29 August 2010

The Uppity Queen Arsinoë II (Part II) [Updated]

(Part I, click here)

To Reign or Rule?

Some scholars pooh-pooh the idea of Queen Arsinoë II having had any share in real power.  They can't deny that some later Ptolemaic queens did rule in their own right, if often briefly (Cleopatra Berenice, Cleopatra Tryphena, another Berenice, and -- most exceptionally -- the glorious Cleopatra VII); but there seems to be an unspoken assumption that female rule was only possible because later male Ptolemies were degenerate -- and it serves them right for all that  incest!   

But when Arsinoë II was queen, the dynasty hadn't had nearly enough time to degenerate and, anyway, neither she nor Ptolemy II were children of incest.  So, they argue instead that the queen's power was more apparent than real: 

Philadelphos trusted her, possibly confided in her, and gave her a social role in the affairs of his kingdom". (emphasis mine)

The upshot is that she had no part in the formation of public policy.

 Arsinoë II Rules OK

Feminist historians look at it differently.  To their eyes,  Arsinoë's political sway was far above what was customary for royal consorts.  Some even suggest that Ptolemy II was a weakling and Arsinoë II the real power in the land.  Certainly, unlike his father, the king was not a military man; he started lots of wars but won few.  In fact, when Arsinoë married Ptolemy, Egypt was in the midst of losing a war against Seleucid Syria:
The new queen set her hand to rectifying the situation.  She reorganized the army; she accompanied it on its campaigns; she won the Syrian war.  Her grateful husband acknowledged his debt to her policies with a public inscription in 266 B.C.
Naturally, after she died, Ptolemy went on to lose a Second Syrian War because she was not there to help him.

Mimimize or Maximize? 

So which story is closer to the truth? 

Arguing the pro's and con's from our surviving sources can be devilishly difficult (below, I give some on-line sources for those who like the nitty-gritty). But, however deeply you go into it, the fact remains that there is no proof either way.  Whether you come down on one side or the other depends, in the end, more on hunches than the solid weight of evidence.  

Two new points might help: one, admittedly, a matter of opinion; the second,  a pictorial matter of fact.

Holy Incest

Brother-sister royal incest from the queen's point of view is a win-win bet.  That doesn't mean that it wasn't awfully daring for Arsinoë II to take this leap into the unknown (and, since she's seen as stronger and smarter than Ptolemy, historians generally assume that it was her idea and not the king's), but there's little doubt that the pairing was of great benefit to queenship: almost inevitably, it conferred greater power on the queen.   

Sibling incest for the Ptolemies, as also for earlier Pharaohs, established an equality between king and queen as co-rulers. Accordingly, Arsinoë shared every title of honour with her brother and was deified together with him. Brother-sister marriage did not of itself grant the queen political power and control, but it put her in a position to take power if and when the opportunity arose.  And this remained true for future queens of the dynasty: their power and prestige was related to the continuing prevalence of sibling marriage. 

After all, you are the daughters of gods

That's really part of the self-aggrandizing message of the Theoi Adelphoi coins (scroll down [or click] to see the images in Part I).  The title of 'gods' appears above the heads of their deceased parents on one side, while Ptolemy and Arsinoë, pictured on the reverse, are simply labelled 'siblings'.  However, anyone handling the coin would mentally link the titles and read it as a coin of the 'sibling gods'.  

The Ghost of Alexander the Great 

After Alexander had conquered Egypt, he wasted no time in crossing the western desert where he was said to have been led by two snakes to the Oracle of Amun at Siwa Oasis (winter/spring, 332/331 BCE).  This oracle of the ram-headed god Amun (left) was famous throughout the Greek world.  Almost certainly, Alexander went there to seek the god's approval for his plan to found a city on the shore of the sea

A city like the joyous spring.
In populousness and spaciousness like Paradise; 
For it was both a market-place and a sowing-place.
They [would give] to it even the name of Alexandria.

But Amun granted him even more than the future metropolis.

Just as Alexander approached the oracle, he was greeted by the priests as "son of Amun", their usual form of address to new pharaohs.  From this time on, like several Egyptian pharaohs, Alexander was pictured on  monuments (below) with the ram-horn of Amun to publicise his position as son of the god and legitimate king.

Naturally, all the Ptolemies desired to associate themselves with the glory of Alexander.  So much so, that the first Ptolemy hijacked Alexander's funeral cortege as it travelled, with astonishing pomp, from Babylon on its way home to Macedonia. When the cortege had reached the Mediterranean sea at Alexandria-ad-Issum (a city in Syria, founded by Alexander to celebrate his victory over the Persians), Ptolemy arrived with an army and forced the gold-and-jewel-covered cart with the coffin to take the road south to Egypt.

The gold-encased body of the hero was eventually transported to Alexandria and placed in what would become the royal cemetery of Ptolemy's line.  Over the next three centuries, as each of Ptolemy's descendants died, he was buried in an opulent mausoleum in the royal cemetery, near the central tomb of Alexander.  The dynasty's cult was celebrated there and Alexander's tomb, especially, was treated as a shrine.  Ptolemy I thus not only exalted his hero but, by doing so, elevated his own status as the guardian of the body of the greatest king, who was also a god.

Despite this close association, no Ptolemy ever adopted the divine ram's horns.  No male Ptolemy, that is, for the remarkable exception was Queen Arsinoë II.

On her coins (below), and on hers alone, the ram's horn appear below the ear  -- and you can just see the outline of the horn beneath her veil.  

The ram's horn is common on her posthumous coins but hardly ever appears on cult statues. I know of just one case: that's the head of a small basalt statue (below), carved in the Greek style with some slight Egyptian influence.*

Just as we  imagine it on the coins, here the horn emerges in 3-D from the hair to curl backwards and downwards behind the ear.  It seems to grow naturally from the wavy locks, yet its outline and striations clearly define it as a ram's horn. 

Why would a queen wear the ram-horn of Amun?

An inscription left by her brother-husband after her death, in a temple of Mendes (another god worshipped in the form of a ram) tells us a little of what happened: 
Princess great of favour, sweet of love, beautiful queen, who has received the crowns of Upper and Lower Egypt, whose loveliness fills the palace, beloved of the Ram, priestess of the Ram, sister of the king, wife of the king, his beloved, mistress of the Two Lands, Arsinoë.... His Majesty commanded that her ram-image be erected in all temples... at the side of the living rams.
So, Ptolemy II initiated the practice -- which makes sense since the great gold octadrachms which usually clearly show the tip of the horn are part of her posthumous honours. The horn is a sign of godhead, certainly, but Ptolemy II and his successors -- though living gods and given divine honours -- were never pictured with it.  So it is, at the very least, an exceptional mark of Arsinoë's divine status.  

But did the king also intend to associate his queen with Alexander?

One Coin Is Worth 1000 Words

I cannot see how any contemporary of theirs would fail to make that connection.  Just as the Theoi Alelphoi coins, described above, implied the 'sibling gods' (but didn't directly state it), the ram's horn would inevitably link Arsinoë II to the revered Alexander -- for they are only two rulers in the Ptolemaic world who shared this divine attribute.**   

It is entirely possible that Arsinoë herself chose this honour before she died.  She would have been acutely aware of its symbolism and the potency of the image: for the first coins showing Alexander wearing the ram's horn were struck by none other than her first husband, King Lysimachos, in Thrace, when she was still married to him.  So, yes, I do think it likely to be an intentional link, meant (in the royal minds at least) to raise the queen to the level of the one-and-only Alexander.  

If that isn't a statement of real power, what is?


* Published by D. Burr Thompson, "A Portrait of Arsinoe Philadelphos", American Journal of Archaeology 59 (1955) 199-206.

** Even if, on a higher plane, Alexander wore the symbol of Amun and Arsinoë that of the god Mendes, they were visually the same; it is doubtful if any but the priests of Egypt would have made a distinction.

For the minimalist position, see R.A. Hazzard, Imagination of a Monarchy: studies in Ptolemaic Propaganda, University of Toronto (2000) Ch. 2 & 5 (partly available on Google Books). For a maximalist argument, Julia K.W. Wong, Cleopatra I: the first female Ptolemaic regent, M.A. thesis,. Univ. of British Columbia, 1998, Ch. 3.1.  Other important sources included D. Burr Thompson's article (reference in the footnote above); C.G. Johnson, 'The Divinization of the Ptolemies and the Gold Octadrachms Honoring Ptolemy III', Phoenix 53 (1999) 50-56;  E. Teeter, 'Egyptian Art', Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 20 (1994), 27-29; and see references listed in Part I.


Upper left: Arsinoe II as Isis-Selene (Louvre Ma4891).  Photographer: Jastrow 2008, via Wikimedia Commons.

Upper middle left: black granite statue of Arsinoe II as Isis-Aphrodite.  Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation - Photos: Christophe Gerigk.  You can read about this extraordinary underwater find on my blog post, Will The Real Cleopatra Please Stand Up.

Lower middle left: gilded and painted limestone statue of Arsinoe II as goddess. Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1920.

Below left: ram-headed Amun, Abu Simbel, via Africa Timeline Index.

Centre, upper (left): Thracian silver coin issued by Lysimachos, struck circa 280 BC. Diademed head of Alexander to right, ram’s horn over his ear. Photograph from CoinArchives.  (right): Silver coin issued by Lysimachos (thought to be a copy of a portrait of Alexander by Lysippus), reproduced by permission of trustees of the British Museum.

Centre, lower (left): Gold octadrachm of Arsinoë II, Year 6, struck at Ake-Ptolemais mint. Photograph by Wildwinds.  (right): Gold octadrachm of Arsinoë II, struck under Ptolemy II.  Photograph from CoinArchives .  Both sites have many other illustrations of her coins.

Updated 9 November 2010

As we said, many scholars argue that Arsinoë's royal titles were given to her posthumously as a part of a program instituted by Ptolemy II. If that is true, they need reflect little or nothing of her power during her lifetime.  But now, a new doctoral dissertation (Maria Nilsson, THE CROWN OF ARSINOË II, THE CREATION AND DEVELOPMENT OF AN IMAGERY OF AUTHORITY) identifies two, possibly three honorary scenes that date to Arsinoë's lifetime.  These scenes depict the queen's unique crown (made up of the red crown, ram horns, double feather plume, cow horns and a solar disc). 

Nilsson argues that Arsinoë's royal titles were embedded in the complex symbolic structure of her crown, and directly connect to her socio-political as well as religious role; all relate to the cult of Amun in one way or another.  These are the titles, she believes belonged to the living queen/female king:

1. Arsinoë's epithet “Banebdjedet” (the ram god) can be identified with the oldest conventional royal title, the Horus name. As a local form of Amun, Banebdjedet is depicted with horns identical to those of Arsinoë.  The ram horns symbolize her socio-political position as a (living) co-regent of Egypt (King of Lower Egypt), and her general associations with the ram god.

2. The second royal title, the Nebty name, signifies the Two Ladies, the vulture and cobra, Nekhbet and Wadjet, and their divine protection of the pharaoh.

3. The Golden Horus name in Arsinoë's title “Beautiful of appearance”, has its pictorial counterpart in the solar disc.

4.  Her throne name is identified with the designation “She who is in the heart of Shu/King, Beloved of all the Gods”. The symbolic correlation with the crown of Arsinoë is provided in her coronation prefix “King of Lower Egypt".  This is symbolized by the red crown, a fundamental element in
Arsinoë's crown.
5. Arsinoë‟s birth name prefix “Daughter of Amun” is expressed by the complete structure of the crown, describing her cultural position as the King of Egypt – the legitimate daughter of Amun.
Nilsson concludes that the crown of Arsinoë was created for the living queen and reflected three main cultural positions: her royal position as King of Lower Egypt, her cultic role as high priestess, and her religious aspect as thea Philadelphos. It indicates that she was proclaimed female pharaoh during her lifetime, and that she was regarded the female founder of the Ptolemaic Dynasty (pp. 497-501).

The full dissertation, The crown of Arsinoë II. The creation and development of an imagery of authority is available on-line at http://gupea.ub.gu.se/handle/2077/23417

20 August 2010

The Uppity Queen Arsinoë II

Who's the Woman Behind this Giant Coin?

The news that a rare Ptolemaic gold coin was found in Israel -- weighing just under one ounce (27.71 grams) of almost pure gold -- seems to have overshadowed the woman whose portrait is literally heads-up on it.*  The coin  -- more a medallion, really, than money meant to be spent -- is  worth a cool $1,184 at today's price just for its gold (never mind a premium of $$$$ for antiquity and rarity).  It commemorates Queen Arsinoë II -- one of the feistiest Hellenistic queens ever.

And, believe me, the competition for 'feistiest Hellenistic queen' was stiff.

In many ways, Arsinoë II was their role model. 

The Early Ptolemies

Alexander the Great conquered Egypt in 332-331 BCE.   When he died at Babylon in 323, his eight senior generals agreed to divide the empire among them, each to govern his respective territory as a vassal for the kings of Macedonia.  Ptolemy son of Lagus, was appointed to govern Egypt.  He declared himself king in his own right in 304, founding the Ptolemaic dynasty that would rule Egypt for almost 300 years. The dynasty lasted until the death of the great Cleopatra VII and the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BCE, easily the best-known event of ancient history.

Ptolemy I - Berenice I 'Of the gods'
Arsinoë was born in 316 BCE, the only daughter of Ptolemy I and his fourth wife, Berenice I.   The king became known as Ptolemy Soter, that is 'Saviour'.  He and Berenice were later deified, given a cult and priesthood, and described as 'gods' (ΘΕΩΝ on the coin above).   

At the age of 15 or 16, Arsinoë was sent to the Balkans and married to Lysimachus, king of Thrace and Macedon.  Lysimachus was another of Alexander's top generals: he had been married at least twice before and was old enough to be her father (about 55 when they married).  She was said to have been aroused rather by one of his sons, Agathocles, who virtuously rejected the young queen's advances.  Miffed at the insult, Arsinoë may have poisoned him or at least persuaded Lysimachus to do so.  The prince's death conveniently opened the way to Macedonian kingship for the sons of her own marriage.  Her husband finally died in battle in Feb 281 (fighting against yet another of Alexander's  generals), at the age of 74. Now, alone with her three young sons, Arsinoë commanded the garrison at Cassandreia, one of the most important Macedonian cities.

The Plot Thickens

Early in 280, her half-brother, Ptolemy Keraunos seized the Macedonian throne, thereby depriving Arsinoë's sons of the succession.  Now, in a move so characteristic of the future of this dynasty, Ptolemy Keraunos tricked his half-sister into a half-incestuous marriage,** took the city of Cassandreia for himself, and murdered her two younger sons -- though not for want of trying to kill the eldest too.  The marriage thus abruptly terminated, Arsinoë and her surviving son fled into exile on Samothrace.  Soon after, Ptolemy Keraunos was driven from his throne, and the immortal gods inflicting vengeance on him for so many perjuries, and such cruel murders, he was taken prisoner by marauding Gauls who killed him and carried his head about as a mascot on their further campaigns.

Arsinoë spent some time on Samothrace trying to regain the throne of Macedon  for her remaining son (yet another Ptolemy, perhaps Ptolemy Nios) but that prize eluded her.

The Tigress Queen

Arsinoë and son then sailed to Egypt where her younger brother, Ptolemy II had succeeded to the throne.  Ptolemy II was married to Arsinoë I (I know this is confusing, but I can't help it), a daughter of Lysimachus -- presumably by a wife or two before he had married Arsinoë II.  It didn't take long for Arsinoë II to get the better of Arsinoë I and boot her out: though the mother of his three children, Ptolemy II found her guilty of plotting against his majesty and exiled her to Coptos in Upper Egypt, where she vanishes from history.

Egyptian Bombshell

Now, the way to the throne was clear.  In winter 276/5, Arsinoë II took part in the first (but far from the last) full-sibling marriage of the dynasty, marrying her brother Ptolemy II.  There is no record of what their Egyptian subjects thought of this incestuous pairing but Graeco-Macedonian opinion was shocked.  To counter this, the royal couple commissioned the court poet, Theocritos, to explain why brother-sister incest was a great idea.  Theocritos (Idylls 17) obligingly likened the marriage to that of Zeus and Hera, brother and sister, king and queen of the gods.  It is toe-curling stuff:
From Zeus let us begin ..., for of immortals he is best; but of men let Ptolemy be named first, last and in the midst, for of men is he most excellent..., he and his noble wife, than whom none better clasps in her arms a husband in his halls, loving with all her heart a brother and a spouse.  After this fashion was accomplished the sacred bridal also of the immortals.
Common gossip saw it differently.  As a singularly imprudent poet named Sotades put it, "You are thrusting your prick into an unholy hole."  The royals were not amused: one of Ptolemy's generals arrested Sotades and, thrusting him into a leaden jar, carried him out to sea and sank him beneath the waves.

Ptolemy II and Arsinoe II 'Siblings'

On the reverse of coins dedicated to their parents as gods, they put their conjoined portraits with the added word 'siblings' (Adelphoi) -- just in case you missed the point. In fact, both king and queen took the title Philadelphos, 'Sibling-lover' -- used thereafter on documents and coins -- which deliberately highlights their incestuous union.  

Arsinoë added a touch of her own.  Instead of the typically Ptolemaic cornucopia (horn of plenty) -- a symbol of wealth, abundance, and the good things of life -- she depicted a new double cornucopia on  her coins (left) --  surely an allusion to the doubling of the royal blood.  That is the emblem on the reverse of the gold octadrachm (at the top of the post); she is named as Arsinoë Philadelphos. 

Why stress incest?

Full sibling marriage was, as Theocritus implies, the prerogative of the gods; and to behave like the gods is to assimilate oneself to them.  Not only Greek Zeus and Hera, but also Egyptian Isis and Osiris were mated sibling gods who provided the divine precedent (followed, too, by some earlier Egyptian Pharaohs). The king also bestowed on her the pharaonic title of 'royal wife and sister'.  In Egyptian, she was nsw-b'itj = "Queen of Upper and Lower Egypt", an exceptional title which had been given only very rarely to pharaonic queens.  In 272/1 BCE, the royal pair added the cult of the 'Sibling gods' to their dynastic priesthood, established shrines and publicly celebrated their own divine rites.  


Arsinoë became the most honoured Graeco-Macedonian woman during her lifetime with her deification as a goddess.  She received an abundance of cults, statues, priestesses, and dedications from her subjects and her husband, not just in Egypt but throughout the Greek world.  The Ptolemaic admiral of the fleet, to give just one example, dedicated a temple to her as the goddess Aphrodite:
While on the sea and when on land, keep in your prayers this shrine of Arsinoe-Aphrodite Philadelphos, whom admiral Kallikrates first consecrated here to rule over the headland of Zephyrium. She’ll grant good sailing or make the sea, for those who call upon her in the storm, smooth as oil. (Poseidippos, in Athenaios 7.318d)

In 267, her son, Ptolemy Nios, who was thwarted of the Macedonian throne, finally made it to the top, when he was named by her husband as co-regent.

Life must have seemed perfect.

Alas, despite being the daughter of divine parents and herself deified, Arsinoë was not immortal.  After about five years in power, the queen suddenly died.  The country was filled with lamentations; everyone was dressed in black.  Towns and streets were given her name so that she would be remembered and the great province of the Fayoum was renamed 'Arsinoë'.  Ostentatious  memorials were built.  The poet Callimachus wrote a dirge, The Deification of Arsinoë, still partly preserved:

O bride, already up under the stars of the Wain
snatched away ... you were speeding past the full moon...
Queen Arsinoë has gone... our star was quenched,
and overflowing grief taught the great husband 
to light fires as an offering for his wife...
It was all very sad.  Arsinoë's status as a cult figure after her death is not in doubt.  Not least, gold octadrachms continued to be produced in her name for well over a century.  The coin/medallion just found in Israel, which kicked off this post, was actually minted in 191 BCE by Ptolemy V -- whose wife, by the way (Cleopatra I), was the first queen-regent of the dynasty; she ruled on behalf of Ptolemy VI, who went on, in his turn, to issue octadrachms in Arsinoë's honour.  Her posthumous importance is undisputed.  

Much more contentious is the question of the nature of her power during her five years on the throne. Did she wield real political power or was she just a pretty cult face on the gold coins?

We will tackle that burning question next week in Part II, when I'll present the main arguments, pro and con -- and add what I think is something new to the mix.

* The coin was found at Tell Kedesh in Israel near its Lebanese border. It is technically an octadrachm (also called mnaieion, meaning a one-mina coin), equivalent to 100 silver drachms, or a mina of silver.  

** In Athens (and perhaps elsewhere in Greece and the Balkans),  marriage was allowed between half-sister and half-brother if they shared the same father -- as was the case here -- but not if they shared the same mother.

Trying to sort out the genealogy and chronology of the Ptolemies is like stepping into a morass: just when you think you are on firm ground, you slip into a hole instead.  Undoubtedly, the best guide is the website of Chris Bennett; but this is not for the faint-hearted (myself often included).  The question of Ptolemaic incest and its meaning is brilliantly examined by Sheila L. Ager, "The Power of Excess: Royal Incest and the Ptolemaic Dynasty" in Anthropologica 48 (2006), 165-186; and, aimed more at classicists, "Familiarity Breeds: Incest and the Ptolemaic Dynasty" Journal of Hellenic Studies, 125 (2005) 1-34.


Upper left & middle left: the Tell Kedesh octadrachm (both sides) photography by Sue Webb via the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Middle (above):  Gold octadrachm with Ptolemy I/Berenice I as gods on obverse; (below): Ptolemy II/Arsinoë II as siblings on reverse.  Photograph: Ancient & World Coins

08 August 2010

Building An Invisible City

The Invisible City of Zenobia
Italo Calvino’s invisible city of Zenobia was one of the most suggestive surreal images of the late 1900's.  Now, the invisible has became 'the possible'.  It is a real-life project , even (perhaps) a practical proposal.  If ever built, Zenobia (below) will be a 'decipherment', and a city like no other.

Now I shall tell of the city of Zenobia, which is wonderful in this fashion: though set on dry terrain it stands in high pilings, and the houses are of bamboo and zinc, with many platforms and balconies placed on stilts at various heights, crossing one another, linked by ladders and hanging sidewalks, surmounted by cone-roofed belvederes, barrels storing water, weather vanes, jutting pulleys, and fish poles, and cranes.

No one remembers what need or command or desire drove Zenobia’s founders to give their city this form, and so there is no telling whether it was satisfied by the city as we see it today, which has perhaps grown through successive superimpositions from the first, now undecipherable plan. But what is certain is that if you ask an inhabitant of Zenobia to describe his vision of a happy life, it is always a city like Zenobia that he imagines, with its pilings and its suspended stairways, a Zenobia perhaps quite different, a-flutter with banners and ribbons, but always derived by combining elements of that first model.

This said, it is pointless trying to decide whether Zenobia is to be classified among happy cities or among the unhappy. It makes no sense to divide cities into these two species, but rather into another two: those that through the years and the changes continue to give their form to desires, and those in which desires either erase the city or are erased by it.

(From Le Città Invisibili by Italo Calvino; translation William Weaver)

Designed by Italian architects Alessandro Tonni and Manuela Spera,  the city Calvino inspired is meant to create a meeting point between architecture and literature.  Calvino, I think, would have relished it.

Invisible Cities

In a garden sit the aged Kublai Khan and the young Marco Polo -- Tartar emperor and Venetian traveller. The mood is sunset. Kublai Khan has sensed the end of his empire, of his cities, of himself. 

Marco Polo diverts the emperor with tales of cities that he has seen within the empire and Kublai Khan listens, searches for a pattern in Marco Polo's cities.  Here are all the cities ever dreamed of, strange magical invisible cities that nobody else ever saw. All are named after women (as they must be, since cities are feminine in Italian) -- Raissa, Irene, Phyillis, Olinda, Armilla, Chloe, Valdrada...
The ancients built Valdrada on the shores of a lake, with houses all verandas one above the other, and high streets whose railed parapets look out over the water. Thus the traveler, arriving, sees two cities: one erect above the lake, and the other reflected, upside down. Nothing exists or happens in the one Valdrada that the other Valdrada does not repeat, because the city was so constructed that its every point would be reflected in its mirror, and the Valdrada down in the water contains not only all the flutings and juttings of the facades that rise above the lake, but also the rooms' interiors with ceilings and floors, the perspective of the halls, the mirrors of the wardrobes.
And Zobeide...
From there, after six days and seven nights, you arrive at Zobeide, the white city, well exposed to the moon, with streets wound about themselves as in a skein. They tell this tale of its foundation: men of various nations had an identical dream. They saw a woman running at night through an unknown city; she was seen from behind, with long hair, and she was naked. They dreamed of pursuing her. As they twisted and turned, each of them lost her. After the dream they set out in search of that city; they never found it, but they found one another; they decided to build a city like the one in the dream. In laying out the streets, each followed the course of his pursuit; at the spot where they had lost the fugitive's trail, they arranged spaces and walls differently from the dream, so she would be unable to escape again.
The emperor soon determines that each of these fantastic places is really the same place.

Marco Polo agrees: "Memory's images, once they are fixed in words, are erased...."

But the traveller still cannot stop.
- he must go on to another city, where another of his pasts awaits him, or something perhaps that had been a possible future of his and is now someone else's present. Futures not achieved are only branches of the past: dead branches.

"Journeys to relive your past?" was Kublai Khan's question at this point, a question which could also have been formulated: "Journeys to recover your future?"

And Marco's answer was: "Elsewhere is a negative mirror. The traveller recognizes the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and will never have."
The dialogue continues (Cities & Memory, Cities & Desire, Cities & Signs) yet, as Calvino tells us, "most of the time they remained silent and immobile."

Finally, Kublai Khan recognizes that all cities are tending toward the concentric circles of Dante's hell.
He said: "It is all useless, if the last landing place can only be the infernal city, and it is there that, in ever-narrowing circles, the current is drawing us."

And Polo said: "The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension; seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space."
Of course Zenobia will never be built. 

Which would suit Calvino perfectly.  As he said of himself, "The ideal place for me is the one in which it is most natural to live as a foreigner."

I've made much use of the brilliant review of Calvino's Novels by Gore Vidal (New York Review of Books)

Major Calvino websites at: Emory UniversitySwarthmore College and Outside the Town of Malbork

Illustrations from 'Reinterpreting Italo Calvino's Zenobia' at Evolo us News 31 July 2010.  The architects may be found at Architizer.

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