Direct descendant of Alexander the Great and last Pharaoh of ancient Egypt, Cleopatra was a fabulous African queen who styled her hair like a melon. She was “famous beyond description” according to the first new biography in over thirty years Cleopatra The Great: the woman behind the legend (Hodder & Stoughton, 2008) by Joann Fletcher, who then spends 454 pages trying to disprove her own claim. An op-ed piece in the New York Times recently called Cleopatra “the original bad girl, the Monica Lewinsky of the ancient world.”
Responsible for the first African Renaissance and female lead in one of the world’s great love stories made famous by Shakespeare and Elizabeth Taylor, she is in the headlines again following the announcement of plans to excavate the Temple of Taposiris Magna on a hilltop west of Alexandria. An archeological search for her tomb and that of her lover, Roman general Mark Antony, with whom she had three children: two boys and a girl.
This sudden resurgence in interest in Cleopatra comes as no surprise with an African-American President recently ascended to the White House and interest in all things African at fever pitch in the United States.
One of the more obscure footnotes to history is how Champagne was actually an African invention. Having been smuggled into the presence of Julius Caesar wrapped in a carpet that was unrolled at his feet, Cleopatra proceeded to host a banquet at which she served sparkling wine 17 centuries before rotund friar Dom Pérignon thought of making Champagne.
E-News reporter of the day, Roman poet Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (Lucan), couldn’t get over the bullulae (bubbles) in the “spumat” wine (hence Asti Spumanti) served at a lavish banquet which made Sol Kerzner’s opening party for the One&Only Cape Town look like a dowager High Tea at the Nellie. After all, Cleopatra was Isis incarnate and “Mistress of Wine” offering “drunkenness upon drunkenness without end” as a way of communicating with the Gods. A religious tradition, now unfortunately largely extinct.
Lucan was so intrigued, he described how her “titillans” was made through a secondary fermentation process, in which wine was mixed with sweet must from raisined grapes imported from Ethiopia (similar to the liqueur de tirage used today to make Champagne) and then sealed in clay amphorae closed with cork and left in a cool place for a long and slow secondary fermentation. A technique currently being re-discovered at Cape Point Vineyards by winemaker Duncan Savage.
Cleopatra’s own wine would have been made from grapes grown in vineyards close to her palaces, those near Lake Mareotis which were suitable for aging as well as from the Central Delta, Thebes and desert oases Farafra and Khargeh.
But while Cleopatra may have used her titillans to get Caesar tiddly and even bore him a son Caesarion (little Caesar), the love of her life was Mark Antony (Marc Antony to NYT subscribers) who by all accounts, was quite a catch. They met when she was 28 and he was nearly 40.
Plutarch described Antony with “a very good and noble appearance; his beard was well grown, his forehead large, and his nose aquiline, giving him altogether a bold, masculine look that reminded people of the faces of Hercules in paintings and sculptures.” Caesar, by way of contrast, was more like a toad with the first recorded comb-over: “he used to comb the thin strands of his hair forward” since his baldness was “a disfigurement which his enemies harped upon, much to his exasperation.”
Not only did Cleopatra pioneer secondary ferment wines for the Roman forerunner of Donald Trump, she also invented the Coca-Cola method of adding carbon dioxide directly to a drink to make it bubbly. A process used to produce what JG Ballard dubbed “the world’s most refreshing burp!”
Not to be confused with the Charmat method used widely in Italy of secondary fermentation in tank and bottling under pressure. Being “Queen of the South” and “Wet-nurse to the Crocodile”, Cleo did not have to use those soda syphon CO2 bombs popular in the seventies to make do-it-yourself fizzy cool drinks. She used instead a pearl earring worth a staggering 10 million sesterces. At four sesterces to the denarius, the daily pay for a labourer, a truly fabulous amount.
The author teaches Egyptian funerary archeology at the University of York but her style is neither dense and dusty nor ivory tower twaddle, but then her source material is the envy of Vogue magazine. A fascinating chapter entitled “the inimitable life: Antonious and conspicuous consumption” reveals that modern day excesses of African politicians are nothing new.
While Georg Riedel and his outsize crystal wine glasses larger than your head (one for every conceivable style and separate ones for still and sparkling mineral water) came to symbolize the excesses of the recent Wall Street banking bubble recently popped, Riedel had nothing on Cleopatra whose tableware was entirely gold. Her stemware consisted of “jeweled vessels made with exquisite art” and her own personal glass was set with a large amethyst to prevent intoxication.
Betting Anthony that she could host the most costly banquet in history at which she would personally consume 10 million sesterces, she offered him a toast and dropped one of her fabulous pearl earrings into the glass. The pearl being calcium carbonate, dissolved in the acidic wine, producing a flurry of bubbles and another vinous first for Cleopatra and Africa.
Cleopatra had the physical endowments suitable for a life of hedonism as her royal image on a silver coin from circa 36 BC confirms; nasal acuity being perhaps the most important faculty for wine lovers. Barbra Streisandesque in profile, 17th century French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal noted “Cleopatra’s nose, had it been shorter, the whole face of the world would have been changed.”
The book ends in tears with Antony and Cleopatra coming off second best to Caesar’s heir Octavian (who pioneered shoe lifts, popular to this day with Tom Cruise and French president Nicolas Sarkozy) at the battle of Actium in the Roman Civil War. Cleopatra famously brought down the curtain on her 21 year reign by clasping a poisonous asp to her breast.
Hepatologists and those born in the Year of the Snake will be hoping the dig at the Temple of Taposiris Magna will turn up a mummified snake.