Sunday, 17 March 2013

Ides of March Lecture: 'Ancient Egypt: From the Pyramids to Cleopatra'

Dr Toby Wilkinson, OP

This year’s Ides of March lecture (‘Ancient Egypt: From the Pyramids to Cleopatra’) was delivered by Dr Toby Wilkinson (OP) from the University of Cambridge, whose books include 'The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt'.

Dr Wilkinson began the lecture by noting an unexpected connection between Ancient Egyptian civilisation and the Ides of March, the date of the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC. One of the horrified observers of the 52-year-old politician’s death was the 21-year-old Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt and Caesar’s lover (hence her presence in Rome).

Caesar had first encountered Cleopatra in Egypt four years previously; as the Roman flotilla journeyed down the Nile on its way to be greeted by the queen, it would have passed the extraordinary Egyptian pyramids, the new regional power coming face to face with the most ancient civilisation in the Mediterranean.

(1) A Megalomaniac, a Mistake and  a Marvel

The Red Pyramid
(source: Wikicommons)
As Dr Wilkinson pointed out, the pyramids were more distant from the era of Caesar and Cleopatra than their time is from our own. He began with Sneferu, founder of the Fourth Dynasty (c. 2575 BC) and self-styled “Lord of all Truth”, who commissioned the first great pyramids to celebrate his might and majesty, conceived as shafts of sunlight frozen in stone. However, moving from the traditional step pyramid to the more sophisticated, smooth-sided form we know today was apparently a process of trial and error. The first quickly collapsed in upon itself, although it remains visible today, known as “The Bent Pyramid”. The second attempt also ended in disaster. However, Sneferu’s architects learnt from their mistakes and their third structure (‘The Red Pyramid’ on account of the colour of the limestone) became the first of the great series of monuments witnessed by Caesar 2,500 years later.

However, by the time of Cleopatra, the great age of pyramid building had already long passed. In response to questions from the audience, Dr Wilkinson explained that one reason was grave-robbing from a very early period, with thieves drawn to the immense wealth buried with the pharaohs ready for use at their anticipated resurrection. More decisively, the economic burden of building these enormous, complex structures ultimately drained Egyptian coffers to the point of unsustainability.

 (2) The Doomed Princess

Dr Wilkinson emphasised that, at 3,000 years, Ancient Egyptian civilisation lasted three times longer than the Roman republic and empire and significantly longer than modern Western Civilisation. Egyptians were good at masking significant social and cultural changes and making them look like tradition and continuity. One exception to this is perhaps the fascinating figure of Akhenaten (c. 1322 BC), who, for a brief period of Egyptian history, overturned the old gods and goddesses and introduced worship of the sun, “Aten”, changing his own name from Amenhotep to Akhenaten (meaning “living spirit of Aten” and thus identifying himself as the earthly form of the sun god). Later described as the “heretic pharaoh”, Akhenaten transformed the royal family into the holy family (in the process, hacking images of previous royal figures from obelisks and other monuments), his wife Nefertiti being portrayed as his co-equal, in another break with tradition. In response to audience questions, Dr Wilkinson identified the striking influence of the monotheistic Egyptian ‘Hymn to Aten’ (allegedly written by Akhenaten himself) on the Hebrew Psalm 104, and explored echoes of Atenism in other early Hebrew writing. However, he noted that pre-Atenist Egyptian religious images and concepts were ultimately more influential on Christian thought, including Judgement Day, the Madonna and Child (Isis and Horus) and the idea of the Trinity.

Akhenaten and Nefertiti with their children,
including Ankhesenpaaten
Contemporary images of Akhenaten and Nefertiti posing informally with their children was another artistic innovation. His third daughter, Ankhesenpaaten (“Lives for the Sun”) was married to his son (and her half-brother) Tutankhaten , in line with a common Egyptian royal tradition of incest. The dangers of this tradition were embodied by Tutankhaten himself, who was born with a club foot and a cleft palate and who later suffered from malaria and a withered leg before dying at the young age of 18. Of the two daughters conceived by Tutankhaten and his half-sister, one was still born and the other died before she was brought to term (their tiny mummies discovered when their father’s tomb was excavated many centuries later). Therefore, with Tutankhaten died the royal dynasty.

He is better known to posterity by the name he adopted upon becoming Pharaoh at the age of nine, after his father’s death: Tutankhamun. “Amun” was the name of one of the ancient gods overturned by Akhenaten and it is therefore thought that Tutankhamun’s name change represents a restoration of the old gods after the death of the “heretic pharaoh”. The most powerful political force guiding the young Pharaoh was the vizier, Ay, who, upon Tutankhamun’s death, seized power as Pharaoh himself. To strengthen his position, he sought to marry Tutankhamun’s widow and half-sister, Ankhesenpaaten (now Ankhesenamun).

In a desperate attempt to avoid marrying a seventy-year old ‘commoner’, Ankhesenamun wrote to the Egyptians’ ancient enemies, the Hittites, begging to marry the Hittite king’s son (the extraordinary letter still survives). However, the young prince was murdered en route (presumably at the behest of the ruthless Ay) and Ankhesenamun disappears from history. Poignantly, all that is left of her (other than her pleading letter) is the wedding ring presented to her by Ay. No children resulted from their marriage; Ay’s death was followed by two centuries of rule by various Egyptian generals.

(3) Rome and Egypt

Dr Wilkinson concluded the lecture by returning to the Ides of March and the relationship between Cleopatra and Julius Caesar. He noted that, contrary to tradition and Elizabeth Taylor, Cleopatra does not appear to have been a great beauty, possessed as she was of an aquiline nose and jutting jaw. What attracted Caesar most, perhaps, was Egypt itself, the bread basket of the ancient world as a result of the rich Nile soil, and a crucial source of grain for the growing Roman population.

The real Cleopatra
In what seems a tradition of doomed Egyptian royal children, Ptolemy Caesar was born nine months after the first meeting of Caesar and Cleopatra. Nicknamed Caesarion (“Little Caesar”), he was seen by his mother as heir not only to Egypt but also Rome. Mother and son returned to Rome with Caesar, including a triumphal entry by Cleopatra, perhaps the last great display of Ancient Egyptian civilisation and culture. However, only two years later, she and Caesarion fled Rome under cover of nightfall in the terrifying aftermath of Caesar’s assassination. Despite her building of a pyramid to celebrate her son Ptolemy as a great future king, it was not to be. Following the defeat and deaths of Cleopatra and her new Roman lover, Mark Antony (a friend of Caesar's) by Caesar’s adopted son, Octavius (later the first Roman emperor, Augustus), young Caesarion disappeared without a trace, like Ankhesenamun 1,300 years before.

With that, the sun set on a 3,000-year-old civilisation as Rome moved in, but, as Dr Wilkinson explained, Cleoptra implanted the memory of the great Egyptian civilisation firmly in Western consciousness through art, literature and film. As he noted, it is interesting that Cleopatra was unique among the Ptolemies (Greek in origin, culture and language) in that she not only spoke Greek but also learned Egyptian, the language of the ordinary peasants and of the priests, whose temples were the last bastion of Egyptian tradition in a sea of Greek and Roman culture. 

Egypt and Rome: The popular image of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar
(scene from 'Cleopatra', with Elizabeth Taylor and Rex Harrison)


  1. Provides a good insight to the ancient world

  2. Awesome! I never knew so much about the ancient world!

  3. So cool.

    I love the pyramids

  4. Very accurate and detailed


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