Passionate, dramatic, epic: the love story of Anthony and Cleopatra is arguably the most famous and enduring of all time. What sets this story apart from those of other great lovers, like Romeo and Juliet, is that at its heart lies truth: Anthony and Cleopatra did exist, and they did love each other with a burning, consuming passion. Yet their truth has morphed into legend, as so many imaginations through the centuries have been captured by their story and inspired to weave fiction from fact.
So what are the facts, as a starting point?
Cleopatra (69–30 BC) was the last ruler of Egypt, before the country was incorporated into the Roman Empire. She was proud of her Egyptian heritage, seeing herself as the reincarnation of an Egyptian goddess. Yet she was not Egyptian through and through: she was of a Greek family who had ruled Egypt since the time of Alexander the Great.
Cleopatra was helped to become sole ruler of Egypt by the Roman dictator Julius Caesar, whose mistress she become, bearing his son, Ptolemy Caesar, nine months after their first secret meeting. When Caesar was assassinated, she turned her attention to his right-hand man, Marcus Antonius (83–30 BC), who along with two other men had assumed the dictatorship in Rome. Their political aspirations were well-matched, and with Mark Anthony placed in charge of Egypt, he co-ruled with Cleopatra in the pursuit of great power and glory.
Anthony was married four times, latterly to Octavia, the sister of the future Roman Emperor Augustus. Marriage then for leaders was about political alliance, not love; but it was love that brought Anthony to Cleopatra’s side time and again, and she bore him three children. Soon, Anthony and Augustus could no longer see eye to eye, and civil war erupted, which culminated in Augustus declaring war on Cleopatra and declaring Anthony to be a traitor. At the Battle of Actium in the Ionian Sea, Augustus defeated Anthony’s forces, and he fled to Egypt and Cleopatra.
Ruthless ambition and pride had united Anthony and Cleopatra thus far, but now came the moment in history that made this love affair so memorable: the two committed suicide. First Anthony, knowing that he could not escape Augustus’s reach and believing that Cleopatra had already taken her life, stabbed himself in the stomach. As he lay awaiting death, however, he learned that his love was alive, and he was brought to her – to die in her arms. After the burial rites, Cleopatra then chose to join him in death, through the poison of an asp which she provoked into biting her. They are believed to lie together still in a mausoleum near the temple of Taposiris Magna, southwest of Alexandria.
Quite a story, don’t you think? No wonder it has inspired so many creative minds over the years, some sticking to the facts as recorded at the time, but most taking poetic licence to represent the compelling and epic love of these formidable figureheads. Here are just two of the many depictions of Anthony and Cleopatra that have brought so much colour and emotion to our cultural landscapes.
William Shakespeare wrote a tragedy based on the famous lovers, called Antony and Cleopatra and set in Rome and Egypt. It was first performed at the Globe Theatre in the early 17th century. The relationship between the two protagonists underlies all the action, and is based on an angst-ridden combination of passion and manipulation. Power and fame are of absolute importance – and invincibility, which is why, to Shakespeare’s mind, Antony and Cleopatra take their own lives, ensuring that their love will become legendary and that they will be remembered as heroic, noble and sacrificing. Not, in fact, a tragic ending, but one infused with a mastery of one’s fate. So says Cleopatra upon Anthony’s death:
We’ll bury him, and then, what’s brave, what’s noble,
Let’s do ’t after the high Roman fashion
And make death proud to take us.
The film Cleopatra, released in 1963, has gone down in history as being absolutely epic, the most expensive and ambitious movie created to that point (it cost 44 million dollars to make, and despite being the highest-grossing film at the box office that year, it did not make a profit and plunged 20th Century-Fox into a financial quagmire). It’s a sumptuous, grand, dramatic biography of Cleopatra’s life, and most especially her love affairs with Caesar and Anthony.
It is the relationship with Anthony that really stands out, however, for the chemistry between the actors is so fiery. Here’s a snippet of one of their scenes:
Cleopatra: You come before me as a suppliant.
Antony: If you choose to regard me as such.
Cleopatra: I do. You will therefore assume the position of a suppliant before this throne. You will kneel.
Antony: I will what?
Cleopatra: On your knees!
Antony: You dare ask the Proconsul of the Roman Empire?
Cleopatra: I asked it of Julius Caesar. I demand it of you!
The spark so evident on screen was compelling because it was burning brightly off screen too. While filming Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton engaged in an adulterous affair that created an almighty scandal; as Vanity Fair put it, “Never before had celebrity scandal pushed so far into global consciousness”. One wonders what the real Cleopatra would have made of that. I imagine, somehow, she would have been undaunted, her head held high.
What do you make of Anthony and Cleopatra’s love story? Is it a story of love, in fact, to inspire us, or one of power plays and possession and lust? I would love to hear your thoughts.
‘Female knight’ may well strike you as a contradiction in terms: how could a knight of medieval times be a woman? Surely this was a male domain?
When you imagine a woman in armour, no doubt Joan of Arc springs to mind. She famously disguised herself as a soldier, and she was instrumental in military campaigns. However, she was not a knight in the true sense, for she wielded the army’s banner, not a sword.
But there are records of some brave women in the Middle Ages fighting as valiantly as any man. In Catalonia, Spain, for example, the Order of the Hatchet was founded by the count of Barcelona to honour a group of women who defended the town of Tortosa against an attack by the Moors. According to a book entitled The Institution, Laws, and Ceremony of the Most Noble Order of the Garter (1672), “Women hearing of, to prevent the disaster threatning their City, themselves, and Children, put on mens Clothes, and by a resolute sally, forced the Moors to raise the Siege.” These women were knighted, and afforded great privileges: exemption from taxes; the right of ownership over their husband’s apparel and jewels upon widowhood; and, most progressive of all, a right to precedence over men at public meetings.
It is notable that these brave women felt compelled to disguise themselves as men when acting as knights. So, too, did Spain’s legendary and lone female knight, Juana Garcia de Arintero. (The following is pieced together from various sources, a definitive legend – as is invariably the case with legends – being difficult to find.)
The year was 1474, and the War of the Castilian Succession was imminent. It would be fought over the Crown of Castile, between the supporters of Joanna la Beltraneja, daughter of the late King Henry IV of Castile (known as The Impotent), and Henry’s half-sister, Isabella. Joanna was married to the king of Portugal, and Isabella was married to Ferdinand II of Aragon (known as the Catholic); hence the war that broke out pitched Spain against Portugal.
Isabella and Ferdinand worked to rally the Spanish to their cause, nobles and peasants alike. When word of the recruitment drive reached the remote Castilian village of Arintero, Don Garcia had no help to offer: he was too old to fight, and had only daughters, seven of them. His daughter Juana, however, did not accept that her gender should prevent her fighting for the cause, and she convinced her father to teach her the battle skills of a knight.
When the time came, Juana joined the ranks, disguised as a man named Diego Oliveros. For months she fought arduously alongside knights who had no idea of her deception. She fought all the way through to the final battle of Toro, in which an enemy’s sword tore her doublet and she was revealed as a woman.
After the battle, she was summoned to the victorious King Fernando’s tent. He decided her subterfuge was unimportant, and rewarded her as he would a man with privileges. His wife, however, Isabella, was less understanding. At the time, a woman dressing as a man was expressly forbidden by the Church.
Whether at Isabella’s instigation or simply in the grip of jealously, a group of men accosted Juana on her way home to Arintero. Some say she died fighting them off; others say she escaped and married a nobleman from the Asturias.
The village of Arintero was destroyed during the Civil War, but when it was rebuilt the people affixed a plaque on the home of the Garcias which reads: If you want to know this brave warrior, take off your armour and you will see: the Lady of Arintero.
It is a wonderful and inspiring story, don’t you think? I can imagine it being a very powerful film. Whether it would be a biographical or fictional work, I will leave you to decide.
‘Layla, you’ve got me on my knees.
Layla, I’m begging, darling, please.
Layla, darling, won’t you ease my worried mind.’
So sang Eric Clapton. ‘Layla’ is widely heralded as one of the greatest rock love songs of all time, but do you know the story behind the music?
The inspiration for ‘Layla’ is a very old tale, that of unrequited love in 7th-century Persian. It is a story that has been inspiring creatives for centuries, having been popularised by the 12th-century Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi. Here are just some of the artworks it has inspired:
The story of Layla and Majnun is, as English poet Lord Byron put it, ‘the Romeo and Juliet of the East’. Various versions exist, but at the core of each is a love that cannot be.
A young man named Qais ibn Al-Mulawah (known as Qays) fell in love with a young lady named Layla: deeply, irrevocably, hopelessly in love. He put his all into wooing Layla, and she reciprocated, falling in love with him. But he became so obsessed by Layla that locals dubbed him Majnun, meaning madman. Consequently, when Majnun finally plucked up the courage to ask Layla’s father for her hand in marriage, he refused, on the grounds that Majnun was a crazy, and thus unsuitable, suitor. Against her wishes, Layla was married off to a wealthy merchant, and a heartbroken Majnun fled the village, to wander the wilderness, murmuring love poems to an audience of wild creatures.
Like Romeo and Juliet, the ending is a sad one. Layla died first, of a broken heart, and Majnun then died of grief at her tomb, after inscribing into a rock:
I pass by these walls, the walls of Layla And I kiss this wall and that wall It’s not Love of the walls that has enraptured my heart But of the One who dwells within them.
Another version of the story has the star-crossed lovers meeting at school. Majnun would be beaten for paying attention to Layla rather than his studies, but for each stroke it was Layla, somehow, who would bleed. When their families discovered the powerful and mystical link between the two, a feud sprang up. As the two reached adulthood, their union was forbidden. Majnun ended up fighting Layla’s controlling brother and killing him (shades of Tybalt). To save Majnun from being stoned to death for this crime, Layla agreed to marry another man, while Majnun was exiled. But as time wore on, Layla pined for Majnun, and her new husband was jealous. He decided to remove the threat, and he rode into the wilderness, found Majnun and stabbed him in the chest. At the moment of Majnun’s death, Layla’s heart stopped beating too.
To this day, each June newlyweds and those who are betrothed come to the village of Binjaur in the state of Rajasthan, India, to pay homage at what legend tells is the tomb of Layla and Majnun, a symbolic place representing love and union – for the two are remembered together eternally in the afterlife, where madness and feuding cannot touch them.
In a new series of blogs, I will be exploring the great love stories of history, both real and imagined by poets, playwrights and authors.
I am starting today with one of my favourite stories, whose legend has endured for almost a millennia, that of Abelard and Héloïse. It is a true story dating back to the 12th century.
Héloïse was a brilliant scholar of Latin, Greek and Hebrew. Her wide knowledge and intelligence made her nominatissima, ‘most renowned’, in Western Europe. Young scholars require tutelage, and so it was that in 1115, as a young woman (some say as young as seventeen, others argue she was in her early twenties), Héloïse came to be a student of the well-respected Parisian teacher and philosopher Pierre Abelard.
It was a meeting of brilliant and bright minds, and the two quickly fell deeply in love. Abelard convinced Héloïse’s uncle and guardian, Fulbert, to let him move into their home, where he would tutor Héloïse. A passionate, but illicit, affair began, the culmination of which was Héloïse falling pregnant. She was whisked away to Brittany to stay with her sister for her confinement, and once the baby – a son named Astrolabe – was born, she returned to Paris.
Fulbert, understandably, was enraged upon discovering the affair, and to appease him Abelard proposed marriage to Héloïse, but a secret marriage, for he worried the move would affect his prosperous career. Secrets have a way of getting out, however, and in this case Fulbert was the perpetrator: he began telling people of the ‘secret’ marriage.
Indiscretions were not tolerated in the 12th century, and the repercussions were grave: ultimately, a group of Fulbert’s friends attacked Abelard one night and castrated him. Full of shame, Abelard turned to the monkhood, donning his robes at the Abbey of St Denis in Paris. The heartbroken Héloïse, meanwhile, took the vows of sisterhood as a nun – reluctantly, it must be said, although she accepted her fate, becoming prioress, eventually, at the Oratory of the Paraclete in Champagne.
You may be wondering, what makes this love story endure? So far it has been no more than a thwarted illicit affair. It is what comes next that has made the story of Abelard and Héloïse go down in history: the two lovers began a correspondence by letter that has stood the test of time – passionate and intelligent debate captured forever in ink and paper.
These are not mere love letters, however, for the story of Abelard and Héloïse is, ultimately, a tragic one. Abelard repudiates their love, their relationship, recasting it as sinful lust and directing Héloïse to turn away from him, to God. Poor Héloïse! Modern-day academics have suggested that Abelard’s harsh, somewhat arrogant take on their relationship at this point may in fact be a deliberate attempt by Abelard to protect Héloïse. In his book Abelard & Heloise (Hacket, 2007) William Levitan writes: ‘Here the motive is part protective…for Abelard to take all the moral burden on himself and shield, to the extent he can, the now widely respected abbess of the Paraclete.’
Whatever the truth of their feelings in the end, the two lived out their lives apart – celebrated for their learning, yet alone. After their deaths, however, their bones were laid side by side. In 1817 their remains were moved to the Père Lachaise Cemetery:
Ever since, people have paid homage to the lovers at their tomb. Mark Twain wrote in his 1869 book The Innocents Abroad:
[A]mong the thousands and thousands of tombs in Pere la Chaise, there is one that no man, no woman, no youth of either sex, ever passes by without stopping to examine… This is the grave of Abelard and Heloise — a grave which has been more revered, more widely known, more written and sung about and wept over, for seven hundred years, than any other in Christendom save only that of the Saviour. All visitors linger pensively about it; all young people capture and carry away keepsakes and mementoes of it; all Parisian youths and maidens who are disappointed in love come there to bail out when they are full of tears; yea, many stricken lovers make pilgrimages to this shrine from distant provinces to weep and wail and “grit” their teeth over their heavy sorrows, and to purchase the sympathies of the chastened spirits of that tomb with offerings of immortelles and budding flowers.
Mark Twain went on to tell the story of Abelard and Héloïse in his own imitable way, culminating in a scathing judgement passed on the ‘dastardly seducer’ Pierre Abelard (you can read it for yourself at https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/twain/mark/innocents/chapter15.html). Unromantic, certainly, but with the ring of truth to it: Abelard hardly comes across as a kind and loving man. But in legends, the details are often not important; what matters is sentiment. Tragedy, in fact, as with Romeo and Juliet. Had Abelard and Héloïse eloped together and lived a long and happy life, no doubt nobody would visit their graves.
Over the centuries, the story of Abelard and Héloïse has inspired many creatives, from artists (the painting above is by English artist Edmund Leighton) to poets, notably Alexander Pope in the 18th century and Christina Rossetti in the 19th. I love the Rossetti poem, ‘The Convent Threshold’, for its ending, full of hope for reunion – for a happy ever after which perhaps, if you so believe, Abelard and Héloïse found in the next life:
If now you saw me you would say:
Where is the face I used to love?
And I would answer: Gone before;
It tarries veiled in Paradise.
When once the morning star shall rise,
When earth with shadow flees away
And we stand safe within the door,
Then you shall lift the veil thereof.
Look up, rise up: for far above
Our palms are grown, our place is set;
There we shall meet as once we met,
And love with old familiar love.
‘The moon lives in the lining of your skin.’
So wrote the poet Pablo Neruda in his ‘Ode to a Beautiful Nude’. This line resonated with me as I wrote my latest novel, Legacy. The heroine, born under a full moon, is Luna, which is Spanish for moon. Ruy, the man who falls in love with her, believes she is aptly named. When she attends a costume ball that his family is hosting, wearing a Moon Queen costume, he calls her, ‘An enchanting beauty, so ethereal that you actually appear to be made of moonlight.’
There is something of the moon within Luna. Her character was inspired, in some ways, by my long-held fascination with legends and myths, especially those of the classical civilisations. In Roman mythology, Luna was the lunar goddess, the divine embodiment of the moon; in Greek mythology she was named Selene. Both goddesses were strong and beautiful, very feminine, and related to various romantic legends – for what man could resist the beauty of moonlight incarnate?
Luna’s predecessor in the Andalucían Nights trilogy is Luz (Ruy’s mother), heroine of Masquerade. In Spanish, luz means light, and that is how I see Luz: she is vibrant and dazzling; she is happiest out in the bright sunshine of the hottest part of the day.
Luna, conversely, is more reserved; she has reason to hold back part of herself. She is also cooler in demeanour, and I think that she is more deeply romantic, which is why the idea of moonlight living in the lining of her skin so appealed to me.
In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare wrote:
O, swear not by the moon, th’ inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circle orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.
I don’t see the moon as inconstant, though; it is solid, unchanging – as Henry David Thoreau put it in his poem ‘The Moon’, ‘she does not wane’… ‘alway in her proper sphere/She’s mistress of the night’. What we can see of the moon, however, does differ from day to day. So it is with Luna: my reader knows her innermost thoughts and feelings, but Ruy cannot always see all of her and understand her motives and desires.
In persuading Luna to trust him and explore her feelings for him, then, Ruy must push aside the shadows and clouds behind which she may hide. If Luna is the moon, then, Ruy is the wind; if she is the goddess Selene, he is the god Aeolus.
I will leave you with a poem by one of my favourite Spanish writers, Federico Garcia Lorca. In ‘Romance de la Luna, Luna, Luna’ the moon is personified as a woman, watched over by the air:
The moon came to the forge
with her skirt of white, fragrant flowers.
The young boy watches her, watches.
The boy is watching her.
In the electrified air
the moon moves her arms
and points out, lecherous and pure,
her breasts of hard tin.
Flee, moon, moon, moon.
If the gypsies were to come,
they would make with your heart
white necklaces and rings.
Young boy, leave me to dance.
When they come, the gypsies
will find you upon the anvil
with closed eyes.
Flee, moon, moon, moon.
Already I sit astride horses.
Young boy, leave me, don’t step on
my starched whiteness.
The horse rider approaches
beating the drum of the plain.
Within the forge the young man
has closed eyes.
Through the olive grove they come,
the gypsies – bronze and dreaming,
and eyes half closed.
Hark, hear the night bird –
how it sings in the tree.
Across the sky moves the moon,
holding the young boy by the hand.
Within the forge the gypsies cry,
are crying out.
The air watches over her, watches.
The air is watching over her.
Translator: Helen Gunn