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Antony and Cleopatra

When Jacques Amyot translated Plutarch’s Lives into French in 1559, he reintroduced the story of Cleopatra to a new generation of artists, writers, and playwrights. Translated from the French into English by Thomas North in 1579 (and directly from the Greek by Dryden in 1683), Plutarch was a major source for the Roman plays of Shakespeare, as one can see in this comparison when Antony first glimpses Cleopatra on her royal barge.

"Therefore when she was sent unto by divers letters, both from Antonius himself and also from his friends, she made so light of it and mocked Antonius so much that she disdained to set forward otherwise but to take her barge in the river of Cydnus, the poop whereof was of gold, the sails of purple, and the oars of silver, which kept stroke in rowing after the sound of the music of flutes, howboys, cithernes, viols, and such other instruments as they played upon in the barge. And now for the person of herself: she was laid under a pavilion of cloth of gold of tissue, apparelled and attired like the goddess Venus commonly drawn in picture; and hard by her, on either hand of her, pretty fair boys apparelled as painters do set forth god Cupid, with little fans in their hands, with the which they fanned wind upon her. Her ladies and gentlewomen also, the fairest of them were apparelled like the nymphs Nereides (which are the mermaids of the waters) and like the Graces, some steering the helm, others tending the tackle and ropes of the barge, out of which there came a wonderful passing sweet savour of perfumes, that perfumed the wharf's side, pestered with innumerable multitudes of people."

Plutarch, Life of Marcus Antonius (XXVI)

"The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumèd, that
The winds were lovesick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes. For her own person,
It beggared all description: she did lie
In her pavilion, cloth-of-gold of tissue,
O’erpicturing that Venus where we see
The fancy outwork nature. On each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With divers-coloured fans, whose wind did seem
To glow the delicate cheeks which they did cool,
And what they undid did."

Shakespeare, Antony and Cleopatra (II.2.192-206)

Cleopatra came to Rome shortly afterwards, where she stayed with Caesar until his assassination. If Mark Antony did not see her then, he presumably met her when he accompanied Caesar to Alexandria in pursuit of Pompey after the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC or, even earlier, when he had helped restore her father to the Egyptian throne. In the autumn of 41 BC, Antony, who had assumed control of Rome's eastern provinces after the Battle of Philippi the year before, summoned Cleopatra to Tarsus in Cilicia ("no mean city," in the words of the apostle Paul, who was born there, Acts 21:39) on the coast of Asia Minor. Ostensibly, the meeting was to reprimand her for the support she was suspected of having given to Cassius but, in fact, it was to secure a base and source of supplies for a planned campaign against Parthia.

But the meeting was to be quite different.

"Their acquaintance was with her when a girl, young and ignorant of the world, but she was to meet Antony in the time of life when women's beauty is most splendid, and their intellects are in full maturity. She made great preparation for her journey, of money, gifts, and ornaments of value, such as so wealthy a kingdom might afford, but she brought with her her surest hopes in her own magic arts and charms....On her arrival, Antony sent to invite her to supper. She thought it fitter he should come to her; so, willing to show his good-humour and courtesy, he complied, and went. He found the preparations to receive him magnificent beyond expression, but nothing so admirable as the great number of lights; for on a sudden there was let down altogether so great a number of branches with lights in them so ingeniously disposed, some in squares, and some in circles, that the whole thing was a spectacle that has seldom been equalled for beauty. The next day, Antony invited her to supper, and was very desirous to outdo her as well in magnificence as contrivance; but he found he was altogether beaten in both, and was so well convinced of it that he was himself the first to jest and mock at his poverty of wit and his rustic awkwardness. She, perceiving that his raillery was broad and gross, and savoured more of the soldier than the courtier, rejoined in the same taste, and fell into it at once, without any sort of reluctance or reserve."

Plutarch, Life of Antony, trans. Dryden

Lawrence Alma-Tadema depicts the event at Cydnus in The Meeting of Antony and Cleopatra, 41 BC (1883).

References: Shakespeare's Plutarch (1968) edited by T. J. B. Spencer (Penguin Books); Athenaeus: The Deipnosophists (1937) translated by Charles Burton Gulick (Loeb Classical Library).

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