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CLEOPATRA IN CHICAGO

By Robert K. Ritner, Associate Professor of Egyptology
The Oriental Institute, and the
Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations
The University of Chicago

(This article originally appeared in The Oriental Institute News and Notes, No. 171, Fall 2001, and is made available electronically with the permission of the editor.)


20 October 2001 marks not only the Chicago opening of the grand exhibit Cleopatra of Egypt: From History to Myth but also the revival of a partnership between the Oriental Institute and The Field Museum unprecedented since the 1977 exhibit Treasures of Tutankhamun. Organized by Susan Walker, Deputy Keeper of Greek and Roman Antiquities at the British Museum, and hosted locally by The Field Museum, this survey of the varied images of Egypt's most famous queen comprises over 300 objects that range from ancient statuary, reliefs, inscriptions, coinage, and documents to more modern engravings, paintings, photographs, and movie memorabilia. These artifacts provide an unparalleled view of Cleopatra, with many new identifications, including representations in both Greek and Egyptian style and the queen's own handwritten subscription on an official decree.

Designated by modern historians as the seventh of her name, Cleopatra Thea Philopator ("Cleopatra, the goddess, who loves her father") was the last and most illustrious member of a highly inbred Macedonian dynasty descended from Ptolemy son of Lagos, a prominent general of Alexander the Great. Cleopatra VII was born in 69 bc at a time of national weakness, when Roman expansion dictated internal Egyptian politics, reduced its foreign holdings, and threatened the existence of the kingdom itself. Ascending the throne in 51 bc with a hostile junior brother (Ptolemy XIII) as her co-regent and - following dynastic policy - her husband, the "Greek" Cleopatra is first attested in religious ceremonies honoring native Egyptian deities, a reflection of the multi-cultural nature of Ptolemaic society and court policy. Cleopatra's expulsion from Alexandria by her brother's partisans in 48 bc coincided with Julius Caesar's arrival in Egypt, and her successful ploy of being smuggled back into the palace in a bedroll or carpet led to civil war, the death of Ptolemy XIII, and the birth of her son Caesarion ("little Caesar") a year later. Subsequently married to her youngest brother Ptolemy XIV, Cleopatra nevertheless joined Caesar in Rome until his assassination on 15 March 44 bc. Her imperial ambitions temporarily stalled, she returned to Egypt (conveniently losing Ptolemy XIV by poison en route) and reigned with her son by Caesar, "Ptolemy (XV) who is called Caesar, the god who loves his father and his mother." In 41 bc, after Roman territorial authority was divided between Octavian in the west and Mark Antony in the east, Cleopatra was summoned to a meeting in Tarsus, in southern Anatolia. There her charm and lavish displays captivated Antony and initiated both a turbulent love affair and a political alliance that would produce four children, expand Cleopatra's realm to the fullest extent of Ptolemaic control, and provoke a disastrous war with Octavian. Defeated at Actium in 31 bc, Cleopatra and Antony retreated to Egypt. Antony slew himself with his own sword; Cleopatra confined herself to her mausoleum and failed to captivate the dour Octavian. When she committed suicide in 30 bc, dressed as the goddess Isis and slain by the bite of a sacred cobra, she was only 39 years old. So beloved was she in Egypt that her supporters bribed the invading Romans to preserve her statues. Over two millennia later, her image and legend have become immortal.

Despite her fame, Cleopatra's history has been a victim of politics, preserved only in fragments or in negative characterizations produced by her enemies. The current exhibit is the first to concentrate explicitly on the surviving evidence for the great queen, though an excellent precursor, Cleopatra's Egypt: The Age of the Ptolemies, sponsored by The Brooklyn Museum in 1989, presented 140 artworks of this vibrant period. Divided into eight sections, the Chicago display documents the Ptolemaic dynasty (332-30 bc), the religious and cultural life of Alexandria and the countryside, Egyptian and Greek representations of Cleopatra VII and her court, Caesar and Cleopatra, Antony and Cleopatra, the final conflict with Octavian, Egyptomania in Italy, and Cleopatra's often manipulated cultural legacy. Chicago is the final, and only American, venue for the exhibition, which opened at the Palazzo Ruspoli in Rome (27 October 2000-25 February 2001) before moving to the British Museum (12 April-26 August 2001). The Chicago exhibition runs from 20 October 2001 to 3 March 2002.

While The Field Museum is the primary sponsor of the Chicago exhibit, overseen by David Foster, Senior Coordinator of Temporary Exhibits, the Oriental Institute has collaborated on the project since the preliminary discussions held in my office on 7 February 2000. Co-sponsored programs include public lectures by Susan Walker, Ian Moyer, and myself on topics of artistic representation, history, and propaganda, as well as a film series of documentaries surveying Cleopatra's dramatic life and legacy. As with the Tutankhamun exhibit of years ago, advanced graduate students in Egyptology have been asked to provide gallery tours, introductory lectures, and classes for the Field's education department. Further Oriental Institute lectures and seminars have been developed by Museum Education. As the sole, and volunteer, academic consultant in Chicago, I have acted as liaison between the institutions, in almost daily contact with Barbara Ceiga, Exhibition Developer of The Field Museum. My evolving duties have given me a new appreciation for the complexities entailed in mounting such an extraordinary museum exhibit.

Each venue of the Cleopatra exhibition has been tailored to local expectations and interests, particularly in the final section devoted to later appropriations of Cleopatra's image and symbolism. In Rome, the exhibit stressed the continued influence of Egyptian motifs in Italy after Octavian's victory, while the London show added British sculptures, porcelains, and paintings. In the United States, the dominant influence of Hollywood cannot be overlooked, and extra offerings here include a dress worn by Elizabeth Taylor in the 1963 production of "Cleopatra," in addition to photographs or film clips of Theda Bara, Tallulah Bankhead, Claudette Colbert, Vivien Leigh, Sophia Loren, Katherine Hepburn, and many others. The image of the "exotic and seductive Cleopatra" has inspired costumes for society ladies both in England and in the United States. As a counterpart to the London bust of Lady Stepney as Cleopatra, The Field Museum offers a photograph of the costumed Mrs. Marshall Field I (Delia Caton), reclining on a leopard-skin rug.

Initially, my official duties extended only to reviewing the labels for this final, Chicago section, but it soon became clear that the needs of a natural history museum dictated a subtle shift in focus toward social and political, rather than artistic, history. To accomplish this goal, over 300 individual and group labels supplied by the British Museum were revised by Barbara, reviewed and further revised by myself, and then returned to Susan Walker in London for final approval. After weeks of additional research and writing, and with the blessing of the British Museum, the finalized labels and didactic materials should offer the Chicago visitor a broad historical perspective. Details are necessarily restricted by available space and readers' patience, but with The Field Museum's larger gallery space, the Chicago show has an advantage in presentation. As a result of this Egyptological review, new labels include not only additional details, but also new discoveries. While examining two rings said to have representations of Egyptian priests (catalog nos. 136-137), I re-identified the carvings as rare, Hellenistic images of Ptah and Imhotep-Aesclepius, the latter clearly indicated by a small caduceus adjacent to the Egyptian figure.

Such re-attributions have become a hallmark of this exhibition, with Greek-style portraits of Cleopatra newly identified by Susan Walker and Egyptian-style images newly recognized by Sally-Ann Ashton of the Petrie Museum. Controversy regarding these proposals has stimulated discussion both in print and at the British Museum's Twenty-fifth Classical Colloquium, "Cleopatra Reassessed," held in London on 13-15 June, where I had the pleasant duty of representing the Oriental Institute. Fuller discussion of these scholarly arguments appears in the official exhibit catalog and in a series of articles in the journal Minerva (volumes 12/2 [2001]: 20-24 and 12/4 [2001]: 27-28).

Although the labels are now complete, publicity is only beginning, and I find myself scheduling lecture dates and vetting lists of Cleopatra biographies, novels, plays, videos, and musical pieces (at least four operas in addition to various songs and ballets). Most recently I was called upon to review hieroglyphic texts to be used as decoration in the museum shop. Unfortunately, one of the selected pieces proved to be the Egyptian titles of her enemy Octavian, adopted after his conquest of Egypt. A selection of Cleopatra's own titles was quickly substituted. She has suffered quite enough from that man; he will have to get his own gift shop.


Robert K. Ritner is Associate Professor of Egyptology in the Oriental Institute, the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, the Committee on the Ancient Mediterranean World, and the College, the University of Chicago. He is a specialist in the Ptolemaic period of ancient Egyptian history and in the Demotic language.

Revised: April 28, 2011

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