fail to uphold prevailing notions of ‘good’ motherhood. (4)

Screen narratives of Cleopatra only rarely omit mention of her son by Caesar, although it is notable that her children by Antony are referenced only once (Rome: Season Two), and even then their youngest son is absent. Already, therefore, it is possible to detect a progenitive discourse attached to an evaluation of the two relationships, with the Caesar-Cleopatra alliance afforded a greater hegemonic ‘worth’ due to the fact that it produces a child, and the Antony-Cleopatra alliance, if not quite dismissed as puerile, certainly tacitly positioned as inherently trivial – a kind of ‘puppy-love’, not quite adult. If this seems like a bit of a semantic leap, bear in mind that the Antony/Caesar screen dynamic is itself intrinsically Oedipal, with Antony-as-(putative)-son trying and failing to live up to Caesar-as-father, and that Antony’s sexual conquest of Cleopatra is generally configured in these terms (see Kelly 2010, 8). The corollary of this is that Antony’s position within the narrative is very often configured as childlike, which has important implications for Cleopatra’s position.

Cleopatra (1999) is most specific, actively stating Antony’s infantilisation:

CLEOPATRA: He’s wonderful with [Caesarion]

OLYMPOS: I shouldn’t wonder – he’s a child himself.

(Roddam, 1999)

Although this is most usefully read as a trope of Antony’s iconography, it nevertheless impacts on our reading of Cleopatra: if Antony is childlike, she becomes, by implication, his protector, and the narrative provides ample opportunity to read their relationship in these terms. Furthermore, Cleopatra is insistently portrayed as a loving and affectionate mother to Caesarion – the narrative is occasionally interrupted with vignettes that serve no purpose other than to frame her in this light – and his safety is her paramount concern. It is, in fact, with an eye to Caesarion’s safety that she misreads the political situation between Egypt and Octavian and persuades Antony to break with Rome. That Cleopatra as Mother is purportedly an image that the audience is to read positively is repeatedly invoked by appealing to the cultural archetype of the mother as protector (and it is notable that, in the twenty-first century narratives, the historical fact of Caesarion’s death a few weeks after his mother’s suicide is either elided or completely denied).  We see Cleopatra, for instance, heavily pregnant and presiding over matters of legislative justice, horrified at the report of a man who murdered his four children and instantly sentencing him to death; later, she repeatedly states her belief that Caesarion is not safe from Octavian as motivation for her actions.

There are, however, two counter-discourses that serve to continually undermine this positive reading. The first is fed by the model of Antony-as-child, and is underlined by Cleopatra’s repeated reference to her son as ‘Egypt’, or, to put it another way, the seat of her dynastic ambitions. This is not enough to elide the very real maternal affection that she demonstrates throughout the film; however, Antony-as-child provides a troubling counter-narrative when placed within this framework. After specifically establishing him as ‘a child himself’, the narrative gradually unfolds to the point where, following their defeat at the Battle of Actium, Antony and Cleopatra have returned to Alexandria, but Antony has plunged into helpless despair. Cleopatra, offered a lifeline by Octavian if she will deliver Antony’s severed head, is initially undecided, although Octavian has clearly stated that these are the only circumstances under which he will permit Caesarion to live once Egypt is defeated. Urged by Olympos, ‘in the name of Isis, do not forsake your country… your own child!  For love!’ (Roddam, 1999) she reluctantly accedes and makes her way to Antony’s bedroom armed with a dagger. Antony is asleep, and his posture and the heavily amplified soundtrack of his gentle, regular breathing, strongly evoke the image of a sleeping child. Cleopatra is therefore placed in a hopeless position: she must either openly declare that the life of her son is worth less than the life of her lover, or else she must murder the lover that has been configured as her putative child. Her situation is resolved for her when Antony wakes suddenly and declares that he was dreaming of victory, which is enough to convince her that they can win together; however, her image as ‘good’ mother has been seriously compromised.

Secondly, by actively seeking to be a ‘good’ mother, Cleopatra has essentially precluded herself from acting effectively in the public sphere. The positioning of Cleopatra as affectionate, nurturing mother evokes Genz and Brabon’s idea of the ‘new traditionalism’ (57), the movement to ‘return to domesticity/femininity’ (57), of which an integral component is the choice – articulated in post-feminist terms – to repudiate the public sphere for the private and the maternal. ‘In a chiastic reversal of the home/work dichotomy,’ say Genz and Brabon

domesticity has been transformed into an idyllic space of personal satisfaction and freedom from the shackles of working life. According to the rhetoric of ‘mystique chic’, the workplace has switched places with the homefront as the source of female frustration, and now the corporation is presented as the same prison for women that the 1960s suburban home had once been. (58)

This idealization of the maternal makes an appeal to female choice (and the post-feminist rhetoric of feminism as denial-of-femininity) every bit as explicit as that expressed in the paradigm of sexual-availability-as-female-empowerment. The archetype of the ‘bad’ working mother has been discussed so rigorously elsewhere that it scarcely requires explanation here, and, in any case, this is not the model that this text promotes. Rather, it is the corollary: that if career and ‘good’ motherhood are incompatible, then the obverse holds true, and, by extension, a ‘good’ mother cannot also be effective in the public sphere. Cleopatra’s maternal instincts are well-attested by the narrative, but they lead her to make poorly-informed decisions, which are politically disastrous for her – her determination to go to war with Octavian, in the belief that he intends to harm her child, is a case in point. Simply put, by allowing Cleopatra to reclaim a measure of hegemonic femininity by seeking to protect her child, her ability to act as leader is effectively compromised. This is considerably more subtle than previous texts, which have sought to impugn Cleopatra’s maternal imperative, and the negative connotations are easy to miss, buried, as they are, deeply beneath a pseudo-recuperative discourse of positive mothering.

 

Orientalism, The Gaze, and The Other-ed Cleopatra

Similarly, Rome disguises a negative discourse behind an apparently positive reconfiguration – the Cleopatra of both series is intelligent and politically gifted, cogently discussing tactics with Caesar and skilfully manipulating Antony’s excessive desires, yet the extent to which the female viewer is encouraged to identify with her is severely limited by a Saidean discourse of Other. This is a key theme in screen (and other) representations of Cleopatra, and invokes theories of the tourist gaze. Rhona Jackson describes the convergence of the film gaze and the tourist gaze as motivated by ‘the desire to look, and to possess (by appropriation) what is looked at’ (192).  She continues:

the tourist desires to look in order to feed the power associated with socio-culturally understood superior knowledge of place and space, and the ideological permission of the visited.  In terms of narcissism, the tourist, like the film spectator, seeks a familiar image, someone like themselves, or one with whom they wish to identify. (192)

The importance of ‘the look’ is clear when we consider that the cinematic historical epic has been predicated on spectacle; indeed, David Eldridge suggests that the appeal of the 1950s toga epic was partially its ability to ‘present[…] visual excess in an appropriate narrative context, where audiences were already accustomed to (and expected) such extravagance.’ (2006: 59) The question of identification is more complex. Much has been written about the tendency in the traditional historical epic towards positioning Rome as Other and requiring audiences to identify with the non-Roman against Roman imperialistic vice (see note 9). Audience association or disassociation with screen Romes is complex and informed by a multiplicity of factors (gender, nationality, historical moment, and so on), but becomes considerably more complex when it comes to Republican Rome, with which early American rhetoric is heavily identified. It is notable, therefore, that the Other-ness of Cleopatra is sufficient to make Rome stand in for Us – modern, western civilization – in all of these texts. The manner in which this is accomplished is manifold. At the simplest level, Cleopatra’s ethnic difference is expressed through the use of heavily Orientalised mise-en-scene, which articulates both the Other-ness of Ptolemaic Alexandria and of its leader(s) (see Fig. 4). This serves to underline the distinction with Roman order, personified in the disciplined body of Caesar (as opposed to the excessive body of Cleopatra).

Rome is a particularly good example of this Other-ing of Alexandria. In episode 1.8, Caesar arrives with his entourage at the Alexandrian court after Pompey’s assassination, to find Cleopatra absent and the court presided over by the teenage Ptolemy XIII and his regency council. From the moment he enters the palace, Alexandria’s Other-ness is emphasized to the absolute exclusion of anything reassuringly familiar to a modern audience: smoke swirls from incense burners, priests chant in what is presumably ancient Egyptian, the floor is covered with sand, and the court are revealed to be a ragged mismatch of characters without any thematic consistency of dress or bearing, besides some unexplained cosmetic markings on their faces. Contrasted against the familiar Romans in their familiar uniforms – with, in fact, a uniformity of recognisable style – the effect is to distance the audience completely from the people and culture of Alexandria. In this alien environment, emphasis is placed on the child-king by sweeping the camera up to the throne and finding his feet dangling above the floor. He sighs and rolls his eyes in petulant boredom as the rite continues. Later, when Cleopatra arrives in the throne room, the council are found playing a game of blind man’s buff with the king, to everyone’s evident amusement. Shot in dark, smoky and claustrophobic interiors, the effect is to mark the crowded, game-playing court as chaotic, in contrast to the utilitarian order of the visiting Romans, representing Us – the western, tourist gaze. As the shift in power towards Cleopatra becomes manifest, the chaos intensifies, with the regency council indulging in a spot of childish finger-pointing, which is as effective in the Alexandrian court in front of Caesar-as-Father as it might be in a nursery.

Most texts also make use of the standard Augustan (and anti-Oriental) tropes of decadence, despotism, luxury, and so on. Said talks about the figuring of the Oriental as unable to self-govern, which was historically used as a justification for imperial rule: ‘England knows Egypt; Egypt is what England knows; England knows that Egypt cannot have self-government; England confirms that by occupying Egypt…’ (Said, 2003: 34). This manifests itself as a hybrid Orientalist/Augustan configuration of the Alexandrian court as a kind of petulant child in need of a firm, adult hand. Timothy Dalton as Caesar (see note 10) in the 1999 miniseries is able, therefore, to stand in for the ‘adult’ west and expect us to share his horror at the petulant squabbling between Cleopatra and her sister Arsinoe that results in Cleopatra having her sister murdered in the palace prisons. Unusually, the text attempts to offer a mitigating plea in Cleopatra’s defence: she is acting to secure the dynasty against in-fighting in future generations (which is a fore-runner for her later protective impulses towards her son). This is where the discourse of Other really comes into play: Cleopatra’s motives might be pure, but by Othering her, and by having Dalton express his outrage on behalf of Us as the West, her actions are definitively shown to be misguided.

The motif of the Oriental ruler as child is repeated throughout Cleopatra’s screen incarnations, usually with Caesar figured as Father and Antony as errant playmate – both of which are firmly in line with Augustan rhetoric, and which dovetails, of course, with colonialist policy. Rome (2005.8), moreover, goes further still in Other-ing Cleopatra by introducing Cleopatra the opium addict. For a woman against whom any number of pejorative charges were levelled, it is notable that, if any classical source alleges she was a drug-user, research into her life and reign has yet to uncover it. In fact, Michael Grant suggests that the reverse may well have been true, regardless of propaganda. Cleopatra habitually wore an amethyst ring engraved with the word µεθη (methé, or drunkenness), which may be the source of rumours about the excessive alcohol consumption at her court, but which in fact suggests the opposite. The amethyst is the stone of sobriety, and the ‘drunkenness’ is much more likely, Grant says, to refer to the spiritual intoxication of the devotees of Dionysus (Grant 178). Opium addiction was known to doctors of the Hellenistic period (Porter and Teich 4), but the plant was much more commonly used medicinally during the period, with the usual application by ingestion of an opium solution (David 197). Thus Cleopatra’s addiction to her opium pipe, as referenced in 1.8 and again in 2.9, is both ahistorical and anachronistic. Its inclusion is once again the Roman rhetoric of eastern decadence, and another clue to the audience as to how to read the character of Cleopatra. None of the leading Romans exhibit any dependence on or problem with alcohol or drugs, with the exception of Mark Antony, whose authority is always distinctly suspect. Before Cleopatra as a character is given any opportunity to display her considerable political gift, it has already been undermined by a discourse of drug-dependence and, as I have shown, dangerously uncontainable sexuality. Both serve to render her body as spectacle, and both frame her as Other.

 

Conclusion

Although the intent of these texts may or may not be to positively position Cleopatra in the twenty-first century, there seems to be a genuine confusion as to what constitutes a positive construction of the woman of power. It may be unfair to castigate these texts as being direct reproductions of a latent patriarchy in the practice of filmmaking, but what I have shown is that, despite an evident effort – for the most part – to try to reconfigure Cleopatra into a model of femininity that avoids explicitly or implicitly commenting on her gender and her performance of her gender, she nevertheless remains the site for negotiation and interrogation of these familiar anxieties about the powerful woman. In keeping with the rhetoric of post-feminism, Cleopatra performs the emancipated, post-feminist sexual subject, but in sexualising herself she also performs the ‘shift from objectification to subjectification’ (Gill:255). In seeking to mother effectively, she performs the ‘home/work dichotomy’ (Genz and Brabon 58) so that she may either perform political aptitude at the expense of her femininity, or maternal femininity at the expense of her political aptitude. This is McRobbie’s idea of ‘faux feminism’ par excellance: the post-Revival Cleopatra draws ‘on a vocabulary that includes words like “empowerment” and “choice”’ but in a way that renders them ‘a kind of substitute for feminism’ (McRobbie 1). Regardless of any stated or unstated desire to recuperate her as a quasi-feminist icon for the twenty-first century, Cleopatra remains Spectacle in all of her screen incarnations: her body is made available to the gaze, either fantastically dressed or exposed in nakedness (or, often, some combination of the two).  The body and the idea of Cleopatra is Other-ed for western consumption, and Cleopatra-as-Spectacle must be treated with extreme caution. Spectacle is not innocent where it employs the rhetoric of Other to create to-be-looked-at-ness. As I have argued, we should be particularly cautious when the narrative explicitly asks us to read Cleopatra as intelligent, capable political agent, but simultaneously goes to significant lengths to iterate the Other-ness of the court she governs (Rome 2005.8). Lip-service to the emancipated woman of power has been paid, but we cannot identify with her: she is Other.

 

Notes:

  1. The BBC website, predictably, ran the story, and it also appeared in The Times (15th March 2009), The Daily Mail (16th March 2009), and The Telegraph (15th March 2009).
  2. Indeed, screen narratives of Elizabeth tend to de-sexualize her, and her power appears to be rooted in her refusal to be subjugated within a heterosexual union.
  3. Cleopatra VII (69 – 30 BCE) was the last ruler of the Macedonian Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt. Born into an unstable political situation and faced with the reality of Roman imperial encroachment, on her ascent to the throne in 51 BCE she adopted a policy of conciliation and alliance with the Roman leaders of the day – first Julius Caesar, by whom she had a son, Ptolemy Caesar, and later, after Caesar’s assassination, with Marcus Antonius. This latter alliance lasted from 41 BCE until their deaths in 30 BCE, and produced three children: twins Cleopatra Selene and Alexander Helios, and a son, Ptolemy Philadelphus. However, Antonius’ authority within the so-called Second Triumvirate, which governed Rome from 43 BCE until approximately 33 BCE, was under constant challenge from the imperialistic ambitions of Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian (later known as Augustus Caesar), and the two men came to blows at Actium, on the west coast of Greece, in 31 BCE. The battle proved disastrous for Antonius and Cleopatra (against whom Octavian had declared war) and they were forced to retreat to Alexandria, where Octavian engaged them once more the following year. Defeated, Antonius committed suicide and Cleopatra, realizing that she had very little alternative, followed suit a couple of weeks later. After her death, Octavian had her son by Caesar put to death, but allowed her children by Antonius to be moved to Rome, where they were raised by Antonius’ third wife (and Octavian’s sister) Octavia. The final years of the schism between Antonius and Octavian were marked by a vicious and defamatory propaganda war, and Octavian’s ultimate victory has ensured that his version, complete with slurs against Antonius and Cleopatra, has been the version passed down through antiquity, from which we have derived our modern understanding of their personalities and failings.
  4. Cleopatra (1999, Dir. Franc Roddam); Imperium: Augustus (2002, Dir. Roger Young); Julius Caesar (2002, Dir. Uli Edel); Rome (2005-7, Dir. Various)
  5. There is a tension in Roman rhetoric between the idealization of ancient Greek culture and the need to discursively justify Roman colonial occupation of Greece and the Hellenized eastern kingdoms conquered by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE, and now largely under Roman rule. This tension is repeatedly manifested in gendered terms that acknowledge the superiority of ancient Greek thought, but comment on Greek fitness-to-self-govern (Edwards: 1993). This is an early precursor of Saidean Orientalism and its rhetoric of colonial justification.
  6. Fulvia, Antony’s second wife, was another notable target of this form of invective. Diana Preston (2008) notes that, during the Perusine War (40-41 BCE), obscene propaganda was used to frame Fulvia as sexually voracious – slingshots have been discovered in archaeological digs at the battle site inscribed with epithets such as ‘Give it to Fulvia’ and ‘I am aiming at Fulvia’s cunt’ (Preston 217). Preston also translates an epigram, attributed to Octavian, (as follows: ‘Glaphyra [an eastern queen] is fucked by Antony / Fulvia therefore claims a balancing fuck from me. I hate such games! / She cries, either let’s fuck or fight! / Doesn’t she know my prick is dearer to me than life? Let trumpets sound!’ (translation in Preston 217)
  7. This cycle of historical epics runs from Quo Vadis? (1951) to The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964).  Winkler (2001) and Fitzgerald (2001) offer a comprehensive account of the socio-political and gender anxieties enacted in these movies. Winkler situates Cleopatra (1963) as part of an epilogue of high-spectacle, high-budget movies informed by a rhetoric of unstable father-son relationships, reflecting the coming-of-age of the Baby Boom generation and a sense of questioning the legacy bequeathed to them by their World War Two-era parents.
  8. Cleopatra (1934) positions Cleopatra as duplicitous and devoted by turns – first openly seducing Caesar in pursuit of her political ambitions, then afforded a measure of sympathy at her genuine grief over his death. Likewise, her seduction of Antony is demonstrably utilitarian (the camera pans up to her expressionless face as he kisses her neck, although she has been smiling and flirting with him only seconds earlier) and she is prepared to give serious consideration to murdering him in order to keep her throne, but she is allowed to recuperate this position when she subordinates the political to the domestic, crying, ‘At last I’ve seen a god come to life! I’m no longer a queen – I’m a woman.’ Antony asks, ‘You choose me, Cleopatra, against the world?’ The narrative has established that this is scarcely hyperbole: Cleopatra’s decision to stand by Antony is tantamount to accepting the inevitability of defeat. Nevertheless, she answers, ‘Against the world’ (DeMille, 1934). Her decision to choose love over power recuperates her gender reversal and the closing sequences frame her as the sacrificial woman, losing everything – including her life – for the man she loves.
  9. Wyke (1997) discusses this idea at length. She argues that the nascent American state looked to an idealized Republican Rome to construct a cohesive identity for its ethnically diverse population, and, in doing so, created its Other in imperial Rome, which was conflated – particularly during the War of Independence – with British colonialism, imperialistic arrogance and corruption.
  10. Dalton’s own star-image clearly comes heavily invested with non-diegetic significance: he is best known for playing the very epitome of a certain kind of British hegemonic masculinity in his two Bond movies. A similar non-diegetic discourse accompanies Billy Zane as Marc Antony – although possibly not as well-known as Dalton, only two years prior to Cleopatra (1999) he had been highly visible as Caledon Hockley in Titanic (1997), and had a reasonable presence on the US screen through a number of independent productions and supporting roles. Leonor Varela, on the other hand, was still appearing in credits in roles too minor to be given a name (such as ‘Ballroom Beauty’ in The Man in the Iron Mask) when she was cast as Cleopatra. Placing an unknown actress alongside two much better-known actors in the central trio Others the character of Cleopatra before the opening credits have even finished. Dalton and Zane are essentially knowable commodities: they are familiar, they are white British and they are white American. Varela is unknowable precisely because she is unknown; she is exotic, she is not a native English-speaker, and her skin is significantly darker than either of the leading men.

 

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Wyke, Maria. Projecting the Past: Ancient Rome, Cinema and History. New York: Routledge, 1997.

 

Filmography

Caesar and Cleopatra. Dir. G. Pascal. Gabriel Pascal Productions, 1945. DVD

Cleopatra. Dir F. Roddam. Babelsberg International Film Produktion/Hallmark Entertainment, 1999. DVD

Cleopatra: Portrait of a Killer . Dir. P. Elston. Lion TV/ BBC, 2009. Television

Imperium: Augustus. Dir. Y. Young. EOS Entertainment/ Lux Vide/ Radiotelevisione Italia/ Telecinco/ Zweites Deutches Fernsehen, 2002. DVD.

Julius Caesar. Dir. U. Edel. De Angelis Group/Degeto Films/TNT/Victory Media Group, 2002. DVD

Rome: Season 1 and Rome: Season 2. HD Vision Studios/ BBC / HBO, 2005-7. DVD  

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