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by Stacy Schiff

Little, Brown and Company | 2010

Reviewed by Jane M McCabe

stacy schiffWhen Alexander the Great died in 323 BC in Babylon, his far-flung kingdom came to be divided into four parts—the Ptolemic Kingdom of Egypt, the Seleucid Kingdom, including Syria and Palestine, the Kingdom of Pergamon in Asia Minor, and the Kingdom of Macedonia. Within months of Alexander’s death, Ptolemy, the most enterprising of his generals, laid claim to Egypt, the wealthiest of his territories, and the breadbasket of the ancient world. He and his successors built Alexandria into the most cultured city of its time, replete with a gymnasium, the biggest library* in the known world, the splendid boulevard, Canopic Way, the fabled Lighthouse of Pharos, and numerous temples and palaces. The Ptolemies re-established the Hellenistic culture of Athens in Egypt. They ruled Egypt for nearly 200 years, until Cleopatra VII, its last ruler, died in 30 BC.

When Ptolemy found Alexandria’s library, he set out to gather every text in existence, some 100,000 scrolls. Alexandria’s patron saint was Aristotle and Euclid codified geometry there. Homer’s work was the Bible of the day. Eminent men in their fields wrote prolifically on medicine and maladies, specifically on eye and lung ailments. “A curious cure for baldness [Caesar was bald] was credited to Cleopatra; she was said to counsel a paste of equal parts of burned mice, burned rag, burnt horse teeth, beer, grease, deer marrow, and reed bark. Mixed with honey, the salve was to be allied to the scalp and rubbed until it sprouted.” The Talmud hails her for her “great scientific curiosity.” +

The Ptolemies carried on the Egyptian practice of family marriages between brothers and sisters. Intermarriage consolidated wealth and power, but lent new meaning to sibling rivalry and fratricide. Cleopatra was born in 69 BC—all five of her siblings, two of which she was briefly married to, came to violent ends.

Cleopatra was not a beautiful woman. She was small and dark, slight of build. Surviving busts show her with a hooked nose, razor sharp cheekbones, and an air of severity. What she lacked in physical beauty, however, she made up in charisma, intelligence and shrewdness—she was well educated and spoke five or six languages, including Egyptian, a language other Ptolemaic rulers had not bothered to learn. From an early age she enjoyed the best education available at the hands of gifted scholars in the greatest center of learning in existence.

When Ptolemy Auletes died in 51, the new queen was 18, and her brother was eight years younger. She ruled for 22 years.

In 48, Caesar dealt Pompey a crushing defeat. Pompey fled to Egypt where he was stabbed and decapitated on an Egyptian beach at the order of Ptolemy XII.

Ms. Schiff complains that her sources may be flawed but they are the only ones we have. After Pompey’s assassination, Julius Caesar ventured ashore and installed himself in a pavilion on the grounds of the Ptolemy palace. Legend has it that in order to gain audience with the great Roman general, the 21 year-old Cleopatra had herself rolled into a carpet, which was carried into his quarters and unfurled.

To Caesar, Cleopatra was a strong link to Alexander the Greek, the product of a highly refined civilization and heir to a dazzling intellectual tradition. The young monarch he encountered was to this man of curiosity both irresistible and bewitching. It’s unclear who seduced who, just as it’s unclear how quickly Cleopatra and Caesar fell into each other’s arms.

For all of its philosophic wisdom, Greek culture lacked the moral compass of the Jews. Alexandria sported an extravagantly hedonistic culture, lavish excess and a party-till-dawn mentality.

No Hellenistic monarchs did opulence better than the Ptolemies—among the greatest hosts in history, they sent their guests stumbling home with gifts following sumptuous banquets. No wonder the great Julius Caesar dallied in Egypt. When he finally returned to Rome, Cleopatra was pregnant with their child, Caesarion.

Compared to Alexandria, Rome was still something of a backwater, a crowded and dirty city, lacking in refinement.++ On neither of the two visits Cleopatra made to the city, each taking months getting to and fro, was she particularly welcome. The greatest orator and senator Cicero despised the arrogant young Queen, and called her “the Egyptian harlot,” but then he may have been intimidated by her wealth and because she, a woman, was his equal in eloquence of discourse.

During her second visit, on the 15th (the Ides) of March, 44, the great Caesar was assassinated by his colleagues in the Roman Senate. Cleopatra fled back to Egypt.

Ms. Schiff’s account is a bit bumpy at first and contains some non-sequiturs, but she hits her stride when describing the shifting alliances of those vying for the throne and the maelstrom of events set in motion by Caesar’s death. Her masterful narration becomes intensely interesting and is sustained to the book’s end.

On the one hand, Caesar’s assassins, Cassius and Brutus, who had more wealth at their disposal, opposed Octavian and Mark Antony. Octavian, Caesar’s appointed heir, was a sickly young man of twenty years. Though he was popular among the Romans, he had little experience governing an empire the size of the Roman Empire.

Mark Anthony was his senior by about twenty years. As a military general he was a seasoned warrior, but he was a wastrel who enjoyed women and levitation and was in Cicero’s eyes, “the belching, vomiting brute, prone to spewing rather than speaking.” I struggle to describe the character of the handsome Mark Anthony—he was exuberant and generous, but his judgment was often rash and faulty.

Despite the poverty of their financial reserve, the alliance of Octavian and Mark Antony proved successful at Philippi. They defeated Cassius and Brutus—both assassins committed suicide, Cassius on the very sword with which he had speared Caesar. Their victory raised Mark Antony to the seat of power because Octavian was but an inexperienced young man. As history has shown, however, it was invariably a mistake to underestimate Octavian.

Here the narrative grows dense. There are many interesting details that time and space do not permit me to include. From Philippi, Mark Anthony requested an audience with Cleopatra, but she took her time in coming to him. When she finally arrived, she floated up the river through the plains in a blinding explosion of color, sounds and smells. She reclined beneath a gold spangled canopy, dressed as Venus, while beautiful young boys like painted Cupids stood at her side and fanned her—the spin was that Venus had arrived to revel with Bacchus for the good of Asia.

Plutarch pays tribute to Cleopatra’s irresistible charm and the persuasion of her discourse. She knew of Mark Anthony’s reputation, a messy one, and his tendency to be given to theater, if not melodrama. What ensued was a series of dinners hosted by Cleopatra and Anthony—Anthony returned on his fourth evening to Cleopatra’s barge to become knee-deep in an expanse of roses.

Her effect was immediate and electrifying. Mark Anthony followed Cleopatra to Alexandria, where she labored to provide him a magnificent reception. He proved to be an expensive houseguest but his capers went over well. He was all muscle and mirth and liked nothing more than to make a lady laugh.

By the end of 41, Cleopatra gave birth to twins, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene. Alexander had Anthony’s build and curly hair. Throughout Italy, Anthony and Octavian were praised to the skies for bringing peace, but trouble was brewing between the two victors.

After years of pretending they were friends, they became increasingly at odds. The stakes were high, and it was a question as to who would rule the Roman Empire, including Syria and Egypt. Caesarion posed a threat to Octavian as the future heir. Anthony had moved his forces into Parthia, where he suffered heavy losses (Parthia, or Persia, was Rome’s age-old enemy. Fighting between the two empires stretched until the time of Mohammed, in the 6th Century AD).

In 37, Cleopatra ruled over nearly the entire eastern Mediterranean coast, from present-day Libya to southern Turkey. Anthony needed a navy, and she knew how to build ships.

For a while, the two seemed invincible. Their combined power was such that when Anthony made what is referred to as The Donations, he parceled out the East, including lands that were not strictly in his possession. The message was clear—whatever they intended did not include Octavian. The insult was such that he denounced Mark Anthony in the Roman Senate and declared war on Cleopatra. Octavian rallied his troops to march on them and insults flew back and forth between the two leaders.

As though they had not a care in the world, Anthony and Cleopatra partied in Ephesus, continuing to throw lavish banquets, as was their custom.

The confrontation took place at Actium, in 31. All was at stake -- the entire future of the ancient world. When Anthony’s fleet was destroyed, Cleopatra hurried back to Alexandria. Anthony’s legions surrendered to Octavian. Anthony followed Cleopatra. He fixed for himself a modest hut near the foot of the lighthouse and hoped he might live days in exile. Octavian marched on Alexandria.

August, 30 BC—Cleopatra knew she could not hold out against Octavian. On August 1st he arrived at the gates of Alexandria. The city was his. Cleopatra holed up in a newly-built mausoleum. Anthony tried and failed to kill himself. His body was dragged to the mausoleum’s roof and lowered to her. He died in her arms.

It was to Octavian’s advantage to take Cleopatra alive, but she outfoxed him. He allowed her to purify Anthony’s body and bury him. Legend has it that an asp was smuggled to Cleopatra in the mausoleum in a basket of figs. It is more likely that she and her two maid servants, Iras and Charmion, drank one of her poisonous concoctions. By the time Octavian’s soldiers broke in, they were dead.

Caesarion was murdered. Cleopatra’s three other children were raised by Octavian’s sister and Anthony’s wife, Octavia. Egypt became a Roman province and didn’t gain its independence until the 20th Century. (It was conquered by the Muslims in 639 AD.) Caesar Augustus, as Octavian was named, ruled the Roman Empire for the next 44 years. The sickly Octavian proved to the best ruler Rome ever had—his reign is referred to at the Roman Pax.

As a student of history, I mark certain watershed dates in order to better arrange events that preceded and followed. Fourteen ninety-two was the year Columbus sailed to the New World and the year the Moors and Jews were expelled from Spain at the hand of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand. Fourteen fifty-three was the year that Constantinople fell to the Muslims, and so forth.

Likewise, I like to compare simultaneous events in history. For example, when in the 6th and 5th Century BC Greek philosophers were formulating their principles, the Buddha was living in India.

Ms. Schiff thinks 30 BC is a watershed date, the beginning of modern times. I cannot help but note that Anthony and Cleopatra died about thirty years before the birth of Jesus. Given the treachery and violence of the times, it would seem the world was in need of a gospel of peace and forgiveness. King Herod factors in Ms. Schiff’s account as the murderous tetrarch of Palestine. The gospel of Luke mentions that Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem to enroll the census ordered by Caesar Augustus and that they fled with baby Jesus to Egypt to escape Herod’s decree that all new-born male babes be killed, returning after his death. The wise men that came to pay homage to Jesus were most likely from Parthia (Persia) and India.

Overlapping events continue into modern times. In 320 AD, after the Emperor Constantine converted, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. The great Gibbons, who wrote The Rise & Fall of the Roman Empire, thought this seeded Rome’s demise…

Such speculations are numerous and fascinating. Surely Cleopatra was one of the most powerful women to have ever lived, rivaled only by Queen Elizabeth I, and, like Queen Elizabeth, deserving of our respect. It can be argued that the coffers of Cleopatra supplied the monetary resources that allowed the Roman Empire to stabilize and reach its zenith.

The new information presented in this book makes it a feast for the lovers of history. This is a must read!

*This library was unfortunately destroyed by the Romans. Its exact site is unknown. When I visited Alexandria in 2004 a new modern library hAD been built over the believed site.
+I am constantly amazed by the sophistication of ancient peoples, but then 2000 years in terms of the age of the planet isn’t all that long a time.
++Ironically, it was the wealth confiscated from Egypt after Cleopatra’s death that allowed Rome to be built into the magnificent city it became.

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