Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Cleopatra's twin children

Besides Elizabeth I, I'm always keen on learning about Cleopatra. Both were intelligent and canny rulers with oodles of drama attendant on their reigns. We currently have three books on the captivating female Pharaoh, including the beautiful and lavish Cleopatra of Egypt: From History to Myth (which originated from an exhibit at the British Museum). The Egyptian queen killed herself rather than be paraded through the streets of Rome in chains by Octavian, and I've always thought it so sad that her twin children by Mark Antony—Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene—suffered exactly that fate. They and their younger brother Ptolemy Philadelphus were raised by Octavia (Octavian's sister and Antony's wife), and Cleopatra Selene later became queen of Mauretania in North Africa. (The boys disappeared from the record.)
Cleopatra Selene and her consort
Egyptologist Giuseppina Capriotti of the Italian National Research Council has lately proposed that a sandstone statue in the Cairo Museum depicts the illustrious siblings. Discovered in 1918 near the temple of Hathor in Dendera on the west bank of the Nile, it was previously thought to represent the twin gods Shu and Tefnet, son and daughter of the sun god Atum-Ra. Capriotti marshals some convincing stylistic and iconographic evidence to the contrary, however, including the following:
  • Cleopatra herself commissioned works in that temple, including a monumental pharaonic relief of herself and Caesarion (her son by Julius Caesar, he was murdered by Octavian).
  • The statue dates to between 50 and 30 B.C., and the twins were born in 40 B.C.
  • In the Egyptian pantheon, Tefnet wears the solar disk, but here the female twin wears the crescent moon and the male wears the sun, as in the Greek tradition of the female moon goddess Selene and the male incarnation of the sun, Helios.
  • The twins’ embrace may represent a solar eclipse that occurred three years after their birth. At that time, Mark Antony officially recognized the twins as his children and Cleopatra changed their names from Cleopatra and Alexander to Cleopatra Selene and Alexander Helios. 
"Unfortunately the faces are not well preserved, but we can see that the boy has curly hair and a braid on the right side of the head, typical of Egyptian children. The girl's hair is arranged in a way‬ similar to the so-called ‭m‬elonenfrisur‭ (‬melon coiffure ), an elaborate hairstyle often associated with the Ptolemaic dynasty, and Cleopatra particularly," Capriotti told Discovery News. Both of the discs on their heads are decorated with the udjat-eye, also called the eye of Horus, a common symbol in Egyptian art. 
Left: Black basalt statue of Cleopatra VII, last of the Ptolemaic monarchs of Greek origin. © 2001 Hermitage Museum. From the British Museum's exhibition website: "This is one of the best-preserved images of a Ptolemaic queen. It is one of a number of statues - with the queen wearing a corkscrew wig and holding a cornucopia - that probably served as cult statues of the deified queens. The figure is clearly Egyptian in style, though with Greek attributes (the cornucopia and knotted dress). The front of the headdress is decorated with a uraeus, the symbol of Egyptian royalty. The triple form is unique to Cleopatra.
At the end of Plutarch's Life of Antony, the Roman biographer records that a wealthy Alexandrian named Archibios paid Cleopatra's victorious enemy Octavian the enormous sum of 2,000 talents to save the statues of the queen in Egypt. It is possible that this is a survivor of the images so saved. To a Roman it would have meant very little. To an Egyptian, it was a sacred object, and the scale of the figure suggests that it could have been placed in a shrine. As late as AD 373, when Egypt was nominally Christian, we hear of statues of Cleopatra being gilded. A Coptic Christian bishop and an Arab historian later remembered Cleopatra as 'the last of the wise Greeks'." Did you know that her name means "her father's glory"?


  1. Love the post today!!! Late last night, I found myself channel surfing and stumbled upon a show about the life and death of Cleopatra on Planet Green, it was pretty fascinating. Here's a link to the synopsis of the program and the next time its airing,http://planetgreen.discovery.com/tv-schedules/series.html?paid=237.16964.25828.35971.1

  2. Very interesting blog!!!

  3. Truly one of the most influential and lasting historical figures. Wildly fascinating stuff!

  4. I remember reading a fictionalized diary of an adolescent Cleopatra written for young adults when I was younger - ever since, I've been fascinated by her story. She was very cunning, and not necessarily always "good," but I respect her mightily. This was a very interesting post!

  5. This post makes me want to read up on Cleopatra - I also remember reading the fictional diary of Cleopatra mentioned above but my explorations into her life ended there. It seems like I'm missing out on quite the story!

  6. Such a fascinating historical figure! Nice post.

  7. Egyptian culture is very interesting. I love all the symbolism that the statue of the twins provide.

  8. What do you think went on in Cleopatra's mind and heart during the battle of Actium? Did she figure Mark Antony wasn't strong enough to defeat Octavian and so left her lover in the lurch? Her desertion of him always puzzled me. Your post is absolutely fascinating.

  9. One of the Shakespeare plays I skipped. Now I have to go back and read it, because I too have been stirred to find out more about Cleopatra. Even if it is fictional. She represents a sort of fascinating convergence of cultures and time periods...also a strong female lead.