Monday, September 6, 2010

King Herod and Cleopatra's Daughter

cross-posted from

Though no ancient sources directly link the two monarchs, it’s difficult to write a novel about the life of Cleopatra’s daughter without referencing one of her mother’s bitterest enemies.

Herod the Great was Cleopatra VII’s rival even before her affair with the Roman Triumvir, Antony. As a Ptolemy, Cleopatra maintained a hereditary claim on Judea, but that wasn’t the only source of her conflict with King Herod.

To say that Herod’s personal life was a study in dysfunction is to put it lightly. When he entered on a campaign to rid himself of his wife’s relatives, of the Hasmonean Dynasty that preceded him, his mother-in-law found a sympathetic ally in Cleopatra VII. The Queen of Egypt tried to intercede on behalf of her friend, and apparently won Herod’s lifelong enmity as a result.

The feeling appears to have been mutual. Cleopatra would later demand from Antony that Herod’s whole kingdom be surrendered to her, but because Herod had been a loyal friend to Antony, he only stripped Herod of date and balsam plantations in Jericho and Ein Gedi.

The rivalry reached such a fever pitch that Herod is said to have considered assassinating Cleopatra, but was dissuaded by his advisors, who assured him that Antony would never forgive him. After Antony and Cleopatra’s defeat, King Herod went over to Octavian, asserting that he had given Antony the best possible advice: Kill Cleopatra.

Did the rivalry end there, or did Herod continue to fear the Ptolemies even after the famous queen took her own life?

Three of Cleopatra’s children survived the civil war: little Ptolemy Philadelphus, Cleopatra Selene, and her twin brother, Alexander Helios. As Ptolemies, all three could exert a claim over Judea, and because they were half-Roman, it might well have been feared that their claims might be supported against Herod if the political fortunes of Octavian should change. Even dead, Cleopatra and Antony still had their partisans, in Rome and elsewhere. Alexandrian cults like those surrounding the goddess Isis still held enormous political sway. If we credit the gospel of Matthew, then we also know that Herod was particularly threatened by children born under auspices and omens, which would have led him to be doubly wary of Cleopatra’s twins.

Given the portrait of Herod that has come down to us through the ages–namely that he was so power hungry and paranoid that he had his own sons put to death as rivals–it is difficult to believe that he ever viewed Cleopatra’s daughter with dispassion. Cleopatra Selene not only survived childhood, but went on to become Queen of Mauretania. Are we to believe that King Herod was not made uneasy to see his enemy’s daughter given more territory to rule than all the other client kingdoms in the empire put together?

Cleopatra Selene and her husband Juba appear to have had the implicit trust of Augustus, and did not need to make frequent visits back to the capitol to secure his good will, but Herod was less secure. Whereas Selene and Juba founded a port city and named it after Caesar, Herod commenced building two such cities, naming them both after Augustus. Whereas Cleopatra Selene and Juba appear to have worked in easy concert with their proconsular neighbors in Africa Novo, Herod was obliged to get permission for his military exploits, and overstepped on at least one occasion, prompting an angry letter from Augustus. Given these tensions, it is hard to imagine that Herod and Selene did not wish one another ill.

However, whether or not an active rivalry between Herod and Cleopatra Selene existed, the King of Judea was a pivotal contemporary figure in her life by which she must have measured most of her accomplishments as a client queen. That Herod comes down to us through history more well-known than Cleopatra Selene is partially a function of her gender, but also because her reign was one of relative peace and prosperity, lacking the big splashy family drama that marked Herod’s rule.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Troy and Women from Hollywood's Perspective

The movie "Troy" is now 30 minutes into playing out on AMC. Well done movie.

I'm also enjoying Brad Pitt in his portrayal of Achilles. He's a haughty, prideful, resentful young man who bears no loyalty to anyone except, perhaps, to his mother. I like his representation in this movie because he breaks from the static, predictable character acting of all his other movies I've seen since "Thelma and Louise."

Also interesting in this story is finally being able to see all the Greek characters I've read about in mythology and history taking their respective places in time juxtaposed to one another. Things finally come together. Relationships are made clear. I'll probably take the next 1.5 hrs to watch this story play out so that I can see how the history goes with all the parts and pieces put together instead of a bit here and a bit there. These are not people who were scattered across time, mere puppets acting out some mindless tasks. These were people full of feelings, cares, fears, needs for respect and association. They had desires to attain great things in many ways.

One thing I'm finding fascinating in this representation, however, is that Pitt seems to be telling us that Achilles was gay. Of course the Encyclopedia Britannica Junior was going to contain a very sanitized version of his life. But nothing else provided that perspective. It appears one of his lovers was his "cousin" (whose name I didn't catch) but as the story progresses, that concept is downplayed in deference to his finding Briseis and ultimately developing care for her.

From a historical analysis I saw many years ago on a PBS program, there was a discussion of Greek moralities and customs. Because so much emphasis was placed on family and the sanctity of the union, the virginity of the bride, men were allowed homosexual relationships until they were ready to wed. Once married, homosexual relationships were forbidden and the marriage bed was protected from desecration. So also were the young women protected from premature awareness and childbirth too early for the development and successful delivery of healthy offspring. Dalliances were discouraged.

I'm also finding the portrayal of the women and their roles in the household (even if it is the court) is fascinating. There seems to be a lot of liberty and freedom in many ways. Whereas, the knowledge I've been given before seeing this is that women were still subservient but not as much as other civilizations. There's no representation of how women played a role in political strategy and decision making. But then, women were the minor characters in this story. This was a story about how one woman caused a war and the focus was on carrying out the war.

Still, this story says women played a very minor role in life and governing. Why have women been treated as mere public eye candy and baby bearers? They are so essential is bringing about developing our cultures, telling the stories, being in partnership with the work and essential in planning. Yet, here again, they are shown as being the minor characters and mere tools in carrying out the larger scheme of life.

As in my youth, I viewed this movie and got curious about the facts - which were real and which fictional. I don't have a wonderful encyclopedia now. I have my laptop and access to information on the Web. So I went to the story of Achilles that can be found on Wikipedia. Interesting how this movie dovetailed so well with the facts on the encyclopedia.

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