Extracting “Big History” from Hollywood “Sword-and-Sandal” Movies: Cleopatra (1963)

Seen in “deep time,” the movie is not about colorful personalities only but on a larger scale, the transition from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire. This covers approximately one thousand years with some five centuries for each form of government, republic and empire.

The movie has as its background internecine power struggles in both Rome and Egypt.

The upshot of these struggles is the transition from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire. This transition is “punctuated” by two momentous battles:

  1. Land Battle of Pharsalus, 48 BC (Cleopatra begins with this battle).
  2. Naval Battle of Actium, 31 BC.

Rome went from monarchy (Kings) to republic (Senators) for five hundred years to Emperors for another five hundred.

(Notice that Napoleon was crowned Emperor of the French in 1804. The King was executed during the French Revolution and the word “king” was to be avoided.)

Other movies like Ben-Hur with Charleton Heston playing the lead role, show you the unhappiness of colonial peoples (like the Hebrews) under the Roman Empire. Christianity became the official religion in 330 AD under Constantine and the capital was moved from pagan Rome to Christian Constantinople. The very name “Roman Catholic Church” shows you the fusion after centuries of conflict.

After the Battle of Pharsalus in 48 BC, Julius Caesar went to Egypt, under the pretext of being named the executor of the will of the father of the young Pharaoh Ptolemy XIII and his sister Cleopatra.

Ptolemy and Cleopatra are in the midst of a civil war of their own and she has been driven out of the city of Alexandria.

Ptolemy rules alone under the care of his three “guardians,” the chief eunuch Pothinus, his tutor Theodotus and General Achillas.

Cleopatra convinces Caesar to restore her throne from her younger brother. Caesar, in effective control of the kingdom, sentences Pothinus to death for arranging an assassination attempt on Cleopatra, and banishes Ptolemy to the eastern desert, where he and his outnumbered army would face certain death against Mithridates.

Cleopatra is crowned queen of Egypt and begins to develop megalomaniacal dreams of ruling the world with Caesar, who in turn desires to become king of Rome.

They marry, and when their son Caesarion is born, Caesar accepts him publicly, which becomes the talk of Rome and the Senate.

After he is made dictator for life, Caesar sends for Cleopatra. She arrives in Rome in a lavish procession and wins the adulation of the Roman people. The Senate grows increasingly discontented amid rumors that Caesar wishes to be made king, which is anathema to the Romans. On the Ides of March in 44 BC, a group of conspirators assassinated Caesar and fled the city, starting a rebellion. An alliance among Octavian (Caesar’s adopted son), Mark Antony (Caesar’s right-hand man and general) and Marcus Aemelius Lepidus puts down the rebellion and splits the republic. Cleopatra is angered after Caesar’s will recognizes Octavian, rather than Caesarion, as his official heir, and she returns to Egypt.

While planning a campaign against Parthia in the east, Antony realizes that he needs money and supplies that only Egypt can sufficiently provide. After refusing several times to leave Egypt, Cleopatra acquiesces and meets him on her royal barge in Tarsus. The two begin a love affair, and Cleopatra assures Antony that he is much more than a pale reflection of Caesar. Octavian’s removal of Lepidus forces Antony to return to Rome, where he marries Octavian’s sister Octavia to prevent political conflict. This upsets and enrages Cleopatra. Antony and Cleopatra reconcile and marry, with Antony divorcing Octavia. Octavian, incensed, reads Antony’s will to the Roman Senate, revealing that Antony wishes to be buried in Egypt. Rome turns against Antony, and Octavian’s call for war against Egypt receives a rapturous response.

The war is decided at the naval Battle of Actium on September 2, 31 BC, where Octavian’s fleet, under the command of Agrippa, defeats the lead ships of the AntonyEgyptian fleet. Cleopatra assumes that Antony is dead and orders the Egyptian forces home. Antony follows her, leaving the rest of his fleet leaderless and soon defeated.

Several months later, Cleopatra sends Caesarion under disguise out of Alexandria. She manages to convince Antony to resume command of his troops and fight Octavian’s advancing army. However, Antony’s soldiers abandon him during the night. Rufio, the last man loyal to Antony, kills himself. Antony tries to goad Octavian into single combat but is finally forced to flee into the city. When Antony returns to the palace, Apollodorus, in love with Cleopatra himself, tells him she is in her tomb as she had instructed, and lets Antony believe she is dead. Antony falls on his own sword. Apollodorus then confesses that he misled Antony and assists him to the tomb where Cleopatra and two servants have taken refuge. Antony dies in Cleopatra’s arms.

Octavian and his army march into Alexandria with Caesarion’s dead body in a wagon. He discovers the dead body of Apollodorus, who had poisoned himself. Octavian receives word that Antony is dead and that Cleopatra is holed up in a tomb. There he offers to allow her to rule Egypt as a Roman province if she will accompany him to Rome. Cleopatra, knowing that her son is dead, agrees to Octavian’s terms, including an empty pledge on the life of her son not to harm herself. After Octavian departs, she orders her servants in coded language to assist with her suicide. Octavian discovers that she is going to kill herself and he and his guards burst into Cleopatra’s chamber to find her dead, dressed in gold, along with her servants and the asp that killed her.

The Battle of Actium was a naval battle fought between a maritime fleet of Octavian led by Marcus Agrippa and the combined fleets of both Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator.

The battle took place on 2 September 31 BC in the Ionian Sea, near the former Roman colony of Actium, Greece, and was the climax of over a decade of rivalry between Octavian and Antony.

In early 31 BC, the year of the battle, Antony and Cleopatra were temporarily stationed in Greece. Mark Antony possessed 500 ships and 70,000 infantry, and made his camp at Actium, and Octavian, with 400 ships and 80,000 infantry, arrived from the north and occupied Patrae and Corinth, where he managed to cut Antony’s southward communications with Egypt (via the Peloponnese) with help from Marcus Agrippa. Octavian previously gained a preliminary victory in Greece, where his navy successfully ferried troops across the Adriatic Sea under the command of Marcus Agrippa. Octavian landed on mainland Greece, opposite the island of Korkyra (modern Corfu) and proceeded south on land.

Trapped on both land and sea, portions of Antony’s army deserted and fled to Octavian’s side (daily), and Octavian’s forces became comfortable enough to make preparations for battle. Antony’s fleet sailed through the bay of Actium on the western coast of Greece, in a desperate attempt to break free of the naval blockade. It was there that Antony’s fleet faced the much larger fleet of smaller, more maneuverable ships under commanders Gaius Sosius and Agrippa. Antony and his remaining forces were spared only due to a last-ditch effort by Cleopatra’s fleet that had been waiting nearby. Octavian pursued them and defeated their forces in Alexandria on 1 August 30 BC—after which Antony and Cleopatra committed suicide.

Octavian’s victory enabled him to consolidate his power over Rome and its dominions. He adopted the title of Princeps (“first citizen”), and in 27 BC was awarded the title of Augustus (“revered”) by the Roman Senate. This became the name by which he was known in later times.

As Augustus, he retained the trappings of a restored Republican leader, but historians generally view his consolidation of power and the adoption of these honorifics as the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire.

Note: Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra is of course relevant here.

Education and Circular Causation: Everything Causes Everything Else

The student will have seen in these educational essays the notion of “Husserl’s rhomboid”:

The great philosopher, Edmund Husserl, who died in 1938, would bring a matchbox to class and show his students they see parts and some surface area of the matchbox (a kind of rhomboid, hence the name “Husserl’s rhomboid”) but never all of it at the same time. Students can walk around the matchbox and see facets. They can twirl the matchbox but whatever they do, the students cannot “espy” or glimpse all of it except in their imaginations, once they have been exposed to all of it, side by side, facet by facet.

Gunnar Myrdal, the Swedish economist who won the Nobel Prize in 1974, has something a bit analogous when he speaks of “circular cumulative causation”:

Circular cumulative causation is a theory developed by Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal in 1956. It is a multi-causal approach where the core variables and their linkages are delineated. The idea behind it is that a change in one form of an institution will lead to successive changes in other institutions. These changes are circular in that they continue in a cycle, many times in a negative way, in which there is no end, and cumulative in that they persist in each round. The change does not occur all at once, which would lead to chaos, rather the changes occur gradually.

Gunnar Myrdal developed the concept from Knut Wicksell and developed it with Nicholas Kaldor when they worked together at the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe.

In the characteristics relevant to an economy’s development process, Myrdal mentioned the availability of natural resources, the historical traditions of production activity, national cohesion, religions and ideologies, and economic, social and political leadership.

He writes:

“The notion of stable equilibrium is normally a false analogy to choose when constructing a theory to explain the changes in a social system.

What is wrong with the stable equilibrium assumption as applied to social reality is the very idea that a social process follows a direction—though it might move towards it in a circuitous way—towards a position which in some sense or other can be described as a state of equilibrium between forces. Behind this idea is another and still more basic assumption, namely that a change will regularly call forth a reaction in the system in the form of changes which on the whole go in the opposite direction to the first change. The idea I want to expound in this book is that, on the contrary, in the normal case there is no such a tendency towards automatic self-stabilisation in the social system. The system is by itself not moving towards any sort of balance between forces, but is constantly on the move away from such a situation. In the normal case a change does not call forth countervailing changes but, instead, supporting changes, which move the system in the same direction as the first change but much further. Because of such circular causation as a social process tends to become cumulative and often gather speed at an accelerating rate…”

(Gunnar Myrdal, Economic Theory and Underdeveloped Regions, Gerald Duckworth, 1957, pp. 12–13)

Myrdal developed further the circular cumulative causation concept and stated that it makes different assumptions from that of stable equilibrium on what can be considered the most important forces guiding the evolution of social processes. These forces characterize the dynamics of these processes in two diverse ways.

These essays that you are reading here are examples encouraging students to put causes in a kind of circle: history exists because economics exists because psychology exists because society exists because history exists. Everything is causing everything else. There isn’t a simple “linear parade.”

By way of contrast, in a person’s private life, he/she went to the dentist before buying the batteries and after having lunch. There’s a timeline of events.

In history, there are such linear timelines also: John Kennedy was assassinated before Donald Trump became president. You had breakfast before dinner. You slept before you got up in the morning.

However, processes (industrialism, migration, urbanization, inflation, etc.) are not analyzable as events like meals and one-time occurrences but are more like getting old or learning a language.

Multi-causal interpretations and circular causes get the student out of simple, “this happened and that happened” in favor of “this and that caused each other, going both ways and interacting with other pressures too.” Everything is causing and altering everything else in all directions.

Interesting Intuition from Marx

There’s an intriguing and puzzling quote from Marx which is very informative in a completely unexpected way, when Marx says:

Life is not determined by consciousness, but consciousness by life.”
(The German Ideology, International Publishers, 1970, page 47)

This seems to fit Marx’s obsession with practical circumstances as the “driver” and ideas and subjective states of mind as secondary or even derivative. For Marx, culture and consciousness are “epiphenomena” like the foam on a wave.

In a different way, modern philosophers have their own versions of this:

  1. For Wittgenstein, “forms of life” come first before all else.
  2. For Husserl, “the life-world” comes before theory.
  3. For Heidegger, “being-in-the-world” comes before theory.

Marx’s reduction of everything to material circumstances as primary causes of everything would seem to these other philosophers as a kind of extremist monomania on Marx’s part, as when he says:

We do not set out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh. We set out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life-process we demonstrate the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process. Their material life-process dominates.

The phantoms formed in the human brain are also, necessarily, sublimates of their material life-process which is empirically verifiable and bound to material premises. Morality, religion, metaphysics, all the rest of ideology and their corresponding forms of consciousness, thus no longer retain the semblance of independence.

Karl Marx with Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology, page 47

This idea from Marx is both suggestive and obsessive and maniacal at the same time, what the French call an “idée fixe” or fixation.

It is more accurate to say perhaps that life and consciousness are a “double helix.”

Essay 76: Education and the Question of a “Scheme of Things”

The French classic The Thibaults (Les Thibault) from 1922 has a dialog about the presence or absence of “a scheme of things” behind everything. This Roger Martin du Gard (died 1958, Nobel 1937) classic gives us an insight into the relationship between education and this “scheme of things.”


The Thibaults is a multi-volume roman-fleuve (saga novel) by Roger Martin du Gard, which follows the fortunes of two brothers, Antoine and Jacques Thibault, from their upbringing in a prosperous Catholic bourgeois family to the end of the First World War.

Antione, one of the Thibault brothers, has a conversation with a priest at the very end of the novel:

“I talked just now about a Universal Order and a Scheme of Things…actually we’ve as many reasons to question the existence of a Scheme of Things as to take it for granted. From his actual viewpoint, the human animal I am observes an immense tangle of conflicting forces. But do these forces obey a universal law outside themselves, distinct from them? Or do they, rather, obey—so to speak—internal laws, each atom being a law unto itself, that compels it to work out a ‘personal destiny’? I see these forces obeying laws which do not control them from outside but join up with them, but do nothing more than in some way stimulate them…And anyhow, what a jumble it is, the course of natural phenomena! I’d just as soon believe that causes spring from each other ad infinitum, each cause being the effect of another cause, and each effect the cause of other effects.

“Why should one want to assume at all costs a Scheme of Things?

“It’s only another bait form our logic-ridden minds. Why try to find a common ‘purpose’ in the movements of atoms endlessly clashing and glancing off each other? Personally, I’ve often told myself that everything happens just as if nothing led to anything, as if nothing had a meaning.”

Antione shook his head. “that blind appeal—to what? To that problematic Scheme of Things! To a deaf and dumb abstraction, that takes no heed of us.”

(Roger Martin du Gard, The Thibaults, Bantam Modern Classic, 1968, pages 768-770)

All bodies of knowledge like religion, philosophy, science posit a scheme of things which is perhaps subtle or occluded (“The Occluded Imam” or “mystery of the Holy Trinity”) or “the mind of God” (Steven Hawking’s way of getting at this) or “the Method of Absolute Doubt” leading to final certainty (Descartes).

String theory talks this way too.

In our own educational remediation effort, we are agnostic about any Scheme of Things and do not try to link books, lectures, courses to some pre-existing schema or “final layer underlying everything” at all.

Students create an evolving overview by “circum-spective” “walking around” or meta-intelligence and there is no ultimate “Eureka moment” where “everything is illuminated” (to use the title of the contemporary novel by that name.) We also do not deny the possibility of the existence of a Scheme of Things. Education thought of this way is an exploration and quest that does not end and there does not have to be a final “knowledge map“ or “truth atlas” other than home-made student “composite sketches” which are tentative and not final or “apodictic.”