Monday, December 20, 2010

Monday Review: CLEOPATRA Last Queen of Egypt by Joyce Tyldesley

This non-fiction bio by archaeologist Dr. Joyce Tyldesley, though confusing in certain aspects, gives a good overall picture of the much maligned Cleopatra and her times. The 'confusing' aspects can't be helped, since the history of her family line is tortuous, to say the least. To begin with, she is Cleopatra VII - not the first Cleo in the bunch - even her mother (assumed) was named Cleopatra, so you can see how it all becomes kind of hard to follow unless one is an Egyptologist/Genealogist. The Ptolemy line, of which Cleopatra is the last Egyptian queen, is even more convoluted - filled with Ptolemies upon Ptolemies - Cleopatra's own brothers, each of whom she is assumed to have married (and murdered) - were both named Ptolemy.

All these Ptolemies and Cleopatras seemed to share at least one family trait: murder as the easiest means of self-preservation and succession. There's murder and duplicity right and left throughout their history, so much so, that after awhile it seems matter-of-fact. You stop being shocked and just shake your head in resignation - murder appears to have been a way of life for the Ptolemies: fratricide, matricide, patricide and any other 'cide' you can think of were part of their ancient charm. Into this boiling cauldron was born the girl-child destined to become the legendary Queen of the Nile. It is amazing to me that anyone survived this brew for any length of time. But survive she did, at least as long as it took to become the legend we're still reading about today.

Only the Bible and the classical authors, Homer and Herodotus among them, offered western scholars a tantalizing, selective and highly confused version of Egypt's past. The dynastic queens were to remain hidden until the nineteenth century saw the development of the the modern science of Egyptology.

One group of queens was, however, never forgotten. The Ptolemies, the last dynasty of independent Egypt, enjoyed three centuries of rule sandwiched between the conquest of the Macedonian Alexander the Great (332) and the conquest of of the Roman Octavian (30). Their stories, an integral part of Roman history, were recorded not only in Egyptian hieroglyphs, but also in Latin and in Greek. Best remembered of all was Cleopatra VII; certainly not the most successful Ptolemy, nor the longest lived, but the Ptolemy whose decisions and deeds influenced two of Rome's greatest men and, in so doing, affected the development of the Roman Empire.

One of the more interesting things I found though, in reading Tyledesley's book is this bit of news: Famous though she undoubtedly is, it is entirely possible to devote a lifetime to the study of ancient Egypt without ever meeting Cleopatra. Paradoxically, the woman whom millions regard as the defining Eqyptian queen is more or less ignored by traditional Egyptologists, who confine their studies to the thirty-one dynasties preceding the arrival of Alexander. The Ptolemies are considered peripheral beings and, as such, they have become the preserve of classical and specialized Graeco-Roman scholars, who, naturally enough, set them against a classical rather than an Egyptian background.

I hadn't really thought deeply about Cleopatra's place in actual history before. Too blinded by the make-believe magic of the movies, I suppose.

...the Ptolemies were foreigners in Egypt, and relatively modern foreigners at that. They were separated from the true dynastic age by an embarrassing period of Persian rule and, lacking a numbered dynasty of their own, were omitted from many well-respected Egyptian histories that came to a neat end with the reign of the last native Pharaoh...if that was not enough, they reigned over an Egypt whose pure native culture had been diluted and distorted by Greek and Roman influences: they worshipped curious hybrid gods; they issued coins; they spoke Greek, not Egyptian.

The author states that the Ptolemies always thought of themselves as a true dynasty nonetheless. Cleopatra considered herself an Egyptian queen.

The bare bones of her story - Cleopatra's liaisons, children and untimely death - have always been known and cannot be disputed. The flesh that generations of scholars and artists have chosen to cover those bones is a different matter, and each and every account of Cleopatra presents a new version of the same woman.

That she was an ambitious and ruthless queen is obvious from even the most superficial examination of her life, although the extent of her ruthlessness tends to be hidden in the more popular histories, which gloss over the murder of her sister and (almost certainly) her brother while concentrating on her 'love life'. That Cleopatra, living in an age of highly unstable governments, chose to form personal alliances with individually powerful Romans should be seen as sensible (intelligent) rather than a weak (emotional) decision: and 'love', as in any dynastic match, may have had very little to do with it.

Julius Caesar comes off as less than the man I'd thought him to be, but still intelligent, crafty and a splendid warrior if not the canniest of rulers. His own personal lurid history is scattered with wives and women and the usual sexual excesses.

Mark Anthony, sometimes seen as heroic, comes off, unfortunately, as a weak man given to foolish and excessive behavior of the most revolting sort. Hardly the character we're used to seeing in films.

But again, we're reminded that histories are written by the winners and often enough, by scholars and historians whose viewpoint is colored by time and inclination. Dr.Tyledesley tries to present alternate points of view in almost every instance. I like her measured approach.

The author's detached voice works very well in this telling of Cleopatra's history - personal and otherwise. The truth appears to be that much of what has been told in the past is based on inference, rumor and the views of ancient scholars (all men) with, perhaps, an ax or two to grind. So, in truth, Cleo's history may always be veiled in relative mystery. But modern archeology could, in future, have a hand in revealing more about Cleopatra since her palace, newly discovered, appears be underwater off the coast of Alexandria.

Included in this revealing book, are some intriguing pictures of coins with the supposed likeness of Cleopatra - if so, not the beauty we've been led to believe. Cleopatra's charm and manipulative powers are stressed where her beauty may be suspect. My favorite picture though is of a beautiful and finely detailed bust of Julius Caesar which captures the apparent strength in his finely boned, middle-aged face. The bust of Octavian (found in the Aegean sea) also pictured, while interesting, comes off not so much strong, as eerie.

The book also contains a handy Who Was Who section in the end and also a section of Notes.

If you have any interest at all in trying to get at the truth of Cleopatra, the Last Queen of Egypt, I recommend this obviously well-researched book by an expert well versed in Egyptian history.

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for such a detailed review.

    ReplyDelete
  2. You're most welcome, Mystica. It's a good book.

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