Cleopatra : The Woman of Paganism – Beacon Lights of History, Volume III : Ancient Achievements by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume III : Ancient Achievements by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume III : Ancient Achievements

Governments and Laws : Greek and Roman Jurisprudence
The Fine Arts : Architecture, Sculpture, Painting
Ancient Scientific Knowledge : Astronomy, Geography
Material Life of the Ancients : Mechanical and Useful Arts
The Military Art : Weapons, Engines, Discipline
Cicero : Roman Literature
Cleopatra : The Woman of Paganism
Pagan Society : Glory and Shame

Beacon Lights of History, Volume III : Ancient Achievements
John Lord

Topics Covered
Why Cleopatra represents the woman of Paganism
Glory of Ancient Rome
Paganism recognizes the body rather than the soul
Ancestors of Cleopatra
The wonders of Alexandria
Cleopatra of Greek origin
The mysteries of Ancient Egypt
Early beauty and accomplishments of Cleopatra
Her attractions to Caesar
Her residence in Rome
Her first acquaintance with Antony
The style of her beauty
Her character
Character of Antony
Antony and Cleopatra in Cilicia
Magnificence of Cleopatra
Infatuation of Antony
Motives of Cleopatra
Antony’s gifts to Cleopatra
Indignation of the Romans
Antony gives up his Parthian expedition
Returns to Alexandria
Contest with Octavius
Battle of Actium
Wisdom of Octavius
Death of Antony
Subsequent conduct of Cleopatra
Nature of her love for Antony
Immense sacrifices of Antony
Tragic fate of Cleopatra
Frequency of suicide at Rome
Immorality no bar to social position in Greece and Rome
Dulness of home in Pagan antiquity
Drudgeries of women
Influence of women on men
Paganism never recognized the equality of women with men
It denied to them education
Consequent degradation of women
Paganism without religious consolation
Did not recognize the value of the soul
And thus took no cognizance of the higher aspirations of man
The revenge of woman under degradation
Women, under Paganism, took no interest in what elevates society
Men, therefore, fled to public amusements
No true society under Paganism
Society only created by Christianity

Cleopatra : The Woman of Paganism

69-30 B.C.

It is my object in this lecture to present the condition of woman under the influences of Paganism, before Christianity enfranchised and elevated her. As a type of the Pagan woman I select Cleopatra, partly because she was famous, and partly because she possessed traits and accomplishments which made her interesting in spite of the vices which degraded her. She was a queen, the heir of a long line of kings, and ruled over an ancient and highly civilized country. She was intellectual, accomplished, beautiful, and fascinating. She lived in one of the most interesting capitals of the ancient world, and by birth she was more Greek than she was African or Oriental. She lived, too, in a great age, when Rome had nearly conquered the world; when Roman senators and generals had more power than kings; when Grecian arts and literature were copied by the imperial Romans; when the rich and fortunate were luxurious and ostentatious beyond all precedent; when life had reached the highest point of material splendor, and yet when luxury had not destroyed military virtues or undermined the strength of the empire. The “eternal city” then numbered millions of people, and was the grandest capital ever seen on this earth, since everything was there concentrated,–the spoils of the world, riches immeasurable, literature and art, palaces and temples, power unlimited,–the proudest centre of civilization which then existed, and a civilization which in its material aspects has not since been surpassed. The civilized world was then most emphatically Pagan, in both spirit and forms. Religion as a controlling influence was dead. Only a very few among speculative philosophers believed in any god, except in a degrading sense,–as a blind inexorable fate, or an impersonation of the powers of Nature. The future state was a most perplexing uncertainty. Epicurean self-indulgence and material prosperity were regarded as the greatest good; and as doubt of the darkest kind hung over the future, the body was necessarily regarded as of more value than the soul. In fact, it was only the body which Paganism recognized as a reality; the soul, God, and immortality were virtually everywhere ignored.

It was in this godless, yet brilliant, age that Cleopatra appears upon the stage, having been born sixty-nine years before Christ,–about a century before the new revolutionary religion was proclaimed in Judea. Her father was a Ptolemy, and she succeeded him on the throne of Egypt when quite young,–the last of a famous dynasty that had reigned nearly three hundred years. The Ptolemies, descended from one of Alexander’s generals, reigned in great magnificence at Alexandria, which was the commercial centre of the world, whose ships whitened the Mediterranean,–that great inland lake, as it were, in the centre of the Roman Empire, around whose shores were countless cities and villas and works of art. Alexandria was a city of schools, of libraries and museums, of temples and of palaces, as well as a mart of commerce. Its famous library was the largest in the world, and was the pride of the age and of the empire. Learned men from all countries came to this capital to study science, philosophy, and art. It was virtually a Grecian city, and the language of the leading people was Greek. It was rivalled in provincial magnificence only by Antioch, the seat of the old Syrian civilization, also a Greek capital, so far as the governing classes could make it one. Greece, politically ruined, still sent forth those influences which made her civilization potent in every land.

Cleopatra, the last of the line of Grecian sovereigns in Egypt, was essentially Greek in her features, her language, and her manners. There was nothing African about her, as we understand the term African, except that her complexion may have been darkened by the intermarriage of the Ptolemies; and I have often wondered why so learned and classical a man as Story should have given to this queen, in his famous statue, such thick lips and African features, which no more marked her than Indian features mark the family of the Braganzas on the throne of Brazil. She was not even Coptic, like Athanasius and Saint Augustine. On the ancient coins and medals her features are severely classical.

Nor is it probable that any of the peculiarities of the ancient Egyptian kings marked the dynasty of the Ptolemies. No purely Egyptian customs lingered in the palaces of Alexandria. The old deities of Isis and Osiris gave place to the worship of Jupiter, Minerva, and Venus. The wonders of pristine Egypt were confined to Memphis and Thebes and the dilapidated cities of the Nile. The mysteries of the antique Egyptian temples were no more known to the learned and mercantile citizen of Alexandria than they are to us. The pyramids were as much a wonder then as now. The priests and jugglers alike mingled in the crowd of Jews, Syrians, Romans, Greeks, Parthians, Arabs, who congregated in this learned and mercantile city.

So we have a right to presume that Cleopatra, when she first appeared upon the stage of history as a girl of fourteen, was simply a very beautiful and accomplished Greek princess, who could speak several languages with fluency, as precocious as Elizabeth of England, skilled in music, conversant with history, and surrounded with eminent masters. She was only twenty-one when she was an object of attraction to Caesar, then in the midst of his triumphs. How remarkable must have been her fascinations if at that age she could have diverted, even for a time, the great captain from his conquests, and chained him to her side! That refined, intellectual old veteran of fifty, with the whole world at his feet, loaded down with the cares of government, as temperate as he was ambitious, and bent on new conquests, would not have been chained and enthralled by a girl of twenty-one, however beautiful, had she not been as remarkable for intellect and culture as she was for beauty. Nor is it likely that Cleopatra would have devoted herself to this weather-beaten old general, had she not hoped to gain something from him besides caresses,–namely, the confirmation of her authority as queen. She also may have had some patriotic motives touching the political independence of her country. Left by her father’s will at the age of eighteen joint heir of the Egyptian throne with her brother Ptolemy, she soon found herself expelled from the capital by him and the leading generals of the army, because they did not relish her precocious activity in government. Her gathered adherents had made but little advance towards regaining her rights when, in August, 48, Caesar landed in pursuit of Pompey, whom he had defeated at Pharsalia. Pompey’s assassination left Caesar free, and he proceeded to Alexandria to establish himself for the winter. Here the wily and beautiful young exile sought him, and won his interest and his affection. After some months of revelry and luxury, Caesar left Egypt in 47 to chastise an Eastern rebel, and was in 46 followed to Rome by Cleopatra, who remained there in splendid state until the assassination of Caesar drove her back to Egypt. Her whole subsequent life showed her to be as cunning and politic as she was luxurious and pleasure-seeking. Possibly she may have loved so interesting and brilliant a man as the great Caesar, aside from the admiration of his position; but he never became her slave, although it was believed, a hundred years after his death, that she was actually living in his house when he was assassinated, and was the mother of his son Caesarion. But Froude doubts this; and the probabilities are that he is correct, for, like Macaulay, he is not apt to be wrong in facts, but only in the way he puts them.

Cleopatra Obtains an Interview with Caesar After the painting by J.L. Gerome

Cleopatra was twenty-eight years of age when she first met Antony,–“a period of life,” says Plutarch, “when woman’s beauty is most splendid, and her intellect is in full maturity.” We have no account of the style of her beauty, except that it was transcendent,–absolutely irresistible, with such a variety of expression as to be called infinite. As already remarked, from the long residence of her family in Egypt and intermarriages with foreigners, her complexion may have been darker than that of either Persians or Greeks. It probably resembled that of Queen Esther more than that of Aspasia, in that dark richness and voluptuousness which to some have such attractions; but in grace and vivacity she was purely Grecian,–not like a “blooming Eastern bride,” languid and passive and effeminate, but bright, witty, and intellectual. Shakspeare paints her as full of lively sallies, with the power of adapting herself to circumstances with tact and good nature, like a Madame Récamier or a Maintenon, rather than like a Montespan or a Pompadour, although her nature was passionate, her manner enticing, and her habits luxurious. She did not weary or satiate, like a mere sensual beauty.

“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale
Her infinite variety.”

She certainly had the power of retaining the conquests she had won,–which rarely happens except with those who are gifted with intellectual radiance and freshness. She held her hold on Antony for eleven years, when he was burdened with great public cares and duties, and when he was forty-two years of age. Such a superior man as he was intellectually, and, after Caesar, the leading man of the empire,–a statesman as well as soldier,–would not have been enslaved so long by Cleopatra had she not possessed remarkable gifts and attainments, like those famous women who reigned in the courts of the Bourbons in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and who, by their wit and social fascinations, gathered around their thrones the most distinguished men of France, and made them friends as well as admirers. The Pompadours of the world have only a brief reign, and at last become repulsive. But Cleopatra, like Maintenon, was always attractive, although she, could not lay claim to the virtues of the latter. She was as politic as the French beauty, and as full of expedients to please her lord. She may have revelled in the banquets she prepared for Antony, as Esther did in those she prepared for Xerxes; but with the same intent, to please him rather than herself, and win, from his weakness, those political favors which in his calmer hours he might have shrunk from granting. Cleopatra was a politician as well as a luxurious beauty, and it may have been her supreme aim to secure the independence of Egypt. She wished to beguile Antony as she had sought to beguile Caesar, since they were the masters of the world, and had it in their power to crush her sovereignty and reduce her realm to a mere province of the empire. Nor is there evidence that in the magnificent banquets she gave to the Roman general she ever lost her self-control. She drank, and made him drink, but retained her wits, “laughing him out of patience and laughing him into patience,” ascendant over him by raillery, irony, and wit.

And Antony, again, although fond of banquets and ostentation, like other Roman nobles, and utterly unscrupulous and unprincipled, as Roman libertines were, was also general, statesman, and orator. He grew up amid the dangers and toils and privations of Caesar’s camp. He was as greedy of honors as was his imperial master. He was a sunburnt and experienced commander, obliged to be on his guard, and ready for emergencies. No such man feels that he can afford to indulge his appetites, except on rare occasions. One of the leading peculiarities of all great generals has been their temperance. It marked Caesar, Charlemagne, Gustavus Adolphus, Frederic the Great, Cromwell, and Napoleon. When Alexander gave himself up to banquets, his conquests ended. Even such a self-indulgent, pleasure-seeking man as Louis XIV. always maintained the decencies of society amid his dissipated courtiers. We feel that a man who could discourse so eloquently as Antony did over the dead body of Caesar was something more than a sensualist or a demagogue. He was also the finest-looking man in Rome, reminding the people, it is said, of the busts of Hercules. He was lavish, like Caesar, but, like him, sought popularity, and cared but little what it cost. It is probable that Cicero painted him, in his famous philippics, in darker colors than he deserved, because he aimed to be Caesar’s successor, as he probably would have been but for his infatuation for Cleopatra. Caesar sent him to Rome as master of the horse,–a position next in power to that of dictator. When Caesar was assassinated, Antony was the most powerful man of the empire. He was greater than any existing king; he was almost supreme. And after Caesar’s death, when he divided his sovereignty of the world with Octavius and Lepidus, he had the fairest chance of becoming imperator. He had great military experience, the broad Orient as his domain, and half the legions of Rome under his control.

It was when this great man was Triumvir, sharing with only two others the empire of the world, and likely to overpower them, when he was in Asia consolidating and arranging the affairs of his vast department, that he met the woman who was the cause of all his calamities. He was then in Cilicia, and, with all the arrogance of a Roman general, had sent for the Queen of Egypt to appear before him and answer to an accusation of having rendered assistance to Cassius before the fatal battle of Philippi. He had already known and admired Cleopatra in Rome, and it is not improbable that she divined the secret of his judicial summons. His envoy, struck with her beauty and intelligence, advised her to appear in her best attire. Such a woman scarcely needed such a hint. So, making every preparation for her journey,–money, ornaments, gifts,–a kind of Queen of Sheba, a Zenobia in her pride and glory, a Queen Esther when she had invited the king and his minister to a banquet,–she came to the Cydnus, and ascended the river in a magnificent barge, such as had never been seen before, and prepared to meet her judge, not as a criminal, but as a conqueror, armed with those weapons that few mortals can resist.

“The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne,
Burn’d on the water; the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumed that
The winds were love-sick 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 beggar’d all description: she did lie
In her pavilion (cloth-of-gold of tissue)
O’er-picturing that Venus, where we see
The fancy outwork nature: on each side her
Stood pretty dimpled boys, like smiling Cupids,
With diverse-color’d fans….
Her gentlewomen, like the Nereides,
So many mermaids, tended her i’ the eyes.
… At the helm
A seeming mermaid steers….
… From the barge
A strange invisible perfume hits the sense
Of the adjacent wharves. The city cast
Her people out upon her; and Antony,
Enthroned i’ the market-place, did sit alone,
Whistling to th’ air; which, but for vacancy,
Had gone to gaze on Cleopatra too,
And made a gap in nature.”

On the arrival of this siren queen, Antony had invited her to supper,–the dinner of the Romans,–but she, with woman’s instinct, had declined, till he should come to her; and he, with the urbanity of a polished noble,–for such he probably was,–complied, and found a banquet which astonished even him, accustomed as he was to senatorial magnificence, and which, with all the treasures of the East, he could not rival. From that fatal hour he was enslaved. She conquered him, not merely by her display and her dazzling beauty, but by her wit. Her very tones were music. So accomplished was she in languages, that without interpreters she conversed not only with Greeks and Latins, but with Ethiopians, Jews, Arabians, Syrians, Medes, and Parthians. So dazzled and bewitched was Antony, that, instead of continuing the duties of his great position, he returned with Cleopatra to Alexandria, there to keep holiday and squander riches, and, still worse, his precious time, to the shame and scandal of Rome, inglorious and without excuse,–a Samson at the feet of Delilah, or a Hercules throwing away his club to seize the distaff of Omphale, confessing to the potency of that mysterious charm which the sage at the court of an Eastern prince pronounced the strongest power on earth. Never was a strong man more enthralled than was Antony by this bewitching woman, who exhausted every art to please him. She played at dice with him, drank with him, hunted with him, rambled with him, jested with him, angled with him, flattering and reproving him by turn, always having some new device of pleasure to gratify his senses or stimulate his curiosity. Thus passed the winter of 41-40, and in the spring he was recalled to Borne by political dissensions there.

At this stage, however, it would seem that ambition was paramount with him, not love; for his wife Fulvia having died, he did not marry Cleopatra, but Octavia, sister of Octavius, his fellow-triumvir and general rival. It was evidently from political considerations that he married Octavia, who was a stately and noble woman, but tedious in her dignity, and unattractive in her person. And what a commentary on Roman rank! The sister of a Roman grandee seemed to the ambitious general a greater match than the Queen of Egypt. How this must have piqued the proud daughter of the Ptolemies,–that she, a queen, with all her charms, was not the equal in the eyes of Antony to the sister of Caesar’s heir! But she knew her power, and stifled her resentment, and waited for her time. She, too, had a political end to gain, and was too politic to give way to anger and reproaches. She was anything but the impulsive woman that some suppose,–but a great actress and artist, as some women are when they would conquer, even in their loves, which, if they do not feign, at least they know how to make appear greater than they are. For about three years Antony cut loose from Cleopatra, and pursued his military career in the East, as the rival of Octavius might, having in view the sovereignty that Caesar had bequeathed to the strongest man.

But his passion for Cleopatra could not long be suppressed, neither from reasons of state nor from the respect he must have felt for the admirable conduct of Octavia, who was devoted to him, and who was one of the most magnanimous and reproachless women of antiquity. And surely he must have had some great qualities to call out the love of the noblest and proudest woman of the age, in spite of his many vices and his abandonment to a mad passion, forgetful alike both of fame and duty. He had not been two years in Athens, the headquarters of his Eastern Department, before he was called upon to chastise the Parthians, who had thrown off the Roman yoke and invaded other Roman provinces. But hardly had he left Octavia, and set foot again in Asia, before he sent for his Egyptian mistress, and loaded her with presents; not gold, and silver, and precious stones, and silks, and curious works of art merely, but whole provinces even,–Phoenicia, Syria, Cilicia, and a part of Judea and Arabia,–provinces which belonged not to him, but to the Roman Empire. How indignant must have been the Roman people when they heard of such lavish presents, and presents which he had no right to give! And when the artful Cleopatra feigned illness on the approach of Octavia, pretending to be dying of love, and wasting her body by fasting and weeping by turns, and perhaps tearing her hair in a seeming paroxysm of grief,–for an actress can do even this,–Antony was totally disarmed, and gave up his Parthian expedition altogether, which was treason to the State, and returned to Alexandria more submissive than ever. This abandonment of duty and official trust disgusted and incensed the Romans, so that his cause was weakened. Octavius became stronger every day, and now resolved on reigning alone. This meant another civil war. How strong the party of Antony must have been to keep together and sustain him amid such scandals, treasons, and disgrace!

Cleopatra's Barge From the painting by H. Picou

Antony, perceiving a desperate contest before him, ending in his supremacy or ruin, put forth all his energies, assisted by the contributions of Cleopatra, who furnished two hundred ships and twenty thousand talents,–about twenty million dollars. He had five hundred war-vessels, beside galleys, one hundred thousand foot and twelve thousand horse,–one of the largest armies that any Roman general had ever commanded,–and he was attended by vassal kings from the East. The forces of Octavius were not so large, though better disciplined; nor was he a match for Antony in military experience. Antony with his superior forces wished to fight upon the land, but against his better judgment was overruled by Cleopatra, who, having reinforced him with sixty galleys, urged him to contend upon the sea. The rivals met at Actium, where was fought one of the great decisive battles of the world. For a while the fortunes of the day were doubtful, when Cleopatra, from some unexplained motive, or from panic, or possibly from a calculating policy, was seen sailing away with her ships for Egypt. And what was still more extraordinary, Antony abandoned his fleet and followed her. Had he been defeated on the sea, he still had superior forces on the land, and was a match for Octavius. His infatuation ended in a weakness difficult to comprehend in a successful Roman general. And never was infatuation followed by more tragic consequences. Was this madness sent upon him by that awful Power who controls the fate of war and the destinies of nations? Who sent madness upon Nebuchadnezzar? Who blinded Napoleon at the very summit of his greatness? May not that memorable defeat have been ordered by Providence to give consolidation and peace and prosperity to the Roman Empire, so long groaning under the complicated miseries of anarchy and civil war? If an imperial government was necessary for the existing political and social condition of the Roman world,–and this is maintained by most historians,–how fortunate it was that the empire fell into the hands of a man whose subsequent policy was peace, the development of resources of nations, and a vigorous administration of government!

It is generally conceded that the reign of Octavius–or, as he is more generally known, Augustus Caesar–was able, enlightened, and efficient. He laid down the policy which succeeding emperors pursued, and which resulted in the peace and prosperity of the Roman world until vices prepared the way for violence. Augustus was a great organizer, and the machinery of government which he and his ministers perfected kept the empire together until it was overrun by the New Germanic races. Had Antony conquered at Actium, the destinies of the empire might have been far different. But for two hundred years the world never saw a more efficient central power than that exercised by the Roman emperors or by their ministers. Imperialism at last proved fatal to genius and the higher interests of mankind; but imperialism was the creation of Julius Caesar, as a real or supposed necessity; it was efficiently and beneficently continued by his grand-nephew Augustus; and its consolidated strength became an established institution which the civilized world quietly accepted.

The battle of Actium virtually settled the civil war and the fortunes of Antony, although he afterwards fought bravely and energetically; but all to no purpose. And then, at last, his eyes were opened, and Shakspeare makes him bitterly exclaim,–

“All is lost!
This foul Egyptian hath betrayed me.
… Betray’d I am:
O this false soul of Egypt!”

And with his ruin the ruin of his paramour was also settled; yet her resources were not utterly exhausted. She retired into a castle or mausoleum she had prepared for herself in case of necessity, with her most valuable treasures, and sent messengers to Antony, who reported to him that she was dead,–that she had killed herself in despair. He believed it all. His wrath now vanished in his grief. He could not live, or did not wish to live, without her; and he fell upon his own sword. The wound was mortal, but death did not immediately follow. He lived to learn that Cleopatra had again deceived him,–that she was still alive. Even amid the agonies of the shadow of death, and in view of this last fatal lie of hers, he did not upbraid her, but ordered his servants to bear him to her retreat. Covered with blood, the dying general was drawn up by ropes and through a window–the only entrance to the queen’s retreat that was left unbarred–into her presence, and soon expired. Shakspeare has Antony greet Cleopatra with the words, “I am dying, Egypt, dying!” This suggestive theme has been enlarged in a modern song of pathetic eloquence:–

I am dying, Egypt, dying,
Ebbs the crimson life-tide fast,
And the dark Plutonian shadows
Gather on the evening blast;
Let thine arms, O Queen, enfold me,
Hush thy sobs and bow thine ear,
Listen to the great heart-secrets
Thou, and thou alone, must hear.

Should the base plebeian rabble
Dare assail my name at Rome,
Where my noble spouse Octavia
Weeps within her widow’d home,
Seek her; say the gods bear witness–
Altars, augurs, circling wings–
That her blood, with mine commingled,
Yet shall mount the throne of kings.
As for thee, star-ey’d Egyptian!
Glorious sorceress of the Nile!
Light the path to Stygian horrors
With the splendors of thy smile
I can scorn the Senate’s triumphs,
Triumphing in love like thine.

Ah! no more amid the battle
Shall my heart exulting swell:
Isis and Osiris guard thee!

Thus perished the great Triumvir, dying like a Roman, whose blinded but persistent love, whatever were its elements, ever shall make his name memorable. All the ages will point to him as a man who gave the world away for the caresses of a woman, and a woman who deceived and ruined him.

As for her,–this selfish, heartless sorceress, gifted and beautiful as she was,–what does she do when she sees her lover dead,–dying for her? Does she share his fate? Not she. What selfish woman ever killed herself for love?

“Some natural tears she shed, but wiped them soon.”

She may have torn her clothes, and beaten her breast, and disfigured her face, and given vent to mourning and lamentations. But she does not seek death, nor surrender herself to grief, nor court despair. She renews her strength. She reserves her arts for another victim. She hopes to win Octavius as she had won Julius and Antony; for she was only thirty-nine, and still a queen. And for what? That she might retain her own sovereignty, or the independence of Egypt,–still the most fertile of countries, rich, splendid, and with grand traditions which went back thousands of years; the oldest, and once the most powerful of monarchies. Her love was ever subservient to her interests. Antony gave up ambition for love,–whatever that love was. It took possession of his whole being, not pure and tender, but powerful, strange; doubtless a mad infatuation, and perhaps something more, since it never passed away,–admiration allied with desire, the worship of dazzling gifts, though not of moral virtues. Would such a love have been permanent? Probably not, since the object of it did not shine in the beauty of the soul, but rather in the graces and adornments of the body, intensified indeed by the lustre of bewitching social qualities and the brightness of a cultivated intellect. It is hard to analyze a passionate love between highly gifted people who have an intense development of both the higher and the lower natures, and still more difficult when the idol is a Venus Polyhymnia rather than a Venus Urania. But the love of Antony, whether unwise, or mysterious, or unfortunate, was not feigned or forced: it was real, and it was irresistible; he could not help it. He was enslaved, bound hand and foot. His reason may have rallied to his support, but his will was fettered. He may have had at times dark and gloomy suspicions,–that he was played with, that he was cheated, that he would be deserted, that Cleopatra was false and treacherous. And yet she reigned over him; he could not live without her. She was all in all to him, so long as the infatuation lasted; and it had lasted fourteen years, with increasing force, in spite of duty and pressing labors, the calls of ambition and the lust of power. In this consuming and abandoned passion, for fourteen years,–so strange and inglorious, and for a woman so unworthy, even if he were no better than she,–we see one of the great mysteries of our complex nature, not uncommon, but insoluble.

Death of Cleopatra After the painting by John Collier

I have no respect for Antony, and but little admiration. I speak of such mad infatuation as a humiliating exhibition of human weakness. Any one under its fearful spell is an object of pity. But I have more sympathy for him than for Cleopatra, although she was doubtless a very gifted woman. He was her victim; she was not his. If extravagant and reckless and sensual, he was frank, generous, eloquent, brave, and true to her. She was artful, designing, and selfish, and used him for her own ends, although we do not know that she was perfidious and false to him. But for her he would have ruled the world. He showed himself capable of an enormous sacrifice. She made no sacrifices for him. She could even have transferred her affections, since she afterwards sought to play her blandishments upon his rival. Conceive of Antony, if you can, as loving any one else than her who led him on to ruin. In the very degradation of love we see its sacredness. In his fidelity we find some palliation. Nor does it seem that Octavia, the slighted wife of Antony, gave way to vengeance. Her sense of injury was overshadowed by her pity. This lofty and dignified matron even took his six surviving children, three of whom were Cleopatra’s, and brought them up in her own house as her own. Can Paganism show a greater magnanimity?

The fate of Cleopatra was tragic also. She too destroyed herself, not probably by the bite of asps, as is the popular opinion, but by some potent and subtile poison that she ever carried with her, and which had the effect of benumbing the body and making her insensible to pain. Yet she does not kill herself because she cannot survive the death of Antony, but because she is too proud to be carried to Rome to grace the triumph of the new Caesar. She will not be led a captive princess up the Capitoline Hill. She has an overbearing pride. “Know, sir,” says she to Proculeius, “that I

“Will not wait pinion’d at your master’s court,
Nor once be chastis’d with the sober eye
Of dull Octavia….
… Rather a ditch in Egypt
Be gentle grave to me!”

But whether pride or whether shame was the more powerful motive in committing suicide, I do not read that she was a victim of remorse. She had no moral sense. Nor did she give way to sentimental grief on the death of Antony. Her grief was blended with disappointment and rage. Nor did she hide her head, but wore a face of brass. She used all her arts to win Octavius. Her resources did not fail her; but she expended them on one of the coldest, most politic, and most astute men that ever lived. And the disappointment that followed her defeat–that she could not enslave another conqueror–was greater than the grief for Antony. Nor during her whole career do we see any signs of that sorrow and humility which, it would seem, should mark a woman who has made so great and fatal a mistake,–cut off hopelessly from the respect of the world and the peace of her own soul. We see grief, rage, despair, in her miserable end, as we see pride and shamefacedness in her gilded life, but not remorse or shame. And when she dies by her own hand, it is not in madness, but to escape humiliation. Suicide was one of the worst features of Pagan antiquity. It was a base and cowardly reluctance to meet the evils of life, as much as indifference to the future and a blunted moral sense.

So much for the woman herself, her selfish spirit, her vile career; but as Cleopatra is one of the best known and most striking examples of a Pagan woman, with qualities and in circumstances peculiarly characteristic of Paganism, I must make a few remarks on these points.

One of the most noticeable of these is that immorality seems to have been no bar to social position. Some of those who were most attractive and sought after were notoriously immoral. Aspasia, whom Socrates and Pericles equally admired, and whose house was the resort of poets, philosophers, statesmen, and artists, and who is said to have been one of the most cultivated women of antiquity, bore a sullied name. Sappho, who was ever exalted by Grecian poets for the sweetness of her verses, attempted to reconcile a life of pleasure with a life of letters, and threw herself into the sea because of a disappointed passion. Lais, a professional courtesan, was the associate of kings and sages as well as the idol of poets and priests. Agrippina, whose very name is infamy, was the admiration of courtiers and statesmen. Lucilla, who armed her assassins against her own brother, seems to have ruled the court of Marcus Aurelius.

And all these women, and more who could be mentioned, were–like Cleopatra–cultivated, intellectual, and brilliant. They seem to have reigned for their social fascinations as much as by their physical beauty. Hence, that class of women who with us are shunned and excluded from society were not only flattered and honored, but the class itself seems to have been recruited by those who were the most attractive for their intellectual gifts as well as for physical beauty. No woman, if bright, witty, and beautiful, was avoided because she was immoral. It was the immoral women who often aspired to the highest culture. They sought to reign by making their homes attractive to distinguished men. Their houses seem to have been what the salons of noble and fascinating duchesses were in France in the last two centuries. The homes of virtuous and domestic women were dull and wearisome. In fact, the modest wives and daughters of most men were confined to monotonous domestic duties; they were household slaves; they saw but little of what we now call society. I do not say that virtue was not held in honor. I know of no age, however corrupt, when it was not prized by husbands and fathers. I know of no age when virtuous women did not shine at home, and exert a healthful influence upon men, and secure the proud regard of their husbands. But these were not the women whose society was most sought. The drudgeries and slaveries of domestic life among the ancients made women unattractive to the world. The women who were most attractive were those who gave or attended sumptuous banquets, and indulged in pleasures that were demoralizing. Not domestic women, but bright women, carried away those prizes which turned the brain. Those who shone were those that attached themselves to men through their senses, and possibly through their intellects, and who were themselves strong in proportion as men were weak. For a woman to appear in public assemblies with braided and decorated hair and ostentatious dress, and especially if she displayed any gifts of eloquence or culture, was to proclaim herself one of the immoral, leisurely, educated, dissolute class. This gives point to Saint Paul’s strict injunctions to the women of Corinth to dress soberly, to keep silence in the assemblies, etc. The modest woman was to “be in subjection.” Those Pagan converts to the “New Way” were to avoid even the appearance of evil.

Thus under Paganism the general influence of women was to pull men down rather than to elevate them, especially those who were attractive in society. Virtuous and domestic women were not sufficiently educated to have much influence except in a narrow circle. Even they, in a social point of view, were slaves. They could be given in marriage without their consent; they were restricted in their intercourse with men; they were confined to their homes; they had but few privileges; they had no books; they led a life of terror from the caprices of their lords and masters, and hence inspired no veneration. The wives and daughters of the rich tyrannized over their servants, decked themselves with costly ornaments, and were merely gilded toys, whose society was vapid and uninteresting. The wives and daughters of the poor were drudges and menials, without attraction or influence; noisy, quarrelsome, garrulous women, who said the least when they talked the most.

Hence under Paganism home had none of those attractions which, in Christian countries, invest it with such charms. The home of the poor was squalid and repulsive; the home of the rich was gaudy and tinselled enough, but was dull and uninspiring. What is home when women are ignorant, stupid, and slavish? What glitter or artistic splendor can make home attractive when women are mere butterflies or slaves with gilded fetters? Deprive women of education, and especially of that respect which Christian chivalry inspires, and they cannot rise to be the equal companions of men. They are simply their victims or their slaves. What is a home where women are treated as inferiors? Paganism never recognized their equality with men; and if they ever ruled men, it was by appealing to their lower qualities, or resorting to arts and devices which are subversive of all dignity of character. When their personal beauty fled, their power also departed. A faded or homely woman, without intelligence or wit, was a forlorn object in a Pagan home,–to be avoided, derided, despised,–a melancholy object of pity or neglect, so far as companionship goes. She may have been valued as a cook or drudge, but she was only a menial. Of all those sins of omission of which Paganism is accused, the worst was that it gave to women no mental resources to assist them in poverty, or neglect, or isolation, when beauty or fortune deserted them. No home can be attractive where women have no resources; and women can have no resources outside of domestic duties, unless educated to some art or something calculated to draw out their energies and higher faculties by which they win the respect and admiration, not of men only, but of their own sex.

It was this lack of education which Paganism withheld from women which not only destroyed the radiance of home, but which really made women inferior to men. All writers, poets, and satirists alike speak of the inferiority of women to men,–not physically only, but even intellectually; and some authors made them more vicious than men in natural inclination. And when the mind was both neglected and undervalued, how could respect and admiration be kindled, or continue after sensual charms had passed away? Paganism taught the inequality of the sexes, and produced it; and when this inequality is taught, or believed in, or insisted upon, then farewell to the glory of homes, to all unbought charms, to the graces of domestic life, to everything that gilds our brief existence with the radiance of imperishable joy.

Nor did Paganism offer any consolations to the down-trodden, injured, neglected, uninteresting woman of antiquity. She could not rise above the condition in which she was born. No sympathetic priest directed her thoughts to another and higher and endless life. Nobody wiped away her tears; nobody gave encouragement to those visions of beauty and serenity for which the burdened spirit will, under any oppressions, sometimes aspire to enjoy. No one told her of immortality and a God of forgiveness, who binds up the bleeding heart and promises a future peace and bliss. Paganism was merciful only in this,–that it did not open wounds it could not heal; that it did not hold out hopes and promises it could not fulfil; that it did not remind the afflicted of miseries from which they could not rise; that it did not let in a vision of glories which could never be enjoyed; that it did not provoke the soul to indulge in a bitterness in view of evils for which there was no remedy; that it did not educate the mind for enjoyments which could never be reached; that it did not kindle a discontent with a condition from which there is no escape. If one cannot rise above debasement or misery, there is no use in pointing it out. If the Pagan woman was not seemingly aware of the degradation which kept her down, and from which it was impossible to rise, Paganism did not add stings to her misery by presenting it as an accident which it was easy to surmount. There would be no contentment or submission among animals if they were endowed with the reason of men. Give to a healthy, but ignorant, coarse, uncultivated country girl, surrounded only with pigs and chickens, almost without neighbors, a glimpse of the glories of cities, the wonders of art, the charms of social life, the triumphs of mind, the capacities of the soul, and would she be any happier, if obliged to remain for life in her rustic obscurity and labor, and with no possible chance of improving her condition? Such was woman under Paganism. She could rise only so far as men lifted her up; and they lifted her up only further to consummate her degradation.

But there was another thing which kept women in degradation. Paganism did not recognize the immaterial and immortal soul: it only had regard to the wants of the body. Of course there were exceptions. There were sages and philosophers among the men who speculated on the grandest subjects which can elevate the mind to the regions of immortal truth,–like Socrates, Plato, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius,–even as there were women who rose above all the vile temptations which surrounded them, and were poets, heroines, and benefactors,–like Telessa, who saved Argos by her courage; and Volumnia, who screened Rome from the vengeance of her angry son; and Lucretia, who destroyed herself rather than survive the dishonor of her house. There are some people who rise and triumph over every kind of oppression and injury. Under Paganism there was the possibility of the emancipation of the soul, but not the probability. Its genius was directed to the welfare of the body,–to utilitarian ends of life, to ornaments and riches, to luxury and voluptuousness, to the pleasures which are brief, to the charms of physical beauty and grace. It could stimulate ambition and inculcate patriotism and sing of love, if it coupled the praises of Venus with the praises of wine. But everything it praised or honored had reference to this life and to the mortal body. It may have recognized the mind, but not the soul, which is greater than the mind. It had no aspirations for future happiness; it had no fears of future misery. Hence the frequency of suicide under disappointment, or ennui, or satiated desire, or fear of poverty, or disgrace, or pain.

And thus, as Paganism did not take cognizance of the soul in its future existence, it disregarded man’s highest aspirations. It did not cultivate his graces; it set but a slight value on moral beauty; it thought little of affections; it spurned gentleness and passive virtues; it saw no lustre in the tender eye; it heard no music in the tones of sympathy; it was hard and cold. That which constitutes the richest beatitudes of love it could not see, and did not care for. Ethereal blessedness it despised. That which raises woman highest, it was indifferent to. The cold atmosphere of Paganism froze her soul, and made her callous to wrongs and sufferings. It destroyed enthusiasm and poetic ardor and the graces which shine in misfortune. Woman was not kindled by lofty sentiments, since no one believed in them. The harmonies of home had no poetry and no inspiration, and they disappeared. The face of woman was not lighted by supernatural smiles. Her caresses had no spiritual fervor, and her benedictions were unmeaning platitudes. Take away the soul of woman, and what is she? Rob her of her divine enthusiasm, and how vapid and commonplace she becomes! Destroy her yearnings to be a spiritual solace, and how limited is her sphere! Take away the holy dignity of the soul, and how impossible is a lofty friendship! Without the amenities of the soul there can be no real society. Crush the soul of a woman, and you extinguish her life, and shed darkness on all who surround her. She cannot rally from pain, or labor, or misfortune, if her higher nature is ignored. Paganism ignored what is grandest and truest in a woman, and she withered like a stricken tree. She succumbed before the cold blasts that froze her noblest impulses, and sunk sullenly into obscurity. Oh, what a fool a man is to make woman a slave! He forgets that though he may succeed in keeping her down, chained and fettered by drudgeries, she will be revenged; that though powerless, she will instinctively learn to hate him; and if she cannot defy him she will scorn him,–for not even a brute animal will patiently submit to cruelty, still less a human soul become reconciled to injustice. And what is the possession of a human body without the sympathy of a living soul?

And hence women, under Paganism,–having no hopes of future joy, no recognition of their diviner attributes, no true scope for energies, no field of usefulness but in a dreary home, no ennobling friendships, no high encouragements, no education, no lofty companionship; utterly unappreciated in what most distinguishes them, and valued only as household slaves or victims of guilty pleasure; adorned and bedecked with trinkets, all to show off the graces of the body alone, and with nothing to show their proud equality with men in influence, if not in power, in mind as well as heart,–took no interest in what truly elevates society. What schools did they teach or even visit? What hospitals did they enrich? What miseries did they relieve? What charities did they contribute to? What churches did they attend? What social gatherings did they enliven? What missions of benevolence did they embark in? What were these to women who did not know what was the most precious thing they had, or when this precious thing was allowed to run to waste? What was there for a woman to do with an unrecognized soul but gird herself with ornaments, and curiously braid her hair, and ransack shops for new cosmetics, and hunt for new perfumes, and recline on luxurious couches, and issue orders to attendant slaves, and join in seductive dances, and indulge in frivolous gossip, and entice by the display of sensual charms? Her highest aspiration was to adorn a perishable body, and vanity became the spring of life.

And the men,–without the true sanctities and beatitudes of married life, without the tender companionship which cultivated women give, without the hallowed friendships which the soul alone can keep alive, despising women who were either toys or slaves,–fled from their dull, monotonous, and dreary homes to the circus and the theatre and the banqueting hall for excitement or self-forgetfulness. They did not seek society, for there can be no high society where women do not preside and inspire and guide. Society is a Christian institution. It was born among our German ancestors, amid the inspiring glories of chivalry. It was made for women as well as men of social cravings and aspirations, which have their seat in what Paganism ignored. Society, under Paganism, was confined to men, at banquets or symposia, where women seldom entered, unless for the amusement of men,–never for their improvement, and still less for their restraint.

It was not until Christianity permeated the old Pagan civilization and destroyed its idols, that the noble Paulas and Marcellas and Fabiolas arose to dignify human friendships, and give fascination to reunions of cultivated women and gifted men; that the seeds of society were sown. It was not until the natural veneration which the Gothic nations seem to have had for women, even in their native forests, had ripened into devotion and gallantry under the teachings of Christian priests, that the true position of women was understood. And after their equality was recognized in the feudal castles of the Middle Ages, the salons of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries established their claims as the inspiring geniuses of what we call society. Then, and not till then, did physical beauty pale before the brilliancy of the mind and the radiance of the soul,–at last recognized as the highest charm of woman. The leaders of society became, not the ornamented and painted heterae which had attracted Grecian generals and statesmen and men of letters, but the witty and the genial and the dignified matrons who were capable of instructing and inspiring men superior to themselves, with eyes beaming with intellectual radiance, and features changing with perpetual variety. Modern society, created by Christianity,–since only Christianity recognizes what is most truly attractive and ennobling among women–is a great advance over the banquets of imperial Romans and the symposia of gifted Greeks.

But even this does not satisfy woman in her loftiest aspirations. The soul which animates and inspires her is boundless. Its wants cannot be fully met even in an assemblage of wits and beauties. The soul of Madame de Staël pined amid all her social triumphs. The soul craves friendships, intellectual banquetings, and religious aspirations. And unless the emancipated soul of woman can have these wants gratified, she droops even amid the glories of society. She is killed, not as a hero perishes on a battle-field; but she dies, as Madame de Maintenon said that she died, amid the imposing splendors of Versailles. It is only the teachings and influences of that divine religion which made Bethany the centre of true social banquetings to the wandering and isolated Man of Sorrows, which can keep the soul alive amid the cares, the burdens, and the duties which bend down every son and daughter of Adam, however gilded may be the outward life. How grateful, then, should women be to that influence which has snatched them from the pollutions and heartless slaveries of Paganism, and given dignity to their higher nature! It is to them that it has brought the greatest boon, and made them triumphant over the evils of life. And how thoughtless, how misguided, how ungrateful is that woman who would exchange the priceless blessings which Christianity has brought to her for those ornaments, those excitements, and those pleasures which ancient Paganism gave as the only solace fox the loss and degradation of her immortal soul!


Plutarch’s Lives; Froude’s Caesar; Shakspeare’s Antony and Cleopatra; Plato’s Dialogues; Horace, Martial, and Juvenal, especially among the poets; Lord’s Old Roman World; Suetonius’s Lives of the Caesars; Dion Cassius; Rollin’s Ancient History; Merivale’s History of the Romans; Biographic Universelle; Rees’s Encyclopedia has a good article.

Pagan Society : Glory and Shame

Beacon Lights of History, Volume III : Ancient Achievements