Rome’s encounter with Egypt in Antony and Cleopatra

Rome and Egypt
A 1906 drawing by A. M. Faulkner of Antony and Cleopatra. Folger Shakespeare Library.

Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra has a political romance at its heart: its titular lovers cannot separate their positions of power from their passion for one another, and their personal relationship captures on a human scale the encounter between two great civilizations, Rome and Egypt.

[See it onstage at Folger Theatre: Antony and Cleopatra, Oct 10 – Nov 19]

In this excerpt from Shakespeare’s Roman Trilogy, Paul Cantor writes about the Romanization of Egypt and the Egyptization of Rome in Antony and Cleopatra.

“Having triumphed militarily over all rival regimes and linked up its vast dominions with roads and communication routes, Rome seems poised to impose its way of life on the entire Mediterranean world. With everyone acknowledging the authority of Rome, the Romanization of Egypt seems to be the order of the day. When Cleopatra thinks of committing suicide in the wake of Antony’s death, she claims to be following a Roman model: “Let’s do’t after the high Roman fashion” (4.15.87). Roman religion has evidently begun to permeate Egyptian society at all levels, from the lowest to the highest. The Egyptian eunuch Mardian talks of “what Venus did with Mars” (1.5.18), while Cleopatra’s speech is filled with references to Roman deities:

Though he be painted one way like a Gorgon,
The other way’s a Mars. (2.5.116 – 17)

Had I great Juno’s power,
The strong-wing’d Mercury should fetch thee up
And set thee by Jove’s side. (4.15.34 – 36)

This is exactly what one would expect to see in a Roman Empire. The Roman gods begin to take the place of local deities, even in a land as old as Egypt, whose religious traditions predate those of Rome by centuries. A triumphant Empire gets to impose its will and its customs on the people it conquered.

But Shakespeare seems more interested in the Egyptianizing of Rome than in the Romanizing of Egypt. Rome has conquered Egypt militarily, but Egypt seems to be conquering Rome culturally. In postcolonial studies today, this process is often labeled “The Empire Strikes Back,” as conquered people pursue subtle strategies of raising doubts about and even subverting the way of life of their ostensible masters. In Antony and Cleopatra the Romans are inordinately fascinated by the exotic world of Egypt. They want to hear about its strange customs and listen avidly to tales, no matter how fantastic or improbable, of its pyramids and crocodiles (2.7). Above all, they are entranced by stories of the fabulous Cleopatra, Antony’s “Egyptian dish” (2.6.126). Cleopatra symbolizes the many ways that a captive can captivate her conquerors. Repeatedly defeated in battle by Roman armies, she uses her wiles to enchant one Roman ruler after another— from Julius Caesar to Mark Antony to (she hopes) Octavius Caesar. Exploiting her sexual allure, Cleopatra seeks to turn the tables on her masters and bring them under her spell. If she no longer can rule directly as queen of Egypt, she hopes to rule indirectly by mastering her masters. Rumors of her erotic conquests arouse the Romans’ senses, and she threatens to overturn their hierarchy of values:

                                                  Other women cloy
The appetites they feed, but she makes hungry
Where most she satisfies; for vilest things
Become themselves in her, that the holy priests
Bless her when she is riggish. (2.2.235– 39)

The breakdown in traditional Roman discipline is evident in their excessive interest in “Egyptian cookery” (2.6.63). A new Roman tendency toward indulgence in food and drink has been inspired by Egyptian models. When the triumvirs banquet with Pompey, their celebration “ripens towards” an “Alexandrian feast” (2.7.96 – 97). At this feast, the formerly restrained Romans end up abandoning their moderation and dancing “the Egyptian bacchanals” (2.7.104).  Even the normally sober and temperate Octavius admits that he grows drunk (2.7.125– 26). The Egyptians have begun to talk of Roman deities, but the Romans have undergone a more fundamental transformation: they have begun to behave like Egyptians. Their firm Roman identity is shaken as they become increasingly open to foreign influences. After centuries of martial discipline under the republican regime— the very source of Rome’s ability to triumph over its enemies— imperial Rome becomes decadent, partially as a result of encountering the luxury and idleness of the Egyptian way of life. Rome’s success in militarily defeating its enemies allows the Romans to relax and rest on their laurels. In the process, they grow soft and self- indulgent and become the mirror image of the decadent people they conquered. Shakespeare’s Rome illustrates a general principle about empire— the country that dominates the world is often altered just as much in the process as the world it tries to dominate.

In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare portrays Rome breaking with its longstanding republican traditions and moving toward one-man rule. Antony and Cleopatra portrays the working out of this imperial logic, and Rome’s encounter with Egypt, which had centuries of imperial rule behind it, accelerates the corruption of traditional Roman institutions.”

Reprinted with permission from Shakespeare’s Roman Trilogy by Paul A. Cantor, © 2017 by the University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved.

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