Hidden-nomics (4): Cleopatra

So many legends and anecdotes have enveloped the historical person that is Queen Cleopatra, and I think that what fascinates most of us are the ones that refer to her great beauty and charm– qualities that were able to get the better of not one but TWO mighty conquerors, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.

Just how beautiful was this woman? Her adversaries have referred to the leader as a genuine femme fatale who used seduction as a means of getting her way. This derogatory title, coupled with the Hollywood movies that cast beautiful women to portray her, made it very easy to make people believe that she was indeed goddess-like in appearance.

However, recent evidence shows that she was not as physically attractive as people thought. Images of the late queen imprinted on coins or reliefs show a woman with a prominent nose and a protruding chin. While one could argue that beauty standards might have changed overtime and Cleopatra could have been truly considered beauteous back then, is physical appearance enough to seduce two of the smartest, most strategizing and cunning men of her time?

Some of the more “practical-minded” readers would say to themselves that sexual prowess could’ve been the key. But bear in mind that she was with Julius Ceasar for four years and with Mark Antony for a decade… sexual satisfaction alone wouldn’t have sustained such long-lasting relationships. (Ask around, if you must!)

So, for the sake of fun, imagine for a minute or two that the ancient ruler was more plain-looking than what we have been told… What then could she possibly have possessed to catch the interest of these two powerful men? to make great warriors bend their knees before her?

Could it be the same thing that made her the leader that we know she was?  the thing that made her gain so many enemies who tried to destroy her reputation by calling her of a sl*t?

She must have been a vessel filled with something truly valuable, but at the same time intangible! While that would be what historians and aficionados call “charm”, we economists label as “human capital”. In Cleopatra’s case, a magnificent and high-yielding one.

The World Economic Forum’s Human Capital Report defines it as:

the skills and capacities that reside in people and that are put to productive use.  This resource must be invested in and leveraged efficiently in order for it to generate returns.

First of all, when it comes to the initial investment, think about it: as a princess, her health was in the hands of the best doctors, she was well-fed, fiercely protected from the smallest mosquito to other lurking dangers (be it natural or man-made), she was exquisitely clothed and guarded from cold or heat, she was sheltered in palaces and this humble servant would dare bet that she was loved and spoiled by the people who surrounded her. Thus, the physical wellbeing she gained from these attentions have made her strong, less sickly, and have allowed her brain to develop well enough to absorb the many lessons she was taught.

As one would expect, her formation and training was certainly top-level as she was well-educated in maths and sciences. She was also well-versed in politics, spoke several languages and had access to the works of the greatest thinkers, so most probably she was also well-read. All of these experiences in turn must have worked their way into her mind, encouraging her creativity.

Accordingly, when it comes to the returns on these investments,  BBC History mentions that “she was a highly intelligent woman and an astute politician, who brought prosperity and peace to a country that was bankrupt and split by civil war.” These are impressive returns for a thriving society!

Lastly, as human capital is also comprised of personality attributes, it must be mentioned that many Egyptologists agree on her having been a witty woman with a good sense of humor. Add to that the strong personality of anybody belonging to her social and economic class and you have the perfect ingredients for a woman who could easily disarm you after 2 minutes of meeting her. I rest my case.

Cleopatra might have or might not have looked like Angelina Jolie, but as looks are subjective (aside from the fact that they fade), we could be sure that she offered more than just a pretty face.

As for being a man-eating, seducing and devious tramp? nothing but venomous words from someone envious. Perhaps a man.

 

 

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“One cannot and must not try to erase the past merely because it does not fit the present”- Golda Meir

Two things came to my mind upon reading Meir’s words:

  1. The past as we know it, has been documented and told by those who were “left standing” long enough. Others would simply say that “history is written by winners”.
  2. The only permanent thing in this world is change, so why shouldn’t we expect history to change as well? I’m not saying that it’s right, I’m saying it’s how things are.

On February 1944, George Orwell wrote a piece on how history is written by the winners. In it he stated that should his side win the war, they would tell fewer lies than their adversaries. Because the reality, as a TV show protagonist once said is that, “Truth is a battle of perceptions.”

Orwell further added that he would choose the most verifiable among the millions of instances which must be available. But wouldn’t the process of verification also be subject to the particular point of view of those participating in it?

The problem with the past as we know it is that no matter how many “facts” and “objective” measurements we are presented with (eg: the fact that a country had been under martial law, and the number of people who disappeared during the same period), they will always be laced with human perception. Such perspective will always try to slip past our critical and analytical minds, to reach our hearts and stir equally human feelings of either affinity or disdain to the initial observation.

The humanity in us easily makes us forget about the numbers, the facts, the objectivity of the past as we know it. And that is how we end up fighting and sometimes even insulting others- not to establish a fact, but to prove that we are right: that what we feel is THE legitimate and correct feeling, that what we believe is THE thing to believe in… within the uncontrolled realm of social media*, the famous “keyboard warriors” make it seem that suggestion outside of what others perceive is a lie, an idea forced through bribery or worse, a mere invention of creative minds.

Isn’t it sad? that instead of enriching ourselves in debate and trying to learn from an opposing perspective, our discussions on socio-econo-politic and especially in historic topics end up tallying who’s right and who’s wrong?

However, going back to erasing the past to fit the present…

On the one hand, I don’t agree it cannot be done. As a matter of fact, even if what already occurred can’t be undone, those living in the present can still modify data and information bit by bit until the desired effect is achieved. Even in those cases when data can be maintained intact, the interpretation of the said information can still be subject to the analyst’s own thinking (or agenda). So yes, this CAN be done.

On the other hand, no matter how improper it is to erase or alter the past as we know it, well, who doesn’t do it? the human mind is feeble and highly suggestive, while the soul can harbor various motives as well. And so no matter how many registered facts there are, no matter how many recorded events are available, people will always choose to believe what is convenient for them. So, even if it MUST NOT be done, human beings will always serve their best interest at the end of the day and overlook this little misdeed. (In fact, who’s to say that Meir was not guilty of this type of act?)

Dear reader, you might not notice it now but allow me to save you time: everything boils down to resource allocation. 

The “winners” who will proceed to write the story– ultimately turning into history- possess the power to influence which portions of the society get what percentage of resources. These could be time, money, attention, alliances, exposure, etc…

A very good example of this is the passing of the Spanish “Historical Memory Act”. Without embarking on a discussion of its relevance or utility, suffice it to say that this law was able to channel Spain’s limited resources into sectors which would otherwise be left in a state of disremembrance. (Some examples are: the identification and eventual exhumation of common graveyards, granting the Spanish nationality to families of the exiled and the removal of any symbol commemorating the military uprising.)

Due to the very nature of history (or the past as we know it), different interest groups will always resort to revisionism to establish their own version of truth.

This is what’s currently happening in the Philippines, where young Filipinos are being taught that the Marcos regime of dictatorship was the most glorious period of the country. Once again, it simply boils down to resource allocation; this time the resource being a seat in the political arena. For why else would these parties bother to convince a whole generation about the goodness of the former dictator, if not to reinstall his family and allies back to the Philippine politics?

The lesson I gather from this reflection is that we must be very vigilant of the kind of past being insisted as “what really happened”. We cannot and must not change the past what about the rest? we don’t hold anybody’s deeds and desires but our own. Yet, we can exert a small leverage in our communities even as we are neither historians nor big influencers.

Starting with ourselves, we should never lose sight of our past: the past as we were told, and the past as it is currently being recounted. Let us be indefatigable seekers of information, and let us be annoyingly non-conformists with the kind of facts lain before us.

More importantly, let us take ownership of that history. Let’s make it ours: just as we find ourselves to be part of a family, let us also make ourselves part of a town, a country, a global community.

With the knowledge that we have, we can then proceed to inquire, debate and refute any efforts of revisionism that we feel is not right.

Finally, let us exert a massive effort as a community, to reach out to the children- our future. Not only must we pass on to them the gathered knowledge that we have. We must also teach them how to collect the necessary information, where to get it, what questions to ask, to whom they should ask, how they should ask and to never be afraid to politely discuss anything that doesn’t satisfy them.

Golda Meir was a diplomat, politician and the fifth Prime Minister of Israel. Not wanting to question neither her sincerity nor her intentions for uttering those words, it is obvious that she has every interest in wanting to preserve the historical memory from her ancestors. But she was not alone in this task. Ever since the post-war period, every awareness creation effort has been made so that this dark chapter in human history will never be forgotten. And it must be said that this kind of tenacity is admirable, considering how many generations have passed and nobody has ever questioned the integrity of records about the violent pursuit of the Jewish community.

The past of her people, as well as her very own, made her understand the importance of preserving history: to learn from the past as we know it, allowing for hope in the achievement of a greater future.

 

* Social media is a fantastic platform for knowledge-distribution and idea-sharing initiatives.

Sources:

  1. The Economist quotes, available at: https://goo.gl/vWzDx3
  2. “History is Written by the Winners”, by George Orwell, available at: http://alexpeak.com/twr/hiwbtw/
  3. “All People are Living Histories- which is why History matters”, by Penelope J. Corfield, available at: http://www.history.ac.uk/makinghistory/resources/articles/why_history_matters.html
  4. “The Face that Launched a Thousand MiGs”, The Guardian, available at: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2008/aug/16/biography.politics