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Would you Want a Chalice Owned by Cleopatra or a Necklace Worn by Alexander the Great?

Would you Want a Chalice Owned by Cleopatra or a Necklace Worn by Alexander the Great?

If you think that collecting artifacts that belonged to famous people is a modern domain, you are wrong. The idea of idols has been popular since the beginning of human civilization, and people have always wanted to have something that once belonged to the celebrities of their times.

Thousands of tombs, temples, and other important sites have been plundered in search of precious crowns, jewels, and other treasures. Very often people had lost respect for their idols’ remains and replaced it with the desire to have the artifacts that belonged to them. They wanted to feed their own vanity or receive symbolic items which could add some prestige to their power. The more famous the person was, the more danger their treasured belongings were in.

Adopting Alexander’s Treasures

Alexander the Great’s tomb in the city of Alexandria was one of the main destinations for famous people in the ancient world. It was the most important place of its kind in the Mediterranean. It was a prestigious place linked to burials from the Ptolemaic dynasty. Some of the people from this lineage wanted to be buried inside Alexander’s tomb, which was called Soma. Alexander was like a talisman for the Ptolemaic dynasty, but that didn't protect him from robbery. His golden coffin was taken out of the tomb by Ptolemy the 10th. However, he didn't take the object as a precious keepsake, but needed the gold to make coins. Alexander’s remains were then put in a glass coffin.

19th century depiction of Alexander's funeral procession based on the description of Diodorus.

19th century depiction of Alexander's funeral procession based on the description of Diodorus. ( Public Domain )

Julius Caesar visited Alexander’s mausoleum a few times, but there is no information about him taking anything from it. When Octavian Augustus arrived at the tomb, he was deeply touched by being so close to his hero. He asked to see Alexander’s body and kissed the mummified king's face. But when he was in the process he broke Alexander’s nose. Caligula also went to Soma. He took Alexander's necklace off the mummy and to Rome. Records say he liked to wear it while riding a chariot through the city chanting that he was Alexander the Great reborn (or, depending on the day, his son was).

Bust of Emperor Caligula.

Bust of Emperor Caligula. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

During the 1st and the 2nd centuries AD, many famous rulers went to Alexandria to find some of Alexander’s artifacts and see his mummy. At that time, the trade of fake artifacts related to Alexander was rampant in the areas of Greece and Macedonia. For centuries, people believed that even a coin created during Alexander’s reign would bring them wealth and power.

Silver coin of Alexander wearing the lion scalp of Herakles, British Museum.

Silver coin of Alexander wearing the lion scalp of Herakles, British Museum. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

Artifacts That Made Her Cleopatra VII’s Daughter

Why was Zenobia so obsessed with Cleopatra? Simply because she believed that she was her descendant. Nowadays many historians doubt this, but Zenobia was sure that she was the only person who could continue her famous ancestor’s line. However, it is difficult to find out which of Cleopatra's children would have been related to Zenobia. Here is one account of why this connection would have been so important:

“Cleopatra was a more pertinent role model who dealt warily with Rome to keep her country intact while fostering her son Caesarion as her intended successor. Zenobia’s association with Cleopatra was not just romantic hyperbole. In claiming descent from the last Queen of Egypt she also claimed a strong connection with Egypt, and perhaps cultivated her knowledge of the Egyptian language as part of this connection, representing herself to the populace as the rightful successor to Cleopatra and ruler of her country. Antonia Fraser points out that it demonstrates Zenobia’s intelligence.”

A tetradrachm of Cleopatra VII, Syria mint.

A tetradrachm of Cleopatra VII, Syria mint. ( Public Domain )

Although researchers claim that it is nearly impossible that she was related to the legendary queen, Zenobia collected as many of her artifacts as possible. The most famous of them is her collection of Cleopatra's chalices. It seems that Queen Zenobia was a victim of dishonest sellers, who presented every single chalice as Cleopatra’s. However, that collection made her faith in her supposed Ptolemaic roots stronger.

This belief took a dramatic turn during Zenobia’s conflict with Aurelius: “She invoked Cleopatra, who had preferred to kill herself rather than be captured and paraded through the streets of Rome. Zenobia did not want to continue to live ignominiously at the mercy of the Romans. Giving the impression of supreme confidence, Zenobia declared her intention of continuing the struggle, with the help of her allies from the Arabs and from the Persians.”

Zenobia's last look on Palmyra.

Zenobia's last look on Palmyra. ( Public Domain )

The Fascinating Trade of Ancient Treasures

Zenobia of Palmyra wasn't the only one like this. Through the centuries ancient texts recorded many empresses of Rome who wanted to be identified with their great ancestors, or deities. Even later, people still wanted to feel close to famous ancient figures. For example, Napoleon Bonaparte wanted to be associated with Julius Caesar.

Many rulers tried to make their reign brighter with the symbols of ancient heroes. The tradition of searching for personal items that had belonged to ancient celebrities was a disaster for countless sites. Numerous priceless treasures were lost. The trade of these kinds of artifacts was a very good business for many centuries.

Top image: [left] Detail of the Alexander Mosaic showing Alexander the Great. ( Public Domain ), [right] Antony and Cleopatra ( Public Domain )

By Natalia Klimczak

References:

Pat Southern, Zenobia of Palmyra, 2009.
Nicholas J. Saunders, The Two Thousand Year Obsession o find the Lost Conqueror, 2006.
Joann Fletcher, Cleopatra The Great: The Woman Behind The Legend, 2008.
Aleksander Krawczuk, Ród Argeadów, 1982.

Comments

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