Cleopatra Goes Fishing & Bitumen In JudeaWednesday, April 20, 2011
|Jennifer Lines as Cleopatra on Bard on the Beach|
I have just about finished the terrific Cleopatra – A Life by Stacy Schiff. Schiff is very careful to explain what can be seen as truth and what is speculation. She has been true to her sources. But what emerges is fascinating and shows that most of us learn our history in the method of compartments. You study Egypt without any understanding of what may have been happening in China.
In my case I learned about Cleopatra and I learned about Julius Caesar almost separately. I knew there was something between them. This I explored further through the years. Recently I watched a filmed stage production (Stratford, Ontario) of George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra with Christopher Plummer and Nikki M. James as a young black Cleopatra. This production, like the film version with Claude Rains and Vivien Leigh both feature the Cleopatra rolled up in a carpet so she can be smuggled into Caesar’s palace. The whole scene is historical bunk (there is a bit of truth, a hemp bag, in it and I won’t go into it here) and a wonderful example of GBS’s imagination.
But who would have known (I certainly didn’t) that when Caesar was murdered in the senate, Cleopatra was ensconced in Caesar’s villa? I found this through Schiff’s biography. There is much more stuff like that, that delighted me.
In Shakespeare’s Antony & Cleopatra there is something about Antony & Cleopatra going fishing. I thought that was a sham. It seems that it is not. I will quote here directly (in English) from Plutarch’s Life of Antony:
29. Cleopatra used not (as Plato says) the four kinds of flattery, but many, and whether Antony were in a serious or playful mood she could always produce some new pleasure or charm, and she kept watch over him and neither by day or night let him out of her sight. She played dice with him and hunted with him and watched him exercising with his weapons, and she would roam around and wander about with him at night when he stood at people's doors and windows and made fun of the people inside, dressed in a slave-woman's outfit; for he also attempted to dress up like a slave.
He returned from these expeditions having been mocked in return, and often beaten, although most people suspected who he was. But the Alexandrians got pleasure from his irreverence and accompanied it with good timing and good taste, enjoying his humour and saying that he showed his tragic face to the Romans and his comic one to them.
Although it would be a waste of time to catalogue all of his amusements, one time he went fishing and had the misfortune not to catch anything while Cleopatra was present. So he ordered the fisherman secretly to dive underneath and attach fish that had already been caught to his hooks, but Cleopatra was not fooled after she saw him pull up two or three. She pretended to be amazed and told her friends and invited them come as observers on the next day. After a large audience had gathered on the fishing boats and Antony had lowered his line, Cleopatra told one of her slaves to get in ahead of the others and attach a salted fish from the Black Sea to his hook. When Antony thought he had caught something he pulled it up, and when (as might be expected) loud laughter followed, she said 'General, leave the fishing rod to us, the rulers of the Pharos and Canopus; your game is cities and kingdoms and countries.
But there is another fact that interested me. The information comes via the Jewish historian Josephus who shifted his alliance to Rome and thus wrote in a deprecating manner of Herod and Cleopatra.
Cleopatra in 36 BC after having been with Antony in Antioch, although visibly pregnant by him she returned the long way via Judea where she visited he old but not quite friend, King Herod the Great (the one that killed all those babies years later, and much of his family including his wife and children). She stopped at Herod’s palace to and here I will quote Schiff:
Antony had granted Cleopatra the exclusive right to the Dead Sea Bitumen, or asphalt, glutinous lumps of which floated to the surface of the lake. Bitumen was essential to mortar, incense, and insecticide, to embalming and to caulking. A reed basket smeared with asphalt, could hold water. Plastered with it, a boat is waterproof. The concession was a lucrative one… In modern terms, it was as if Cleopatra had been granted no part of Kuwait, only the proceeds of its oil fields.
|Harry Ransom Center and J. Paul Getty Museum. |
Color digital print reproduction of Joseph Nicéphore Niépce's
View from the Window at Le Gras.
20.3 x 25.4 cm.
|Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. |
View from the Window at Le Gras.
Heliograph, in original frame.
25.8 x 29.0 cm
Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas