This painting, by the Dutch-British artist Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912), depicts an early encounter between two people who would become one of the ancient world’s most famous power couples. Reclining in her pleasure barge, wearing the sheer white clothing, is Queen Cleopatra of Egypt (r. 51 BCE-30 BCE). Behind her in the background is the prominent Roman general and triumvir, Mark Antony (c. 83-30 BCE), shown leaning over in his seat to check out the queen. Inspiration for this scene was likely drawn from a description by the biographer, Plutarch (c. 50-120), of an encounter between Antony and Cleopatra at the Cydnus (Berdan) River. He wrote:
“She came sailing up the river Cydnus, in a barge with gilded stern and outspread sails of purple, while oars of silver beat time to the music of flutes and fifes and harps. She herself lay all along under a canopy of cloth of gold, dressed as Venus in a painting, and beautiful young boys, like painted Cupids, stood on each side to fan her. Her maids were dressed like sea nymphs and graces, some steering at the rudder, some working at the ropes. The perfumes diffused themselves from the vessel to the shore, which was covered with multitudes, part following the galley up the river on either bank, part running out of the city to see the sight. The market-place was quite emptied, and Antony at last was left alone sitting upon the tribunal” (Plutarch, The Parallel Lives, Life of Antony, chapter 26).
While Lawrence Alma-Tadema did not make an exact copy of Plutarch’s description, he did include elements of the quote into his painting. The canopy of gold was borrowed, as were the young attendants with musical instruments, and the perfume was re-created, in this case, with depictions of flower garlands and burning incense. After this encounter, the relationship between Antony and Cleopatra advanced in the natural way—they planned a dinner date. Impressively, the banquet that Cleopatra prepared was said to have been even more extravagant than the luxurious barge on which she had sailed down the Cydnus.
Written by C. Keith Hansley