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A portrait of Antony and Cleopatra as Heracles and Omphale?

By Jasper Burns
(Copyright by Jasper Burns)

FIGURE 1. Painting in the Villa of P. Fannius Sinistor
at Boscoreale, near Pompeii

Nine painted panels, three of which are now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, with others in Naples (including the one discussed here), were discovered in 1900 in "Room H" (about 25 feet square) of the Villa of P. Fannius Sinistor in Boscoreale, which was buried along with its neighboring towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E.

FIGURE 2. Reconstruction of Room "H" with the painting discussed here at left center.
(From Pompeiian Frescoes, by Maxwell L. Anderson, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987)

There has been continuing controversy over whether these magnificent large panels are related in their subject matter, which may be historical or mythological. If historical, the most common suggestion is that the paintings represent various royal Macedonian successors of Alexander the Great, plus a portrait of the philosopher Epicurus. Mythological explanations include an association with the cult of Aphrodite and Adonis. Accordingly, the three panels on the rear wall (in the center of FIGURE 2) are most often identified as representing Dionysos with Ariadne, Aphrodite, and the Three Graces.

The Macedonian identification of the side wall figures is based largely on the trappings of the figure on the left in FIGURE 1; specifically the shield and hat, which are distinctively Macedonian in design. On the opposite wall is a richly dressed and bejewelled woman sitting on a throne(?) playing a cithar with a young woman behind her. They are usually identified as a Macedonian queen and princess (or maidservant), or other members of the Macedonian court. To the right of this group is a painting of a nude man and fully clothed woman seated together (identified as a Macedonian king and his queen or a pair of divinities) and a painting of a woman holding a polished shield in which a nude man is reflected.

One attempt at identifying the pair in FIGURE 1 is that the seated figure on the right is the Macedonian queen Phila, the widow of Demetrios Poliorcetes, facing her adolescent son, Antigonos Gonatas.(Gilbert Picard, Roman Painting, New York Graphic Society, 1968) However, the supposed male figure of Antigonos Gonatas has the fully developed breasts of a woman and the "woman" seated and cringing at his feet has the arms, neck, shoulders, and profile of a robust, fully grown man.

These features suggest to me that the painting lampoons Mark Antony as the effeminate lapdog of the Ptolemaic Queen Cleopatra, with a possible allusion to the mythological submission in woman's clothes of Heracles (identified with Mark Antony) to the Lydian (and Eastern) Queen Omphale. The identification with Cleopatra is based on the Macedonian shield and hat (Cleopatra was descended from Ptolemy I, the Macedonian lieutenant of Alexander the Great, who claimed Egypt and other parts of Alexander's empire after his death), by the figure's regal bearing and royal scepter, and by the shared physical characteristics of large nose (as seen on her busts and coins) and dark hair and complexion. The other figure resembles Mark Antony's portraits in its robust physique and masculine, Victor Mature-like, profile.

The idea of Mark Antony having fallen into the condition of Omphale's Heracles (a similar comparison was made with Alexander and his Persian wife Roxana) is discussed by Michael Grant:

"...Antony's enslavement to the foreign woman was emphasized in a hundred ways... Antony claimed to be Heracles, but mythology, (his contemporaries) pointed out, played him a neat trick here, because it told how Heracles, too, had been bewitched by a woman, Omphale; and so Octavian's friends, pursuing an old joke which had been applied to many others before, pressed home this felicitous comparison. It is even echoed by a relief on an earthenware jar from Arretium (Arezzo), which shows Antony-Heracles in woman's dress, surrounded by attendants bearing a parasol, fan, ball of wool and spindle, while his lionskin and club are taken over by Omphale - who at the same time stretches out her free hand for a bowl of wine..."
Michael Grant, Cleopatra, a Biography, Simon and Schuster, 1972


Silver tetradrachms showing Heracles wearing his lion skin

The fact that the symbols of Heracles (lionskin and club) are not present in the painting does not necessarily cancel the joke. Mark Antony was popularly associated with Heracles, from whom his family claimed to be descended and whose cult he openly favored. If, as suggested, the paintings in the Villa are copies of famous Hellenistic originals, the allusion to the well-known story of Heracles and Omphale could have been implied simply by putting Antony's features and physique on the female figure, and Cleopatra's on the male.

Another explanation of the painting that deserves consideration is that the figure on the left is the female personification of Macedonia who looks across the Hellespont at the female personification of the Persian Empire (she wears a Persian style headdress) and contemplates Alexander's conquests, her spear already planted in "Asian" soil. The strangely amorphous "landscape" at Macedonia's feet, with indications of water and cliffs, supports this idea. If the painting is, as suggested, a copy of a Hellenistic original of the 3rd or 2nd Century B.C.E., perhaps the artist (no doubt with the patron's approval or suggestion) turned the scene into a political satire by putting the faces and forms of Cleopatra and Mark Antony on the figures. The distinctive, portrait-like facial features certainly suggest real people rather than idealized personifications. The idea of the "conquest" of Mark Antony (himself defeated in battle, incidentally, by the Persians (Parthians)) by the Macedonian Cleopatra would add to the symbolism.

Despite the uncertainty among the scholars over the identification and significance of the group of paintings, there is unanimity regarding its approximate age. The Villa is believed to have been built shortly after the middle of the first century B.C.E. and the paintings, rendered in the Pompeiian Second Style, are confidently dated to around 40 B.C.E., the year in which Antony first visited Cleopatra in Alexandria. No doubt, it took a few years for the significance of their dalliance to sink in back in Italy, so a date in the mid to early 30's for the painting seems likely if, indeed, the lampoon was intended.

FIGURE 3. The philosopher, gazing at the couple in question.

The figure of the stern philosopher is clearly associated with our couple as he stands immediately to the left, glaring intently at them. This figure shows a very close resemblance to a bust identified as Epicurus in the Capitoline Museum in Rome. The Epicurean emphasis on the pursuit of pleasure suggests an allusion to Antony's and Cleopatra's infamously luxurious lifestyle, but Epicurus does not seem particularly pleased with what he sees. Another possibility is that the philosopher belongs to the Stoic or Cynic school and disapproves strongly of the license associated with Antony and Cleopatra. This would explain his scornful look.

In apparent constrast to his rough woolen cloak, unkempt beard, and crooked stick, the philosopher wears a large red and gold ring on his left hand that (in my photographs at least) seems to bear the Greek letter lambda, or "L". Perhaps the "lambda" suggests an identification with another Epicurean philosopher - Lucretius, who died in 53 B.C.E. - or, alternatively, with the Greek word for "light." However, this is even more speculative than the Antony and Cleopatra idea.


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