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Shakespeare & Beyond

Rome’s encounter with Egypt in Antony and Cleopatra

Rome and Egypt
Rome and Egypt
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.

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.