Vile Nilotic Rites: Cleopatra in Heavy Metal Music

Cleopatra VII Philopator, queen of Egypt from 51 to 30 BCE, arguably surpasses the likes of predecessors such as Hatshepsut and successors such as Irene, Elizabeth I, and Catherine the Great in the hall of fame of female monarchs who ruled in their own right. Her example, for better or worse, inspired literature and the arts from ancient poets and biographers, to the tragedies of Shakespeare, to both vintage and contemporary Hollywood. Her life, in which she skillfully governed a prosperous kingdom in the shadow of Rome, was as consequential as her death, which marked the end of the Hellenistic Age when the last of the successor states to Alexander’s empire was reduced to a Roman province. Born to king Ptolemy XIII Auletes, her Macedonian bloodline traced back to directly to Alexander’s lieutenant Ptolemy I Soter, who turned the city founded in Alexander’s name into not only Egypt’s political capital, but the cultural and intellectual capital of the ancient Mediterranean world. Much less is know about her maternal lineage, or her paternal grandmother, who may not necessarily have been from the same incestuous line. It is possible she did not have a drop of Egyptian blood in her, despite her being the only member of her dynasty to have learned the native language of her subjects. 

The open question of Cleopatra’s ethnic origins has recently come to the fore in various takes, both informed and misinformed, on the choice to cast Israeli actress Gal Gadot in a forthcoming biopic. While most historians point to a host of other queens and empresses who deserve such a spotlight, it just goes to show how much popular capital Cleopatra still possesses today, a popularity that permeates to some extent into the countercultural underground of heavy metal music, where the pharaoh’s image, drawing from ancient sources and modern popular reception, is reenvisioned in new contexts. As Cleopatra’s historical reign was inextricable from the history of the late Roman Republic and Empire that overthrew her, so her literary and historiographical reception was from the start crafted largely by her Roman conquerors. So her reception in Metal primarily comes from artists whose primary focus is the history of Rome. Let us first journey, then, into the political and literary historical background of Cleopatra’s life and legacy.

At her father’s death in 51 BCE, the 18-year-old Cleopatra was declared co-ruler with her 13-year-old brother-husband Ptolemy XIII. Inheriting the intrigue and backstabbing inveterate in Hellenistic royal families, it was not long before the two and their factions clashed in civil strife and Cleopatra was driven out of Alexandria into exile. In 48 BCE she found an opportunity to regain her throne when the Roman politician and general Julius Caesar arrived in Egypt fresh from his victory over Pompey the Great in their own civil war. Here comes the tale where she was smuggled into Caesar’s presence wrapped in a carpet. The common impression is that she seduced Caesar, who in any event took her side in the royal dispute, which resulted in a series of harbor skirmishes, palace sieges, and open warfare before Ptolemy and his forces lay dead on the battlefield (or drowned in the Nile). Caesar was fast becoming the undisputed master of Rome and its empire, and Cleopatra saw in Caesar’s alliance the best chance of serving the interests of her client kingdom that was ever resisting the inevitability of Roman conquest. After bearing Caesar a son (his only son) named Caesarion (“Little Caesar”) and even visiting Rome during the height of his dictatorship in 45-44 BCE, Cleopatra became a liability for Caesar, whom certain senators suspected of wanting to name himself king and establish a royal dynasty. With the Ides of March, Caesar fled the world of the living, and Cleopatra fled Rome.

Gérôme, Cléopâtre et César (1866)

Cleopatra returned to Egypt and declared Caesarion (Ptolemy XV Caesar) as her co-regent, while the Roman Republic entered its next phase of civil warfare. Caesar had posthumously adopted and bequeathed his name, fortune, and armies not to Caesarion, but to his grandnephew the 18-year-old Gaius Octavius, renamed Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus. Octavian, as he’s known, teamed up with Caesar’s lieutenants Marcus Antonius (Marc Antony) and Marcus Lepidus to form the Second Triumvirate, who in 42 defeated Caesar’s assassins Brutus and Cassius at Philippi and then divided Rome’s territory between them. With Lepidus soon out of the picture, Octavian controlled Rome and the western provinces, while Antony took command of the Hellenistic East. Again, Cleopatra found a man allied with whom she could advance her country’s interests, sailing to Tarsus to make a dazzling impression on Antony with the sumptuous displays of her royal barge. 

Silver denarius of Antony and Cleopatra, Alexandria, 34 BCE

Despite their alliance, strengthened at one point by the marriage of Octavian’s sister of Octavia to Antony, the triumvirs were rivals in their claims to Caesar’s legacy. This claim Antony perhaps advanced by forming a political alliance, and sexual relationship, with the mother of Caesar’s son, fathering three children of his own with her over the course of the 30s BCE. Toward the end of the decade, the triumvirs’ alliance completely broke down, due to a series of actions taken by Antony that Octavian capitalized on to turn public opinion in Rome against him. First, in 34 BCE, Antony and Cleopatra staged what is now known as the Donations of Alexandria, where the two bequeathed various kingdoms (including Roman territory) to their children, while naming Caesarion king of Egypt and Caesar’s legitimate heir. Next, in 33 Antony divorced Octavia. Finally, in 32 Octavian revealed to the Senate the contents of Antony’s will, which expressed his wish to be buried in Alexandria. Octavian accused Antony of abandoning his loyalty to Rome, dismissing his virtuous Roman wife for a barbarian woman who bewitched and emasculated him, and forfeiting his Roman identity by aspiring to oriental despotism. This propaganda persuaded two-thirds of the Senate to declare war, nominally on Cleopatra and Egypt, but really upon Antony and his legions. The remaining third fled Rome to join Antony.

The two slides clashed at Actium, off the coast of western Greece, in 31 BCE. Though he had substantial land forces, Antony and Cleopatra chose to fight Octavian at sea. As the naval battle raged, at some point Cleopatra decided to flee the melee back to Egypt. Antony, seeing her flagship sailing away, abandoned his fleet to join her. Leaderless, the Antonian navy was crushed, and their land forces later surrendered without a fight. The following year Octavian and his forces arrived in Alexandria, where after a token resistance, much of Antony’s remaining forces defected. Antony committed suicide, dying in Cleopatra’s arms. Cleopatra later followed suit, to avoid being led in chains in Octavian’s triumph. The ancient sources claim, or at least suggest, that she died from the bite of an asp. It is much more likely she took poison. Octavian hunted down and killed his rival heir Caesarion, ending the Ptolemaic dynasty and turning Egypt into his personal province. Three years later he would take on the name Augustus as Rome’s first emperor. 

Castro Battle of Actium.jpg
Castro, The Battle of Actium (1672)

History having so often been written by the victors, the earliest literary accounts of Cleopatra’s showdown at Actium and subsequent downfall were the product of Augustus’ propaganda machine. This is not to say that poets like Horace and Vergil always conformed to totalitarian dictates, but their view of Cleopatra largely harmonized with their patron’s aims at controlling the narrative. For the battle of Actium, let us look at Vergil’s mythologizing version, embossed in gold by the smith-god Vulcan upon the Trojan hero Aeneas’ shield in the eighth book of his eponymous epic (Aeneid 8.675-713, my translation):

In the middle was to behold fleets of bronze, the Actian wars, and you could see all of Leucas aglow with martial array and the waves sparkling with gold. On this side Caesar Augustus leading the Italians into battle together with the senate and people, the household and great gods, standing on a high poopdeck, from whose joyful temples shoot twin flames and whose father’s star appears in the sky. In another place lofty Agrippa leading the battle line with favorable winds and gods, whose temples shine with the beaks of the naval crown, a proud distinction of war. On this side Antony with barbarian might and diverse arms, victor over the peoples and red shore of Dawn, carries with him Egypt and the powers of the Orient and farthest Bactria, and his Egyptian spouse (blasphemy!) follows him. They all rushed together and the entire surface foamed, convulsed by oars drawn back and prows and tridents. They seek the deep; you would believe the Cyclades were torn up and swimming in the sea or that tall mountains were clashing with mountains, on such a mass did men stand upon towering decks. Tows of fire are launched by hand and flying iron from weapons, the plains of Neptune grow red with fresh slaughter. The queen in the middle summons her battle lines with her native rattle, not yet seeing behind her the twin serpents at her back. Monstrous forms of all kinds of gods and the barking Anubis wield weapons against Neptune and Venus and Minerva. Mars rages in the middle of the contest, carved in iron, and the gloomy Furies from the sky, and Discord enters rejoicing in her torn dress, whom Bellona follows with a bloody scourge. Actian Apollo, beholding these things was aiming his bow from above; at this terror all Egypt and the Indians, every Arab, all the Sabaeans start turning tail. The queen herself, calling on the winds, was seen setting sail and now, now letting loose the cables. The fire god had made her, among the slaughter pale with future death, borne by the waves and northwest wind, but facing her the Nile mournful with its great body and opening its gulfs and with its whole raiment summoning the vanquished into its blue bosom and hidden streams. 

Granted that Antony and Cleopatra’s forces included large contingents of Egyptians and other client kingdoms in addition to Roman legionnaires, Vergil depicts Actium exclusively as a titanic clash of the civilizations of West and East, Roman and barbarian, Self and Other, silencing the fact that this was really a civil war. There is no glory or triumph for defeating fellow Romans. When in reality the senate and people were divided over allegiances between Octavian and Antony, Vergil suggests that both were uniformly on Octavian’s side. Even all the Roman gods are fighting for him, not against themselves, but against the strange, animal-headed gods of Egypt. While Antony is introduced as leading the eastern forces, the narrative focuses on Cleopatra as yet another example in the Aeneid of the dangers of women usurping traditionally masculine leadership roles. Some scholars suggest that queen Dido’s affair with Aeneas that kept him from reaching his destined Italy is a reflection of Cleopatra’s spell over Antony. 

While Vergil celebrated Cleopatra’s defeat, his contemporary Horace did likewise, but with a greater focus on her death (Odes 1.37, my translation):

Now we must drink, now the ground must be beaten with free feet, now is the time to load the gods’ couches with Salian feasts, comrades. Before it was sinful to draw off the Caecuban wine from the family cellars, so long as the queen was preparing mad ruin and death for the Capitol and our empire, with her throng of ugly, disease-ridden men, she being controlled by outsized hopes and drunk with sweet fortune. But a single ship, barely saved from the fires, diminished her frenzy, and Caesar [Augustus] reduced her mind, crazed by Mareotic wine, into sheer terror, as he pressed upon her fleeing from Italy, like a hawk upon tender doves or a hunter swiftly upon a hare in the snowy fields of Haemonia, in order to put the fatal monster in chains. She, seeking to die more nobly, neither dreaded the sword in womanish fashion nor exchanged for hidden shores with her swift fleet, daring to behold her fallen kingdom with a serene face, and to bravely handle savage serpents, so that she might drink the black venom with her body, made fiercer by her deliberate death, surely scorning the cruel Liburnian galleys, too unhumble a woman to be led, stripped of power, in a proud triumphal parade.

Horace does not even mention Antony, preferring instead to frame Cleopatra as bent on world conquest and a reign of chaos over Roman order. Her drunkenness in her good fortune is compared to her literal drunkenness that fuels her irrational passions, contrasted with the sobriety of the Romans who will only drink when there are no more threats to their state. Despite the moral degeneracy of herself and her subjects, Horace toward the end of the poem suggests that she to some degree redeemed herself in the manner of her death, though he does so by having her transcend her femininity. 

Beyond poetic exaggerations Cleopatra’s legacy was also highly influenced by ancient historiography and biography. These sources make much of the notion that Antony surrendered his masculinity by becoming subservient to a woman who sexually, if not magically, manipulated him. Plutarch, for example, counts this as one of his major moral failings, as his love for Cleopatra clouded his political and military judgment and cost him the war with Octavian. Plutarch’s Life of Antony was the basis for Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, which opens with such accusations: “[His heart] is become the bellows and the fan to cool a gipsy’s lust…and you shall see in him the triple pillar of the world transform’d into a strumpet’s fool.” Plutarch writes that for her initial seduction of him at Tarsus, she relied “on her personal charms and spells” (Ant. 25.4: τοῖς περὶ αὑτὴν μαγγανεύμασι καὶ φίλτροις), perhaps with a figurative meaning but using words highly charged with witchcraft. He later compares Antony to one bewitched “by certain drugs or witchcraft” (Ant. 37.4: ὐπὸ φαρμάκων τινῶν ἢ γοητείας). To Plutarch, it was not her beauty but her charisma that was the source of her attractiveness (Ant. 27.2): “Her beauty, as they say, was not in itself incomparable, nor such as to dazzle the beholder, but her conversation had an inescapable hold.” This description, nor the evidence of Cleopatra’s own coins, did not, however, prevent later ancient writers from claiming that her beauty was an element of her power. Cassius Dio claims that in addition to being verbally persuasive she was “the most beautiful of women” (42.34.4: περκαλλεστάτη γυναικῶν). 

Her subsequent reception, especially in modern Hollywood, privileges her looks over her wits, her sexual over her intellectual charms, Elizabeth Taylor’s 1963 portrayal of her serving as the touchstone for her reputation in popular memory. More recently, Lindsey Marshal in HBO’s Rome series played a Cleopatra who was introduced as a scheming, imperious opium addict who had a Roman soldier impregnate her to then pass the child off as the son of Julius Caesar. From Vergil to HBO, we now have our points of reference in order as we dive into Cleopatra’s reception in heavy metal.

Rome: "De Patre Vostro". - Alexandra Leaving | Rome hbo, Cleopatra, Caesar  and cleopatra
Lindsey Marshal as Cleopatra in Rome (2007)

By the numbers, a search of the Metal Archives database shows 28 songs with the name Cleopatra in their lyrics, and 21 songs with Cleopatra in their title. This makes her the most popular woman from antiquity in the metal scene. The following is a representative survey of not every song (many do not have lyrics available), but enough to demonstrate the commonalities in her reception in Metal, both in songs that recount historical narratives and those who use her as an exemplum.

The first mention of Cleopatra in Metal traces back to 1990, with the release of the Italian Heavy Metal band Rod Sacred’s self-titled debut. The song “Circle of Lust” is a tribute to their national poet Dante Alighieri, specifically the fifth canto of the Inferno, where Dante and Vergil explore the Second Circle of Hell: 

Here you can find all the music stars
All in pangs of death, condemned for the eternity
To pay for pain in a strong bringer.
It’s the circle of lust, The crowded circle
Here you can find people like
Cleopatra, Achilles or Tristan and Lancillotto
Aware of their disgraces.
It’s the circle of lust
Where’s not reason but all is sex

Dante had described sinners in the Second Circle, the lustful, as battered and swirled about by hurricane winds, analogous to their carnal passions sweeping them away in life. Rod Sacred update Dante’s version by including “all the music stars,” acknowledging the connection between rock n’ roll and the sexual revolution, and heavy metal’s core theme of the liberation of the appetites. But like other metal bands, Rod Sacred play with the ambiguity of Hell as a place of punishment and Hell as an anti-Heaven, a place where vices are celebrated, akin to the metal underground’s contradistinction to mainstream society. Cleopatra is named first as an example of the famous sinners in this circle. In the original, Dante names “lustful” (lussoriosa) Cleopatra third after Semiramis and Dido. Cleopatra is here an exemplum of an eastern queen who let her sexual appetites govern her diplomacy, first with Caesar, then with Antony. Rod Sacred perpetuate her medieval reputation that deprives her of rational calculation in her course of political affairs. 

The next mention of Cleopatra comes a decade later in 2000, with the debut solo album of American Heavy Metal band Twisted Sister’s frontman Dee Snider, titled Never Let the Bastards Wear You Down. The central message of the song “Sometimes You Win (Sometimes You Lose)” is pretty straightforward from the title, that life has its rewards and punishments (classicists may recall the two urns of Zeus from Homer, from which he mixes curses and blessings in human life). Snider uses two ancient exempla to illustrate this message, the first of which are Adam and Eve. Banishment from Eden (you lose) was the price for eating of the Tree of Knowledge (you win). The second exemplum is that of Antony and Cleopatra:

So Cleopatra put her spell on Anthony
“Tony”, said Cleo, “win this one for me”
So he fought until his blood was spillin’
But we know it was the bitch that killed him
Woah woah woah woah, but he made history, yeah

Following this stanza is the verse, “Here comes that love again, sometimes a foe and sometimes a friend,” confining the theme of mixed blessings to the course of romantic relationships. The historical exemplum is that of one who threw their life away for love, but in the process gained the immortality of historical memory. Snider draws on the Plutarchian language that frames Cleopatra’s seduction and manipulation of Antony in magicological terms. He suggests that it was at Cleopatra’s bidding that Antony fought the battle of Actium, and that he fought out of love rather than ambition. “But we know it was the bitch that killed him,” may be using misogynistic language to allude to the report that Antony committed suicide after Cleopatra sent him a false message that she had killed herself, underlining her as an example of feminine deceit.

Also in 2000 debuted the song “‘Til Eternity” from the album Forbidden Fruit by the Dutch Progressive Power Metal band Elegy. The track is addressed by a male lover to his female beloved, expressing the belief that their love is so strong that it will transcend death itself: “Immortal souls always and forever / A bond between us, a passion real / Complete devotion ‘til the passing comes / Unending love, my queen is she.” The narrator expresses devotion to his beloved as a loyal subject to a monarch. Later in the song, his object of desire is “[t]he bringer of hope, the flame within my soul / My Cleopatra, my goddess from the seven seas.” By calling his beloved Cleopatra, the narrator suggests that the intensity of his affection matches that of Antony, in a romance that (they hoped) transcended their lives cut short by mutual suicide. Calling her a goddess not only puts her on a pedestal as an object of devotion, but also alludes to her self-presentation as the New Isis. As for the Seven Seas, this is an orientalizing allusion, as the Seven Seas of medieval literature are those of the East (e.g. the Red, Caspian, and Arabian Seas). The allusion exoticizes Cleopatra as the product of a mysterious and sensuous realm, as was Egypt in the “Western” imagination. Through the exemplum of Cleopatra (and Antony), Elegy demonstrate the unworldly aspirations of a mind dominated by romantic passion. 

Cleopatra’s versatile exemplum has continued to be used to evoke the vision of an alluring, exotic, woman by whom the male subject feels used. The Swedish Gothic Metal band Tiamat conjure such an image in their 2004 track “Wings of Heaven.” The song is about a relationship that the narrator doubts is based on true love, doubts that are assuaged by sex: “Seems like a lifetime we’ve been living this lie / But I can’t help keep lying when you undress before my eyes…/ Thank you my angel like belly dancing concubine / Like Cleopatra you’re sleeping safe in a royal shrine.” The orientalizing similes evoke an exoticized object of devotion and attraction who uses sex to prolong a false romance.

The Finnish Power Metal band Olympos Mons expand on this approach in their 2004 song “Cleopatra,” written from the point of view of a lover (Antony?) who prays for the salvation of his soul from the clutches of a deceitful, irrational woman: “Save my soul from / The wicked ways of love.” 

Cleopatra oh mighty queen
Ruler of the nile
Your faithful servants will follow you
Mile after mile

She is the bringer of sorrow
She is the goddess of pain
She knows there will be no tomorrow
She´s feeding us black lies again
She´s insane

One final example of her exemplum comes from the Bangladeshi Brutal Death Metal band Power of Ground, whose 2014 song “When Love Turns Revenge” fantasizes over the murder of a manipulative woman whose charms had deprived the male subject of self-control: “I knew I was a bloody spineless asshole / But she was also a siren with her allure / So there wasn’t actually something I could’ve done, / Like Cleopatra, crafted with irresistible desire.” Cleopatra is associated here with mythological femmes fatales who lure men to their destruction, such as the Sirens whose song brings shipwreck, and Pandora, the original woman designed by the gods: “[Zeus commanded] golden Aphrodite to shed grace on her head and vexatious desire” (Hesiod, Works & Days 65-66). 

We now turn to bands that go beyond simile and allusion and offer fuller historical narratives of Cleopatra and her times. These include two full blown concept albums, which will bookend our analysis. As the first mention of Cleopatra came from an Italian band, so did the first concept album, 2000’s Public Glory, Secret Agony by the Power Metal band White Skull. The album artwork demonstrates how powerful women are often received in Metal as the sexualized objects of the male gaze, demonstrated most recently in the new Eternal Champion album. Perhaps inspired by the Elizabeth Taylor Cleopatra’s grand entry into Rome, the artwork depicts her processing by the Colosseum carried by zombie Roman legionnaires. The queen herself wears her hair Egyptian-style with cobras on her head, and is dressed only by a diaphanous gown that barely conceals her large breasts. 

The interior artwork of the record contains another image, that of the fully nude queen wearing the pharaonic nemes headdress, resting her feet on a skull and suggestively seated on the lap of a musclebound Anubis, the jackal-headed god of the Underworld. The artwork assimilates Cleopatra with heavy metal trope of the fatally attractive femme fatale as bride of Satan, a witch and bringer of death. 

The lyrics, written by vocalist Federica de Boni, largely focus on the entwined careers of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar. The song “In Caesar We Trust” is based on the Alexandrian War and introduces Egypt using stock orientalist tropes of an otherworldly realm: “in this land of myth and mystery…world of death, full of graves, where wisdom stands.” The words suggest a katabasis into the underworld depicted in the artwork. Here Caesar undertakes a conquest of the Egyptian kingdom (“Fightin’ for the Egyptian overthrow…Caesar purposes to control the reign”), which is only later followed by his seduction by Cleopatra (“At the court the Queen of Sun won his heart”). The song “Cleopatra” dwells on how her love for Caesar (“Deeply in love with Caesar the oppressor”) fueled her ambitions:

The baby’s in her arms exclaiming all his rights
Still stands on looking at the Roman faces
Full of pride, she will divide
Caesar love it’s not enough to her now
She needs more, she in need to
Face her destiny and became the Egyptian guide

Again, one recalls Taylor’s Cleopatra presenting Caesarion to the crowds of Rome, and the divisive reaction thereto, some cheering, some plotting against the father who would establish a royal dynasty. Caesarion becomes not only a token of her love for Caesar, but her ticket to imperial power, and her designs on Rome. However, the album is more impressionistic and not so much a coherent narrative, and it fast-forwards to Cleopatra’s death in the song “The Field of Peace.” Her “meeting she have / With the snake” was not, however, the end of her life and reign, but the beginning of a new reign, when she takes her throne beside Anubis as queen of the dead:

She’s no mortal, she precious stone
Jackal calls your name
Fairy Queen of gold
You’ll be sitting side by side now

Like the gods, she will be worshipped in images of stone and gold. While Anubis is not actually king of the dead in Egyptian mythology, White Skull do draw from the notion that the dead pharaoh becomes Osiris, the actual king of the underworld, while the dead queen becomes Osiris’ consort Isis. While failing to become empress of Rome, White Skull’s Cleopatra ultimately fulfills her quest for power.

The next multimedia adaptation of Cleopatra comes in 2009 with the debut album Romulus by the Canadian, Roman-themed Death Metal band Ex Deo. The band is a side project of Kataklysm vocalist Maurizio Iacono, who founded the band to celebrate his Italian heritage. The song “The Final War (Battle of Actium)” from its title alludes to the end of the Roman civil wars and Augustus’ inauguration of the Pax Romana:

This is the final war along the Ionian Sea, the Battle of Actium
Mark Antony’s forces to engage Octavian’s legions at sea
Breaking the alliance of the Second Triumvirate
Cleopatra and Antony to defy
Caesarion named King of Kings
A lethal threat to Octavian
Two Hundred Thirty warships at sea
Headed by the great Mark Antony
Devastating loss forces retreat
Agrippa’s forces led by experience at sea
Roma shines once again, Octavian’s forces powerful and unmatched
Two hundred ships lost
Five Thousand lives lost
Broken line, broken will
There’s no place for glory to heal
Raised in blood, raised in fear
There’s no place for honor to heal
There’s no place for glory, there’s no place for honor…
Cleopatra
Bring this war to foreign land, Alexandria
The final encounter between two of Rome’s greatest leaders comes to an end

Ex Deo identify the Donations of Alexandria as the specific casus belli for the war between the former triumvirs: declaring Caesarion King of Kings, though a title of the Persian and Parthian monarchs, is here interpreted to mean the king of the known world, and therefore “a lethal threat to Octavian” who has similar designs. The song echoes Vergil’s poetic propaganda that glorifies Octavian and his admiral Agrippa (experienced at sea by his wars with Sextus Pompey). “Roma shines once again” suggests that, as in Vergil’s description, Octavian’s side represented the true Romans. The track also resonates with Plutarch’s denunciation of Antony’s retreat from the battle, and abandonment of his men, as an irreparable forfeiture of his honor and glory, never to be regained. 

A music video for the song premiered on the Ides of March 2010, which elaborate on its Vergilian and Plutarchian themes. The video opens with a tableau of Antony and Cleopatra, staring into each other’s eyes and holding hands, seated together on a couch, the latter wearing (an attempt at) traditional Egyptian clothing, hair, and makeup. We then cut to a fleet of Roman warships, on board which is Ex Deo’s vocalist Maurizio Iacono dressed as a Roman general, pointing to a map of Egypt. The ships’ sails display the monogram SPQR, ‘the senate and people of Rome,’ echoing Vergil’s assertion that they were all on Octavian’s side. It soon becomes apparent that despite the lyrics singing of Actium, the video depicts a Roman amphibious invasion of Egypt. Rather than a naval engagement, the disembarking legionnaires clash with native Egyptian troops in an infantry battle. As in Vergil, the Roman civil war is recast as a foreign war between Rome and Egypt, between West and East. As in Plutarch where Antony fled the battle prematurely, the video also displays Antony’s cowardice, remaining in the palace with Cleopatra while Iacono, a stand-in for Octavian, fights in the front lines. The choreography of the battle, with its stylized blood spatter, exhibits the influence of the film 300, as the Romans, like the Spartans, fight in long red capes. The video ends with the suicides of Antony and Cleopatra, just before Iacono enters, wielding his sword and, upon seeing the lovers dead, pumping his fist in a sign of a job well done, neither weeping tears for Antony nor regretting that he could not take Cleopatra alive to march in his triumph. While Ex Deo set out to glorify Rome and Octavian, they fail to do one thing that Vergil and Horace did, which was elevate Octavian’s victory by portraying Cleopatra actively leading her forces and presenting herself as a worthy adversary. 

While the legacy of Augustan propaganda dies hard in Cleopatra’s heavy metal reception, there is one band that engages with it in a peculiar way. The American Death Metal band Nile is the best known metal group based entirely on ancient Egypt, and while their catalogue focuses mainly on pre-Ptolemaic dynasties, the title track to their 2019 release Vile Nilotic Rites is a meditation on Antony’s degeneracy under Cleopatra’s spell:

He worships dogs and reptiles
He blackens his eyes with soot like a prostitute
He dances and plays the cymbals in vile Nilotic rites

I am asked if he has gone mad
If he has been bewitched, having coupled with a sorceress
For he has become soulless, degenerate
In thrall to the detestable and unclean antedeluvial rites of the phallus
More ancient than even the river Nile
Groveling in a world of numbing debauchery
Sodded, addicted, degraded
Fallen into depravity
He has sown the seeds of madness
Consumed by irrationality
Decadence, deviancy and excess
What one worships, one becomes

Whores, hermapradites, lickspittles
The corrupt and the drunken are all that is left him
For he is wretched
Consumed by lascivious and abominable orgies of flesh and blood
Infected by impious acts
A slave to the immortal passions
That contaminate and defile the soul
Inflicted with incurable decay
Staggering witlessly to his doom
What one worships, one becomes

The first three lines of the song are lifted directly from HBO’s Rome, from a scene where a newsreader announces to the citizens of Rome that the Senate has declared war on Egypt (begin the video below from 9:10).

Octavian’s minister of propaganda, Maecenas, is seen in the background as the herald declares that Antony has rejected his virtuous wife Octavia for “the sorceress” Cleopatra, the gods of Rome for the animalian gods of Egypt, and his masculinity for effeminacy. Taking their cue from television, Nile indulge in the ancient stereotypes of the barbarian East, a realm of witchcraft, carnal depravity, irrationality, and extravagance, in a word, slavishness. One recalls the entourage of degenerate men in Horace’s Cleopatra Ode. We also detect Plutarch’s moralizing in how Cleopatra’s corruption of Antony sowed the seeds of his demise. The song’s refrain recalls the first line: Antony had become what he worshipped, a beast and no longer a man. 

We conclude our exploration with another concept album, 2011’s Empire in Ruins by the Slovenian Symphonic Power Metal band ShadowIcon. With lyrics sung by Ana Prijatelj, the album covers the period from the death of Caesar to that of Cleopatra. The queen enters the story at the record’s midpoint, where after Philippi Antony takes command of the East and encounters Cleopatra at Tarsus. The song “Eastbound” is written from Antony’s first-person perspective:

The alliance formed – my lover you shall be

No fate I want, no world; no world without you
(no faith no world without you)
Such lovely fantasy full of mystery
When Fortune smiles, no escape without you (no faith no world without you)
This is the deepest secret nobody knows

What you keep saying – you still propose
Is to finally crush all my foes
In Egypt where my soul shall dwell
Until my last dying breath in hell

The course of the couple’s affair, equal parts political and romantic alliance, is compressed into a single song. Antony expresses love so strong that he cannot live in a world without her. This elegiac commitment is followed by the insinuation that it was Cleopatra who persuaded Antony to make war on his fellow Romans, while “In Egypt where my soul shall dwell” alludes to the scandalous article in his will, read aloud to the Senate by Octavian, that he be buried not in Rome but Egypt. “Eastbound” is a love song that betrays a dark undercurrent, that Antony’s devotion to Cleopatra caused his downfall.

The next track, “King of Kings,” is written with similar foreboding, and is the first metal song about Cleopatra sung from the queen’s own point of view. It is an address to her son Caesarion during the ceremony of the Donations of Alexandria:

A new life conceived by Sand and Steel,
Uniting former foes against their will.
Son of the goddess, the “King of the Kings”,
The ruler of the dawn is here.

Arise from the desert, my dearest son,
Sit by me on a golden throne.
Merge the great nations of East and West
These lands are all for you to own.

Heir to the throne, all the legions of Rome

Once again, we see the title King of Kings transcend its Persian limits into dreams of a universal empire where all nations are united as one people. The song draws on the notion that Alexander the Great had such a goal for the so-called Brotherhood of Man. Once more, Caesarion is cast as a token of Cleopatra’s ambition for the Egyptian takeover of Rome, his birthright as the son of Caesar. Musically, the song strikes an optimistic, triumphant tone, but the educated listener cannot help but dread their own hindsight, knowing that “two Caesars is one too many” and that the boy will be put to death by a victorious Octavian. 

The following track, “The Alliance,” meditates further on Antony and Cleopatra’s political romance:

The queen of sand, the chosen one,
Goddess on earth, sent from above.
The queen of kings, a tear of Ra,
An ocean princess.

A man of arms, a legionnaire, a fool in love,
blinded by the light.
A destiny – united; a passion – unrevealed
All it took was one look into,
Her eyes.

Two saints gone astray.

The song opens by describing Cleopatra as she would have been viewed by her native Egyptian subjects, as the New Isis sent as a divine savior god. Even her Greek subjects were accustomed to revering the late Ptolemaic rulers as theoi sotēres. Moreover, the title “queen of kings” (REGINA REGVM) shows up on her coinage. In contrast, the description of Antony suggests that the relationship was asymmetrical, he being a mere soldier and mortal, not the New Dionysus as he was honored across the East. Antony is deprived of political power and agency in this romance, reduced to a fool bewitched by Cleopatra’s radiance and beauty. The rest of the song then suggests that this “alliance” was a mistake, as it not only corrupted them morally, but morphed into a nihilistic suicide pact: “Against the world, on a path of dreams, / Towards a dead end.” 

The remainder of the album consists of alternating inner monologues by Antony and Cleopatra in the aftermath of Actium, Antony regretting his betrayal of his country and contemplating suicide: “Once a general, now a fool / I shall leave this world now.” Cleopatra, on the other hand, expresses her dismay that destiny had taken such a course as Octavian’s forces close in on Alexandria. The end of her kingdom she equates to the end of the world. In reflecting on this theme, the listener may consider the meaning of the album’s cover artwork, which features a blindfolded woman holding a serpent and a bloody sword, the instruments of Cleopatra and Antony’s respective suicides. The woman stands in between the ruins of Egypt and of Rome. Is this Lady Justice telling us that through her guidance of history, all empires are doomed to fall? “Another day is dawning, / Another sunrise coming / To mark the fall of all.” 

Heavy metal is a genre in which an escapist nostalgia for bygone eras of myth and history combines with a prurient introspection into the darker, bestial aspects of human nature. In Cleopatra, metal artists have found an opportunity to pull out all these stops, exploring the intersections of sex, violence, and power in a land of mystery and magic. These priorities reshape a Hellenistic queen adapted from both ancient sources and modern, popular reception. First, in dehellenizing her and treating her as essentially Egyptian in appearance and culture, she becomes the embodiment of an “Eastern” Other in contrast to the “Western” Self, perpetuating a Greco-Roman and later Orientalist bifurcation between the barbaric and the civilized, passion and reason, slave and master, demon and angel, effeminate and virile. The power she wielded by her intellect and charisma is instead attributed to her natural beauty and practice of witchcraft. Her affairs with Caesar and Antony are framed not as diplomatic strategies for the survival of herself and her kingdom; instead, they are either treated as moral failings of a mind controlled by lust, or the opposite, where she feigns romance in order to manipulate her lovers as stepping stones to satisfy her megalomania and thirst for world conquest. Thus in heavy metal she becomes the historical counterpart to the mythical exemplum of Medusa, a sexually alluring femme fatale who threatens patriarchal supremacy with her power to emasculate and enslave. 

While some artists attempt to sympathize with her by giving her the voice of a lover, a mother, and a ruler defending her people, by and large Cleopatra’s reception in metal prolongs the legacy of the Romanocentric sources biased against her, which resonate with the masculine domination of the metal counterculture since its inception. After half a century, the demographics are becoming substantially more balanced, but there’s a long way to go. Like Cleopatra, female metal musicians have long been fetishized “exceptions to the rule” for stepping into traditionally masculine roles, lumped together into a phony “female-fronted” subgenre, while, again like Cleopatra, their success was attributed not to talent and industry but to erotic assets. They were treated as objects of sight rather than subjects of sound. As more women are becoming leaders in both politics and the metal scene, not only as musicians but also as producers, distributors, and journalists, Cleopatra VIII Philopator is coming to serve not as a curiosity, but an inspiration. 

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