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The Queen of Dysphonia: Virgilian and Propertian Perspectives on Cleopatra

Catalina Popescu

University of Bucharest

Both Virgil (Aeneid, 685-713) and Propertius (Elegy III, 11. 39-56) present Cleopatra not only only as a femme fatale, but also as a dissonant voice in the overall poetic harmony of Augustan warfare. In her work on the feminine art of lament, Holst-Warhalft asserts that women’s tunes follow a musical pattern that contrasts dangerously with the official logos. The Oriental strain in particular was accused of a magical disharmony, “not contrary to Greek logos but to logos itself(2002).

Cleopatra at Actium is not far from this image. Both poets envision her leading her army with a sistrum (Aen. 696; El.III. 11, 43). It is not surprising that the Egyptian queen carries with herself elements of her cultural heritage, but the use of a musical instrument instead of a conventional weapon deserves a closer look. The sistrum has magical properties associated in the Egyptian world with the revitalizing powers of Isis and several rituals for mitigating the Nile (Lichtheim, 1980, 149). The queen appears to bolster her success on the battlefield by a magic item with both rejuvenating and apotropaic qualities. Virgil depicts her as a deity of the pre-Olympian disorder. Thus, Wyke notices that together with Anubis, the sistrum is part of “hierarchical oppositions” to Jupiter and the Roman trumpet (2009). However, her control in war will also depend on her ability to create assonances by tela and ferrum (694-995). The clangor of swords is paired with the subtle whistling of the arrows and the vibration of bow chords. In addition to these instruments of percussion, inarticulate vocalizations coming from monstrous dog-deities match the strident whipping of Bellona (703). Nevertheless, Cleopatra is not a good conductor of the orchestra, neglecting the signs of dissonance embodied by the two serpents behind her back. Instead of exploiting the apotropaic qualities of her sistrum to avert the hissing vipers of her Fate, she missuses her wand to “call” her troops (696-697).

Her off-key concert is finally defeated by the euphony of better maestros: Venus and Minerva (vv. 699) represent not only Augustus’ ancestry and warrior skills, but also Olympian harmony and its esthetics. The vibration of Apollo’s bow has not only martial connotations: it represents a larger instrument of percussion opposing the queen’s dissonant sistrum (704-705). In front of his threat, like a primeval entity, the queen withdraws to the bosom of the Earth (712-713). Cleopatra’s attempt to harmonize has failed.

If this Virgilian concert is literally “frozen” on the bronze shield of Aeneas in Alexandrine manner, Propertius presents a more tuneful duel. His Cleopatra is a mere meretrix, no longer the Virgilian elemental force piling mountains upon mountains. She barely stretches her mosquito nets on the Tarpeian rock (45). Instead of a loud growling force, Cleopatra is merely an auditory irritant, associated with buzzing pests and malaria. Nevertheless, her presence still brings dysphonia, and more explicit musical contrasts. Her loud-barking Anubis no longer faces the subtle percussion qualities of Apollo’s bow, but the commanding tone of Jupiter himself (43). Her sistrum tries in vain its apotropaic qualities against the far louder Roman war trumpet (41). The rhythmic tune of Roman wind instruments muffles her monotone percussion, while the logos of the supreme Olympian defeats the inarticulate Anubis. Finally the Romans raise their voices in song of triumph defeating her rattling with coherent verse (49). The Latin carmen embraces both the idea of poetic harmony and the effectiveness of magic utterance. The triumphant song mutes her tongue and charms her into submission while the venoms of sacred vipers drain her last drops of vitality (56). The Roman polyphony simply carries a better magic.

The subtle duel of percussion and inarticulate sounds in Virgil’s Aeneid reaches its final accords in Propertius, where instruments of wind, chords, animal and human voices mix together in an epic crescendo.

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Ancient Music and Cross-Cultural Comparison (organized by MOISA)

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