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Basalt Statue of Cleopatra

"Now, the statues of Antony were torn down, but those of Cleopatra were left standing, because Archibius, one of her friends, gave Caesar two thousand talents, in order that they might not suffer the same fate as Antony's."

Plutarch, Life of Antony (LXXXVI.5)

It is possible that this black basalt statue, which is approximately forty-one inches high, is an image of Cleopatra that was not destroyed at Caesar's order. Acquired by the State Hermitage Museum (St. Petersburg) in 1929, the cult statue was not identified for almost thirty years, and then thought to represent Arsino II (c.316 BC270 BC), sister and wife of Ptolemy II. The attribution was based on the fact that the left hand holds a dikeras (a divided or double cornucopia), which was presumed to be specific only to Arsino (although it also appears on the coins of Cleopatra VII)..

  Coins struck for the deified Arsino show the dikeras on the reverse, as does this decadrachm, in which the double cornucopia is bound with a fillet. In commenting on the rhyton, Athenaeus says that "this kind of vessel was first made by Ptolemaeus Philadelphus the king [Ptolemy II], to be carried by the statues of Arsinoe; for in her left hand she bears a vessel of this kind, full of all the fruits of the season; by which the makers of it designed to show that this horn is richer than the horn of Amaltheia" (Deipnosophistae, 497C). Amalthea was the she-goat (or the nymph who owned it) that suckled the young Zeus, who, having accidentally broken one of the horns, filled it with whatever one might wish, so that it became a symbol of abundance (cf. Ovid, Fasti, V.111ff; Apollodorus, Library, I.1.7, 2.7.5; Diodorus Siculus, Library of History, IV.35.4). The incused inscription reads ARSINOES PHILADELPHOU ("of Arsinoe Philadelphus").

Arsino wore only two uraei, signifying that she was queen of both Upper and Lower Egypt (or possibly, joint rule with her brother). The triple uraeus (the stylized head of a cobra symbolic of Egyptian royalty) introduced by Cleopatra may therefore represent additional territory, possibly in recognition of Antony's donations in 34 BC of "all the region west of the Euphrates as far as the Hellespont...and the rest of the countries east of the Euphrates as far as India" to her three sons (Dio, Roman History, XLIX.41.3; also Plutarch, Life of Antony, LIV.4). Or, given the paternity of both Caesar and Antony, the third uraeus may suggest an imagined union with Rome itself.

Based on the fact that the three uraei crowning the plaited headdress of the figure also are depicted on a blue glass intaglio of Cleopatra VII in the British Museum, Sally-Ann Ashton has suggested in the museum's exhibition catalog for Cleopatra of Egypt: From History to Myth, that the basalt statue is "more likely" a representation of Cleopatra.


The picture is from The Immortal Alexander the Great, an exhibition at the Hermitage Amsterdam, which is affiliated with the State Hermitage Museum. The inlays for the wide-set eyes are missing, which account for their hollow look. The decadrachm is part of  the Meyer & Ebe Collection of Ancient Greek Coins offered by Bonhams on January 6, 2012.


References: Cleopatra of Egypt: From History to Myth (2001) edited by Susan Walker and Peter Higgs; Cleopatra: Ancients in Action (2006) by Susan Walker and Sally-Ann Ashton.

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