I’ve recently been talking to Roslynne Bell in Classics and Ancient History at the University about supporting the teaching of one of her classes using objects from the Manchester Museum archaeology collection. There are twenty students in one of her classes and I was momentarily stuck for the last few objects for the students to work with until I remembered the Numismatic collection. A quick conversation with Keith Sugden, Curator of Numismatics, yielded a trio of historically fascinating coins from Roman history which I thought I’d share with Blog readers. On the left (above) is a De Britan silver denarius of the Emperor Claudius, in the centre is the copper coin of Cleopatra struck in the Alexandria mint, and on the right is a Britannia as of the Emperor Antoninus Pius.
The magical name of Cleopatra brings with it all manner of glamorous associations in popular culture thanks to Elizabeth Taylor and the famous block-buster movie. But the coin above appears to show the famous Egyptian queen with a hooked nose. Pascal famously wrote: “Cleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed.” Presumably because she would have otherwise found favour with Octavius. A statue of the queen The Death of Cleopatra (1867) by Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907), the first African American and American Indian female sculptor to achieve national recognition, shows Cleopatra with ‘an aquiline nose and a prominent chin of the Roman type’ in accordance with coins, medals and other evidence.
Other brutally realistic Roman coins of the period show Antony in none too flattering a light with a nose like a boxer. That may challenge modern preconceptions based on the film but it did not matter according to the realpolitik of the day. What was important was that Cleopatra was queen of one of the last and richest independent Hellenistic kingdoms and that she had played a blinder diplomatically by lending her support to one of the sides in the civil wars of the later Roman Republic, thus apparently cementing her position as queen and that of Egypt. Cleopatra (VII) was the last in a long line of Ptolemaic rulers who introduced coinage to Egypt. What we can see but she could not until it was too late was that Mark Antony was not a match for Octavius and his general Agrippa.
Keith and I reflected on this for a minute or two and concluded that it is perhaps the modern preoccupation with celebrity and beautiful people that leads us to expect that famous people should be attractive. In fact as the scandal besetting the French president, Francois Hollande, seems to show, you don’t need film star pin up good looks in order to rule, nor it seems to have relationships with those who, like Julie Gayet, do enjoy those attributes. The aphrodisiac of power more than makes up for any short-comings in the good looks department, in the ancient as well as the modern world.
Since writing this some six weeks ago, the UK has been rocked (buffeted?) by its own political scandal this time besetting the UKIP leader Nigel Farage. In yesterday’s Telegraph it was reported that an MEP, Nikki Sinclaire, had alleged in the European Union assembly that Farage had had an affair with his press officer. Farage denies the accusation. Of course this being the UK the scale and portent of what is alleged to have gone on all seem very low key in contrast to our more stylish cross-channel cousins. In the same way that the Americans had Dallas as a soap but we had Coronation Street, the comparison with Gallic politics seems decidely mundane. Some journalists have doubted whether Farage makes a likely ‘babe magnet’ but again with UKIP tipped to do well in coming local elections maybe it’s another case of the ‘aphrodisiac of power’.
Ultimately we are left with Cleopatra, who was shrewd and intelligent, enjoying the same ‘aphrodisiac of power’. Being beautiful or having a hook nose was not important.
Thanks to Campbell for kindly commenting on this blog.