“Caesar and Cleopatra unite Rome and Egypt”: Toys, History and the Playmobil Series

Karolina Kulpa is a linchpin of the Our Mythical Childhood project: it is she who keeps track of the Survey (currently standing at over 1100 entries), a formidable task. Karolina wrote her PhD on the reception of Cleopatra in popular culture, and is incredibly knowledgeable about how toys transmit ideas of the ancient world. I’m therefore delighted to present an extract from a paper she delivered at “Our Mythical History: Children’s and Young Adults’ Culture in Response to the Heritage of Ancient Greece and Rome,” a Conference held at the Faculty of “Artes Liberales,” May 22-26, 2019. The full paper will be published in a collection of the same name. –Elizabeth Hale

I was born under communism in Poland, but my childhood was in the 1990s, when my country was transformed and opened to the so-called “West.” Suddenly, we had greater availability of products, among them toys, almost impossible to achieve previously.  In just a few years, almost unattainable items such as a Barbie doll or Lego sets, became ordinary products found in many children’s rooms. Polish youngsters joined millions of their peers in the world who became consumers of pop-culture products of children’s and youth culture, including the merchandise of the biggest franchises in the world.

It seems now that we live in times where pop culture is one of the most important sources of information about our past (but not necessarily the most reliable), as we can see from thousands of novels, films and animations. One element can be seen clearly: after the Digital Revolution, pop culture has reduced features of historic and mythological figures to easily identifiable, stereotyped characters. For decades, companies producing toys have outdone each other in their bid to attract children and young adults, an important segment of the market. History and historical figures have become products for sale. Manufacturers often refer in their products to Antiquity, especially the history and mythology of ancient Greece and Rome, sometimes also of Egypt. We can buy figurines, dolls, costumes and games, and thanks to them children have an opportunity to get into their favourite character and play recreating history or creating their own stories against an “ancient background”.

Curse of the Pharaohs

Take for example, the German toy manufacturer Playmobil’s line of History products titled “Romans and Egyptians.” These figures were presented in the animated short Curse of the Pharaohs, released in March 2017 by this company on You Tube[2], which associated with the story of Cleopatra VII and her relationship with Roman dictator, Julius Caesar.

The image of this Egyptian ruler is a perfect example of the process of transforming a historical figure into a pop culture icon. Popular culture has warped the image of the historic queen and reduced her to a symbol of beautiful, ambitious woman who seduced men and brought about their downfall. Playmobil History’s sets shows a combination of children’s and youth culture with history, not only by portraying Cleopatra and Julius Caesar in the form of plastic figures, but also by drawing the producer’s attention to the educational value for young audiences by adding additional information in the booklet Learn All about the Romans & Egyptians, which is available on their website [3][4]. The nine sets from Playmobil History include: Caesar and Cleopatra (9169), Egyptian Troop with Ballista (5388), Egyptian Warrior with Camel (9167), Legionnaire with Ballista (5392), Roman Troop (9168), Roman Chariot (5391), Roman Warriors’ Ship (5390), Tomb Raiders’ Camp (9166) and Pharaoh’s Pyramid (5386).

The most interesting aspect of this series is the film’s plot, which is an alternative history of the meeting between Cleopatra and Julius Caesar with the purpose to unite Egypt with Rome, which unification will “come in peace”. Cleopatra’s brother, Ptolemaios (Ptolemy), is jealous, because she increased her popularity. That’s why he wants to unleash the Curse of the Pharaoh, hidden in one of the pyramids, and force his sister to start a war with Rome. The plot is very interesting, because it recreates the story of the meeting between Julius Caesar and Cleopatra and the relationships between Rome and Egypt during that time.

Curse of the Pharaoh resembles many other animations for children, with a simple plot about adventures and mystery to solve, and with a happy ending. It has didactic elements concerning the history of the 1st century BC, but most of all, the goal of this animation is to entertain. For that reason, the type of narration is adapted to children, the characters are divided into positive protagonists (the wise Cleopatra, Julius Caesar and two Roman soldiers) and villains (Ptolemy and the thieves employed by this pharaoh). Of course, we remember from ancient sources, that during this time, there were two civil wars: first, between Julius Caesar and the other Roman leader, Pompey the Great, second, between Cleopatra and her brother, co-ruler and husband, Ptolemy XIV. In the animation realised by Playmobil, we don’t find the scene of Pompey’s death ordered by Ptolemy’s Council; or the scene when Cleopatra meets Caesar having been secretly brought to the palace in Alexandria by her servants, or any moments from the Alexandrine War, for example the burning of the Library of Alexandria. Furthermore, buildings, like the pyramid full of traps, secret chambers, and magical objects, ships and outfits of all characters are a mixture of some historical facts and pop culture.  People can watch this film and then buy the nine sets of figurines and accessories to reconstruct the story from animation or to create new stories.

Skeleton Mummy… Klickypedia (the definitive Playmobil-pedia)

The first set, Caesar and Cleopatra, includes three figurines of Julius Caesar, the queen Cleopatra and a servant with a long fan from blue feathers, and also a few accessories: a little golden table, a fruit bowl with an apple and a grape, and two glasses of wine. The collection includes also four sets, which present the Roman army and two sets of Egyptian warriors. The Roman legionnaires wear red tunics with silver breastplates, classical Roman helmets called galea, shields similar to scutum and, of course, sandals. We can also see their weapons: long or short swords, wood spears and knives. The officers wear caps and their helmets are decorated with plumes. The set with six legionnaires includes also elements allowing to create a shield wall formation cold tortoise, typical for the Roman army. In the set with chariot, the car has weaponized wheels; the set with a wheeled catapult includes a firing mechanism, which allows to shoot three bullets using rubber balls. A very similar mechanism is included in the next set, Roman Warriors’ Ship, but this time we have five arrows, two regular and three fire arrows. The galley with oars is the biggest Roman, it can float in a pool and be upgraded with motors produced by Playmobil. Below the deck, we have a small storage place to keep all stores, for example two baskets and one box with fruit, bread and carrots, glasses, cups, and two amphorae. A military character of this ship is marked by protecting shields, a small ballista on the deck and a ram on the bow. Please notice a characteristic inscription: SPQR: Senatus Populusque Romanus [The Roman Senate and People], there is a seal and a Roman military standard in this set and on the cart in the chariot’s set.

Klickypedia–Soldiers of the Pharaohs….

The two sets of the Egyptian army include three soldiers with a ballista on movable wheels and an archer riding a camel. His dromedary could be saddled up, among the accessories, we find reins, a military saddle, and a halter. The ballista works the same way as in the Roman set, but this time we have three arrows with a rubber ending shaped as flames. The soldiers have an olive skin, black hair and wear colorful clothes with collars styled as Egyptian and all of them have gold bracelets on their arms.

The last two sets from Roman and Egyptian series include a Tomb Raiders’ Camp and, a Pharaoh’s Pyramid, which is the biggest set connected to Egypt. The camp consists of a small oasis with one palm three and a well, two thieves, a scorpion, a few bushes, a horse, and a camel. The set presents a moment, when Egyptian thieves have just robbed ancient tombs and pyramids and are getting away with the treasures. The moment of robbery is presented in the last set, the Pharaoh’s Pyramid. This set includes a two-floor pyramid with a few traps, a gold sarcophagus in Anubis’ shape with a mummy, which is composed from bandages and a skeleton, the gold weapons and treasures, a few spiders and a scarab, a second skeleton and the most important, four canopic jars, which could release the curse. We also have three figurines of men, the third thief, an Egyptian soldier with a shield and a spire and a pharaoh. The figurine of the pharaoh is Ptolemy, Cleopatra’s brother and co-ruler, who is presented in an outfit styled as Egyptian (long white dress with colourful collar and belt), with elements typical for Egyptian man-rulers: nemes, a type of crown, with a Ureaus, a fake black beard and the symbols of power: a crook (heka) and a flail (nekhakha). Another pair of symbols could be used for the mummy.

As we can see, the series History: Romans and Egyptians by Playmobil is inspired by historical figures like Caesar, Cleopatra and Ptolemy and representations of historical Roman and Egyptian army, the Roman ship and the Egyptian pyramid. A scholarly analysis of these sets could be made from different points of view. In my opinion, that type of combination of historical facts from ancient sources and popular culture works is very important for reception studies, also in teaching ancient history and its reception. We can use the sets to recreate the scenes from the film, or to create new adventures of Romans in Ptolemaic Egypt under Cleopatra’s rule and, of course, transform the story and characters how we wish: the only limit is our imagination. The toys allow us to participate in missions, in which Roman soldiers rescue the jars with the curse to keep the peace between Egypt and Rome, or, in the jealous Ptolemy’s conspiracy with the thieves aimed at discrediting his wise sister. We can also recreate the moment of the feast in animation, which provides a happy ending of the adventure. Furthermore, a child can recreate his/her own alternative versions of history of Caesar and Cleopatra. With a bit of work, the sets give us also a possibility to show children some known facts about Cleopatra and Caesar, for example that they travelled on the Nile or how they first met. But there is nothing to stop us from using the figurines to enact the wedding of Cleopatra and Caesar (the servant could serve as a priest) or use the thieves as merchants who sail on a ship with their goods. Maybe it would help to answer the question why the story of the Roman leader and the Egyptian queen ended so tragically. We have so many options how to use the sets, play with Ancient history in the background and learn at least the basics about those times. Again, the only limit is our imagination.

Where would the ancient world be without an archaeologist? Klickypedia…

In the humanities and social sciences, we have so many different ways of understanding our past and so many methods of research, especially when studying Antiquity. Each generation transforms the images of historical figures into their own versions, which sometimes leads to simplified and stereotypical representations in culture. The contemporary image of Cleopatra and Julius Caesar emerged from an amalgam (layers) of its historical vision and the image propagated by creators of culture in each period. The Playmobil series could be seen as presenting a next step in the process which made the images of Cleopatra and Caesar evolve from historical figures to icons of pop culture.

–Karolina Kulpa


[1] Quotation after: 9169 Caesar and Cleopatra, Playmobil, online: https://www.playmobil.us/caesar-and-cleopatra/9169.html (accessed: July 19, 2019; website not currently available).

[2] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kN3WSGA9DoM&list=FL3R7nRc1pp2XKjglix3AlLA&index=27 (accessed: May 12, 2020).

[3] Learn All about the Romans & Egyptians, Playmobil,

http://playmobil.a.bigcontent.io/v1/static/PLAYMOBIL_INFO_HISTORY_ROMANS_2016_03_en (accessed: May 16, 2020).

Seemingly Silly Books about a Serious Subject: Protecting the Past with Cairo Jim

In May this year, the Our Mythical Childhood project will host its second major conference: Our Mythical History.

I’ve signed up to talk about some exuberantly silly books about a very serious subject (history). I’m starting with the classical adventures in the Cairo Jim series of archaeological comedies by Australian author, Geoffrey McSkimming. I’ve ordered a pile of them through interlibrary loan, and am getting increasingly cheery emails from the wonderful librarians of UNE’s Dixson Library, as they let me know a new one has arrived. I’ve ordered all the ones with classical titles, and am only sorry that I didn’t have time to visit Sydney this summer to see Cairo Jim and the Tomb of Martenarten on stage.

There are currently 19 Cairo Jim novels, each one action packed, full of silly jokes and slapstick, and a lot of fun.

They feature the eponymous Cairo Jim, ‘that well-known archaeologist and little-known poet,’ a dreamy type who lives in the fictional ‘Valley of the Hairdressers’ in Cairo, and whose mission in life is to ‘protect the past.’ He travels the world with his helpers, Doris the Macaw and Brenda the Wondercamel, helping fight the nefarious Dr Neptune Flannelbottom Bones, a no-good scoundrel who is continually trying to get hold of powerful ancient artefacts, in company with his wicked raven helper, Desdemona. There are puns galore, secret societies, and amazing settings, reminding me of the interest I felt in seeing the scenery of other archeological adventures, such as the Indiana Jones or Mummy series.

I only know about Cairo Jim because of a recommendation a couple of years ago from the son of a colleague. I’m enjoying reading them, finding in them the occasional wonderful chuckle or vivid scene that makes me remember that jewels of literary insight are to be found in all sorts of curious places.

I’m currently reading  Cairo Jim Amidst the Petticoats of Artemis. It’s set in Turkey, among the underground cities of Cappadocia, the fairy chimneys, Kaymakli. I write these names as if I know all about them, but in fact I don’t, I’ve heard the odd snippet, but really I’m wonderfully ignorant, and so reading this book takes me travelling with Jim, Brenda, and Doris, to a fascinating and beautiful part of the world.

It also takes us travelling to the past. The past, in the Cairo Jim novels, is in need of protection. From the predations of Neptune Flannelbottom Bone, and also from the neglect of the present. And as the villains and heroes enter the past, through important archaeological sites, they find the magic of ancient gods and rulers still alive, though often buried, covered in dust, hidden, or scattered to the winds. In this book, it’s the petticoats of Artemis that have the power, magic garments that, if united with the ‘belt of bountaeity,’ can cause mayhem and destruction, especially if they fall into Neptune Bone’s greedy hands. Even though they have been carefully hidden by a priest named Caius Vibius Salutaris, and protected by the green-fanged Belligerent Serpent of Antiocheia, the adventurers chase one another, drawn by the lure of the past, the desire for knowledge, and (in Bone’s case, greed). I won’t tell you how it ends. You can probably guess. The action comes thick and fast, and involves underground tunnels, rolling stone discs, lightning bolts, and the realisation that the magic of the mythical past is still alive, and not for mortals to handle.

There are a great many Cairo Jim novels, and McSkimming has written many other over-the-top adventures, including the Jocelyn Osgood, and Phyllis Wong series, and his book of poetry, Ogre in a Toga (which should win a prize for the title alone). McSkimming has a flair for the ridiculous, and for a turn of phrase, and it’s possible to read the books in one hilarious gulp.

Froth is not always enough, though, and I’ve been thinking about this as I work on my paper for Warsaw. What’s the difference between laughing at something serious and reflecting solemnly upon it? What’s the point? I’ll try to get there in time for my presentation.

One hint for me is in the depiction of Cairo Jim’s sidekick, the reflective and telepathic ‘wonder-camel,’ Brenda. Brenda is prone to snorting her thoughts, and exclaiming ‘quaooo,’ and at first, reading too quickly for plot, I missed how delightful a character she is. But all of a sudden, the pace slowed (or I did), and here she is at twilight while her companions chat around a campfire, quietly searching through the rubble of Aphrodisias, using her super-sensitive nose to seek for clues.

 
What I am looking for, Brenda thought deeply, is a single Latin letter.  That was the alphabet in which Caius Vibius Salutaris would have written his message, because that was the language used in Ephesus in Roman times. 
 
She didn’t know what that letter would be . . .  maybe a D or a V or a C.  Maybe not even one of those.  But she knew that once she found a single letter of the type used in the ancient Roman script, then she would probably find other letters.  Maybe they would be right next to the first letter she would find, or maybe, if the slab containing the first letter had smashed, the other letters would be on nearby fragments of marle in the grass.  If that was the case, then Jim and Doris and she would have an ancient jigsaw puzzle to piece together. 
 
As her sensitive nostrils moved across the marble, she concentrated—as hard as she had concentrated on anything before—and in her mind she began to see the curves and straight lines that made up the letters of the Latin alphabet. 
 
Carefully, with her unique Wonder Camel precision of mind, muscle and minutiae, she transferred the images in her head to the muscles of her nostrils.  (Cairo Jim Amidst the Petticoats of Artemis, 130-131)

You don’t need me to tell you that she is successful, finding first a cool smooth slab of marble, then identifying a D, then a G, then a full inscription (in English !?), exhorting the reader to ‘Dig Beneath.’

It’s a lovely scene–a moment of needed rest in the midst of a busy plot. And what I like so much about it is the way that McSkimming captures the joy of working with material from the past: the puzzling, the shifting things about, the trying things from different angles, the patiences, the ‘precision of mind, muscle, and minutiae.’ There’s a quietness to that work, even when urgent plotlines clamour all around.

Moments of seriousness like this offer a counterbalance to the excitement, showing the research side of archaeological adventuring, the knowledge and skill (and sensitive nostrils) to find and solve the clues. They slow the reader down, and encourage them to think a little before getting caught up in the next stage of the adventure, helping with context and exposition, and giving clues to the humanity of the past–the leaver of the clue, the carver of the marble.

As part of their mission to protect the past, Brenda, Jim and Doris are part of a society of scholars. When they are on the trail of a mysterious artefact, it is for the sake of knowledge and beauty and understanding, good things to keep in mind for readers young and old. So perhaps one way into thinking about seemingly silly or frothy books is to look for moments where the narrative digs beneath the surface, pauses for reflection, before taking a breath and the action, fun, and excitement begin again.

—Elizabeth Hale

**Three of the Cairo Jim novels have been reviewed on the Our Mythical Childhood survey: Cairo Jim and the Chaos from CreteCairo Jim at the Crossroads of Orpheusand Cairo Jim and the Alabastron of Forgotten Gods.