Let Them Eat Cake

“Eat the Rich!” is certainly a common refrain these days. Pandemics and economic recessions aside, the chasm between the haves and have-nots has only seemed to widen for decades. The anger of people tired of the way things keep going is starting to seem palatable, riots and protests a weekly occurrence, and with the recent tone deaf renovation of the White House’s Rose Garden on the taxpayers dime–the resemblance to the 18th century French Revolution is starting to feel a little uncanny. That comparison also brings up the inevitable article headlines shameless in their failure of quick fact checking–Let Them Eat Cake! and Marie Antoinette are once again dragged through the street and scorned in the name of reform. But it’s time to put this misattribution to the guillotine. 

If you’ve heard the name Marie Antoinette, there’s a strong chance you might know her only as the queen who supposedly said ‘Let them eat cake’ in response to her citizens being unable to afford bread and who was later decapitated for it. Though the latter is an unfortunate reality, there is no record, witness, or biographical assertion that traces this phrase to her. In fact, the first time Marie Antoinette became associated with the phrase is in Alphonse Karr’s satirical magazine Les Guepes in 1843. 50 years after she was killed by revolutionaries. [1]

So how in the world did a queen who had written, “It is at the same time amazing and wonderful to be so well received two months after the riots and in spite of the high price of bread which unfortunately continues. It is certain that when people who are suffering treat us so well, we are even more obligated to work for their happiness.” instead get associated with a flagrant disregard for her people and unwillingness to humble herself to the plight of the common folk? [6]

“She is an amiable and honourable woman, rather young and unreflecting; but she has a core of honour and virtue which has often surprised me.”

Emperor Joseph II in 1777 upon visiting the queen. [4]

First, let’s trace the origin of the phrase. Let Them Eat Cake isn’t even the original words. The French version is explicitly, “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche”. Brioche is eggy and delicious but not cake or gâteau. This sentence makes its first appearance on record in the autobiography of famed philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his Confessions, Rousseau recalls a time when he had stolen some wine and had been looking for some bread to go along with it, because what kind of insane person wouldn’t. Apparently, while dressing up a little too fancy for the bakery, he recalled these words–”At length I remembered the last resort of a great princess who, when told that the peasants had no bread, replied: ‘Then let them eat brioches.’”. Jean-Jacques Rousseau started writing in 1765, when Marie Antoinette was 9-years old and the 15th child of Empress Maria Theresa. To say she was an inconsequential princess at the time would be a hilarious understatement. No one would have thought those words could have been hers. There were likely candidates, however, ranging from various French elite to The Sun King Louis XIV’s wife. [1]

So why was the phrase given to Marie Antoinette almost 100-years later? A lot of that has to do with how Marie was perceived and later scapegoated as a harbinger of disenfranchisement to France during her reign.

When Marie Antoinette first arrived to the Palace of Versailles, she was a 14-year old Austrian princess who was to be married off to the grandson and heir of King Louis XV of France in an attempt to solidify an alliance between the two rival nations. At first, the people of France were taken by Marie–her innocence and beauty celebrated. [4]

“I cannot tell you, dear Mother, the transports of joy and affection they displayed. What happiness in our station to win the friendship of a whole people at so small a price! Nothing is so precious, and I shall never forget it.”

Marie Antoinette in a letter to her mother describing her first visit to Paris. [4]

But opinions soured over time. The Palace of Versailles was a viper’s nest of political intrigue and an unassuming teenager without any care for the obfuscated etiquette at court led Marie to unintentionally snub and offend many. Of the elite among the court were also those who were critical of the alliance between Austria/France, potential rivals for the throne, and other threatened influences like the King’s mistress Madame du Barry. These rumormongers were the first to leak stories and scandalous accusations against Marie to the smut-peddling pamphlet publications that were like today’s version of tabloids. One of the more disastrous claims was the lack of consummation in her marriage with Louis XIV–of which was true. It took the couple 7 years to finally get busy–but during that time, all of the blame was placed squarely on Marie Antoinette. [2]

Without motherhood and an heir of France to keep her position secure, Marie Antoinette spent most of her time in Versailles in a constant battle against neverending boredom. If she wasn’t sleeping with her husband, these gossipers reasoned, then she must be getting around somewhere else. Accusations of promiscuity were leveled against her, attendance of masked balls questioned, her close friendships with duchesses presumed sexual–even when she did give birth to Louis XIV’s first child in 1778, the pamphlets guessed it was the product of an illicit affair. The people of France started to think of their new King as a weak, infantile man–impotent and worthless. But as much derision as was foisted his way, came the misogynistic characterization of Marie Antoinette as a controlling, deceitful wife who could move her husband to her will. Who was ruling? Recall the tenuous at best relations between Austria and France, was an embedded Austrian spy running the show? With France becoming embroiled into disastrous wars at the behest of Austria, it certainly started to seem that way. [2]

“Sire, I speak to you in friendship; believe me, we never let ourselves be led around by our wives. I have one who is sweet as a lamb, because, foutre, I always showed her the fist when she wanted to play the mistress. It’s even more deadly if a king lets himself be governed by women. Women have caused throughout time the misfortunes of France…Remember the hideous reigns of the abominable Medicis; recall Henry IV always ready to do some stupidity for his mistresses…tell your wife that you took her to breed your children, not to mix in affairs of state and turn your kingdom upside down. Among your people, these people who adore you, you will find your security.”

Jacques-Rene Hebert 1790 in his newspaper Le Pere Duchesne. Like Rupert Murdoch of the day, 14% of his published headlines between 1791-1794 were spent disparaging Marie Antoinette and trying to rally the people against her. [3]

France at the time was no simpering fawn. Revolution has no single defining moment, and for the 18th century there’s decades of falling dominoes that will eventually lead to the end of the monarchy of which Marie Antoinette was precariously sitting, giggling at the card tables and ignoring the gossip as she gambled away with her friends. Why should she pay any mind to rumors that she knew were hilariously untrue? They drew her as a salacious bestial monster, half woman half tiger. They wrote of her and her friends throwing lesbian parties in the Petit Trianon, the epitome of depravity. And there was the Diamond Necklace Affair–something Marie herself had nothing to do with–in where Comtesse de La Motte attempted to get a necklace worth around $2 million by pretending it was requested by the queen. After forging letters and dressing up a prostitute as the Queen, La Motte’s plan failed and yet she still blamed Marie Antoinette. Considering the state of the economy in France at the time, people were pretty upset to hear that their queen supposedly had her eye on millions worth in jewelry rather than their inability to afford bread. Needless to say, the hatred for Marie Antoinette escalated. [2 & 3]

This is supposed to be Marie Antoinette. How lovely!

“Women! Women! Especially princesses, and worst of all queens.”

Madame La Motte [2]

When a series of revolutionary events ignited in quick succession–Storming of the Bastille in 1789 followed by the Women’s March on Versailles, the royal family attempting to flee to Austria in 1791, and the Storming of the Tuileries in 1792–the writing was already on the wall. It was too late to sway public opinion, the people wanted Marie’s head. She knew it too. There is the story of the march on Versailles where revolutionaries had sieged the palace and the Queen, humbled, came to them on the balcony. Prostrating herself on the railing after 10 minutes of silence, while the crowd leveled muskets, the revolutionaries were momentarily warmed by her act of courage. Cries of “Vive la Reine!” reached her ear but this sentiment was temporary and spoken in vain. Death would come to her soon. [5]

“Kill! Kill! We want to cut off her head, cut out her heart, and fry her liver. There she is, the filthy whore! We don’t want her body, what we want is to carry her head to Paris.”

– An unnamed participant in the Women’s March. [2]

Eventually captured by revolutionaries and kept in abusive confinement for weeks, Marie awaited the same fate her husband had met only nine months before. There was little hope for her on trial, despite insisting that every treasonous action she was accused of was in the interest of protecting her children and husband. When the libelous newspaper publisher Hebert testified against her, claiming that she had committed incest with her son, Marie’s response seems tired and even subdued. “If I have not responded it is because nature refuses to respond to such a charge made to a mother. I call upon every mother here.” But reason didn’t matter. [3]

Marie Antoinette was sentenced to face the guillotine on October 16th, 1793. 

“More bloodthirsty than Jezabel, more conniving than Agrippina…her life was a calamity for France…her fall a triumph for liberty…the widow Capet…died under the guillotine. The globe is purified! Long live the Republic!”

[2]

So, an attempt to answer the question of how Marie Antoinette came to be associated with a phrase that there is no evidence of her ever having uttered seems more or less a tragic realization of how someone can be destroyed by the trial of public opinion. A constant victim of lies and malice, Marie’s crime was perhaps not paying enough heed to the words spoken of her. Perhaps if she had come to her own defense sooner, she would be remembered more today for her lavish acts of giving to numerous charities like founding Maison Philanthropique with Louis XVI or how she sold royal objects to support families struggling during the famine of 1787. Maybe she’d be remembered for the simple white dress she requested to be depicted in for modesty which later became a fashion symbol for revolutionary women. Or she could be thought of fondly for how many children she adopted and supported financially when their parents passed away. Or perhaps she would be given more due credit for helping to secure France’s aid in the American Revolutionary War which helped lead the colonists to victory against the British Crown. [7]

Instead, we have the life and memory of a queen who, persistent through time, continues to be lambasted by those who don’t know her at all. The image of a rich, unsympathetic queen who is out of touch with reality was created over 200 years ago by people meant to do her harm and was peddled by those who needed an idol to rally revolutionary fervor against. [2 & 3]

I suppose the continued pattern into modern day of Marie Antoinette being accused of saying something she didn’t is just the icing on the cake of her tragic story.

Fact Check it, Yo!

[1] Temerson, Catherine (2000). Marie-Antoinette: The Last Queen of France. St. Martin’s Griffin. pp. 63–65

[2] Barker, N. (1993). “Let Them Eat Cake”: The Mythical Marie Antoinette and the French Revolution. The Historian, 55(4), 709-724. Retrieved August 22, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/24448793

[3] Colwill, E. (1989). Just Another “Citoyenne?” Marie-Antoinette on Trial, 1790-1793. History Workshop, (28), 63-87. Retrieved August 26, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4288925

[4] Gooch, G. (1949). MARIE ANTOINETTE. History, 34(122), new series, 221-234. Retrieved August 26, 2020, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/24404219

[5] Schama, Simon (1989). Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. Vintage Books/Random House. ISBN 0-679-72610-1.

[6] Lettres De Marie-Antoinette (in French). 1. Nabu Press. 2012. p. 91. ISBN 978-1278509648

[7] Vidal, E. M. (2012, February 18). A Reputation in Shreds. Retrieved August 30, 2020, from http://www.marie-antoinette.org/articles/reputation/

Cicero versus Cleopatra

What happens when two colossal figures of history, famous for their power and influence, meet at a party for the first time?

At the age of 60-years-old, Cicero had lived quite a full life in Roman politics by the time 46 AD sluggishly rolled around. In fact, the famous orator shared a lived experience similar to that of the Roman Republic up to this point. Both had become disillusioned by frequent civil unrest, battered by enemies foreign and at home, and had both struggled with financial hardships. And like the newly minted dictator of Rome Julius Caesar, Cicero had also just dumped his long-term partner in favor of a wealthy teenager. He needed the money, I suppose.

“During the long flow of success he met grave setbacks from time to time–exile, the collapse of his party, his daughter’s death and his own tragic and bitter end. But of all these disasters the only one he faced as a man was his own death…However, weighing his virtues against his faults, he was a great and memorable man. One would need a Cicero to sing his praises.” Livy

Everitt, A. (2004). Cicero: The life and times of Rome’s greatest politician. Prince Frederick, MD: RB Large Print. Pg. 318

But unlike Cicero, Julius Caesar’s paramour wasn’t just any rich young woman. [1] She was the sovereign ruler of Ptolemaic Egypt–Pharaoh, Queen, and Goddess Isis–and now at the age of 22-years-old, Cleopatra was the last thing standing between her people and absolute Roman rule (her sniveling little brother nothing more than a bedazzled ornament with no real power). She did all she could to secure her life and kingdom a place of assured ‘independence’, going so far as to give birth to Julius Caesar’s only son Caesarion just to cement the deal. Or not, as some sources believed, presuming the child could be another’s as Julius was thought to have been infertile. Either way, Caesar was sure the child was his (and so did Mark Antony and Octavian when it mattered later). So when Julius brought his new mistress and baby back to Rome, the elite were in quite a stir–who was this foreign woman who had captured the heart of Caesar? 

And perhaps none were more curious than Cicero, a man who until this point had been the one known to enrapture a room. 

“Her own beauty, so we are told, was not of that incomparable kind which instantly captivates the beholder. But the charm of her presence was irresistible: and there was an attractiveness in her person and talk, together with a peculiar force of character which pervaded her every word and action, and laid all who associated with her under its spell. It was a delight merely to hear the sound of her voice.” – Plutarch

Everitt, A. (2004). Cicero: The life and times of Rome’s greatest politician. Prince Frederick, MD: RB Large Print. Pg. 225

Cleopatra certainly had an image to uphold and upon her arrival in Rome, unleashed an arsenal of exotic creatures and treasures: Egyptian fabrics, mosaics, gold beakers, cinnamon, leopards, fragrances, leopards, most things the people of Rome had never seen before. And yet, despite this, she still kept a seemingly low profile. Caesar lived with his wife Calpurnia near the Forums while his sovereign mistress resided in a villa on the Janiculum Hill–deliberately taking no part in Caesar’s Triumph procession of his ‘conquest’ of Egypt (instead allowing her rival and sister Arsinoe to be paraded around as a prisoner). And Cleopatra, for all her wit and influence, was still a fish out of water. Changing temporary address from the beauty and extravagance of Alexandria to that of a backwater Rome and finding herself a woman in a culture where that idea inspired little confidence or respect compared to her own, she was perhaps rightly disenchanted by the whole ordeal. She also had to deal with the fact that everyone knew who she was (or thought they did) where she knew no one at all. Rome was a city of gossips and few secrets, afterall, and none were more eager to talk than Cicero.

Cicero Denounces Catiline, Cesare Maccari 1889

As his recent marriage showed, Cicero was a bit desperate to change his fortune. And with the gilded benefits of a new young wife, he was also seeking to add friendships with the elite and famous to the retinue of his network like he was some kind of Classical Instagram influencer. Among them would have surely been the exotic Queen of Egypt who took Rome by storm and with her sparked fashion movements, political reforms, and cultural intrigue. So it’s no surprise that Cicero would have attempted to ingratiate himself with the woman everyone in Rome was talking about. The only problem was, Cleopatra would have been less than admissible to any overtures from a man who talked so much shit about her father before her and her current beau Caesar, she’d have wrinkled her nose at the smell of such fakery and desperation wafting off of Cicero.

“I detest the Queen.” – Cicero

Schiff, S. (2011). Cleopatra: A life. New York: Back Bay Books. Pg. 130

Perhaps he thought it would be cute to ask her for the favor of giving him a book from the glorious library of Alexandria. To which Cleopatra, perhaps like any woman at a party trying to get away from the incessant chatter of a dude she wants to stop talking to, appeased him with a ‘sure’ and tried to move on with her life–you know, like trying to keep the last vestiges of the Ptolemaic Dynasty in Egypt intact. The girl was kinda busy. 

Banchetto di Cleopatra, Alessandro Allori 1570-71

But if no follow through from Cleopatra on the book situation was enough to spur the cynical pettiness Cicero was most famous for, it was surely the perceived snub of the Classical equivalent of neglecting to call the next day that killed her in Cicero’s eyes forever. Also perhaps with the intent of rubbing salt in the wound, Cleopatra sent an emissary to Cicero’s home (and without that stupid book) and called upon not Cicero, but his best friend instead–who was a fairly smart and interesting person himself. Cleopatra basically went all Mean Girls ‘and none for Gretchen Wieners, bye!’ on Cicero and made a show of it. This was surely meant to scald Cicero and it got the job done, how dare this insolent foreign queen not recognize the brilliance of the greatest orator in Rome?! Cleopatra was dead to Cicero from then on. Something tells me she didn’t really care.

Gretchen Wieners, the original conspirator

As insurmountable as his hate was for Cleopatra from this point on, Cicero didn’t have the gumption to talk any shit about her until she had already left Rome. Like any gossipy bitch, he waited until her back was turned before the vitriol was poured. It also must be noted that this is when most people would be eager to hear it, as the Queen found herself fleeing home to Alexandria after a bunch of Caesar’s friends got together for a good ol’ stabbing and left her baby daddy bleeding to death in Pompey’s Theater. She was probably never going to come back after that, either.

“The arrogance of the Queen herself when she was living on the estate across the Tiber makes my blood boil to recall.” – Cicero

Schiff, S. (2011). Cleopatra: A life. New York: Back Bay Books. Pg. 121

With the death of Caesar, the frenzied revenge of rioting and murder led by Mark Antony, and the general mystery around Cleopatra’s purpose in Rome altogether–she was still the talk of the town, even while back home in Alexandria. This could also largely be due in part to the fact that Cleopatra was visibly pregnant when she left. If Caesarian being the son of Julius Caesar secured any legitimacy of a claim, Cleopatra giving birth to a child that had been conceived in Rome was surely to be an even bigger problem in what was soon to erupt into a civil war over the rightful heir to Caesar’s power. It would seem a lot of people were worried about the potential for a new son to be born. Unfortunately, poor Cleopatra seemed to have experienced a miscarriage which prompted Cicero to remark in a letter to his friend Atticus: “I hope it’s true about the Queen and that Caesar of hers” about the possibility of her loss. What a dick. 

I suppose parting as enemies, there was never much hope for reconciliation. Cleopatra was back to square one politically and had to forge a new pathway and position, which happened to be one practiced repeatedly, hey-o, with Mark Antony. And Cicero continued to rail against the dissolution of the Roman Republic crumbling around him–making his opinions known far and wide despite whoever he angered. So it should come as little surprise that Cicero ended up a named enemy of the Second Triumvirate by Mark Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus and a retinue of killers were dispatched to Cicero’s place of residence to shut him up forever. [2]

Fulvia y Marco Antonio, o La venganza de Fulvia, Francisco Maura y Montaner 1888

But for those who know their history, Cleopatra’s fate wasn’t about to fare much better. So I guess losers do go to parties after all.

  1. Modern estimates have Cleopatra remembered as the 22nd richest person in history with a net worth of $95.8 billion (putting her just behind Jeff Bezos today). This is, of course, impossible to calculate with complete accuracy.
  1. As the story goes, after his death, Cicero’s head was given to Mark Antony’s wife Fulvia who was said to have pulled out his tongue and repeatedly stabbed it with a hairpin as the last act of revenge against his critical speeches.  

Fact Check it, yo!

  • Everitt, A. (2004). Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician. Prince Frederick, MD: RB Large Print.
  • Schiff, S. (2011). Cleopatra: A Life. New York: Back Bay Books.
  • Reinhold, M. (1981). The Declaration of War against Cleopatra. The Classical Journal, 77(2), 97-103. Retrieved August 16, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/3296915
  • Jones, P. J. (2006). Cleopatra: A Sourcebook. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.