Margot (midnight_birth) wrote in margot_quotes,

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff. (1/2)


Title: Cleopatra: A Life.
Author: Stacy Schiff.
Genre: Non-fiction, history, biography.
Country: U.S.
Language: English.
Publication Date: 2010.
Summary: Her palace shimmered with onyx and gold but was richer still in political and sexual intrigue. Above all else, Cleopatra was a shrewd strategist and an ingenious negotiator. She was married twice, each time to a brother. She waged a brutal civil war against the first and poisoned the second; incest and assassination were family specialties. She had children by Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, two of the most prominent Roman commanders of the day. With Antony she would attempt to forge a new empire, in an alliance that spelled both their ends. Famous long before she was notorious, Cleopatra has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons; her supple personality and the drama of her circumstances have been lost. In a masterly return to the classical sources, the author boldly separates fact from fiction to rescue the magnetic queen whose death ushered in a new world order. (Refer to PART 2 for the rest of the quotes.)

My rating: 8.5/10.
My review:

♥ We remember her too for the wrong reasons. A capable, clear-eyed sovereign, she knew how to build a fleet, suppress a insurrection, control a currency, alleviate a famine. An eminent Roman general vouched for her grasp of military affairs. Even at a time when women rulers were no rarity she stood out, the sole female of the ancient world to rule alone and to play a role in Western affairs. She was incomparably richer than anyone else in the Mediterranean. And she enjoyed greater prestige than any other woman of her age, as an excitable rival king was reminded when he called, during her stay at his court, for her assassination. (In light of her stature, it could not be done.) Cleopatra descended from a long line of murderers and faithfully upheld the family tradition but was, for her time and place, remarkably well behaved. She nonetheless survives as a wanton temptress, not the last time a genuinely powerful woman has been transmuted into shamelessly seductive one.

♥ Cleopatra's story differs from most women's stories in that the men who shaped it—for their own reasons—enlarged rather than erased her role. Her relationship with Mark Antony was the longest of her life, but her relationship with his rival, Augustus, was the most enduring. He would defeat Antony and Cleopatra. To Rome, to enhance the glory, he delivered up the tabloid version of an Egyptian queen, insatiable, treacherous, bloodthirsty, power-crazed. He magnified Cleopatra to hyperbolic proportions so as to do the same with his victory—and so as to smuggle his real enemy, his former brother-in-law, out of the picture. The end result is a nineteenth-century British life of Napoleon or a twentieth-century history of America, were it to have been written by Chairman Mao.

♥ The only accessory she needed was one she alone among Egyptian women was entitled to wear: the diadem, or broad white ribbon, that denoted a Hellenistic ruler. It is unlikely she appeared before Julius Caesar without one tied around her forehead and knotted at the back. Of Cleopatra's "knowledge of how to make herself agreeable to everyone," we have, on the other hand, abundant evidence. Generally it was known to be impossible to converse with her without being instantly captivated by her. For this audience, the boldness of the maneuver—the surprise appearance of the young queen in the sumptuously painted walls of her own home, which Caesar himself could barely penetrate—proved in itself an enchantment. Retrospectively, the shock appears to have been as much political as personal. The jolt was that generated when, in a singular, shuddering moment, two civilizations, passing in different directions, unexpectedly and momentously touch.

♥ Ptolemy I married his half sister, who conspired against him with her sons, two of whom he murdered. The first to be worshipped as a goddess in her lifetime, she went on to preside over a golden age in Ptolemaic history. Here too was an unintended consequence of sibling marriage: For better or worse, it put a premium on Ptolemaic princesses. In every respect equals of their brothers and husbands, Cleopatra's female predecessors knew their worth. They came increasingly to assert themselves.

♥ The young woman holed up with Julius Caesar in the besieged palace of Alexandria was, then, neither Egyptian, nor, historically speaking, a pharaoh, nor necessarily related to Alexander the Great, nor even fully a Ptolemy, though she was as nearly as can be ascertained on all sides a Macedonian aristocrat. Her name, like her heritage, was entirely and proudly Macedonian; "Cleopatra" means "Glory of Her Fatherland" in Greek.

♥ If the Berenices and Arsinoes were as vicious as their husbands and brothers, they were so to a great extent because they were immensely powerful. (Traditionally they also took second place to those husbands and brothers, a tradition Cleopatra disregarded.) Even without a regnant mother, Cleopatra could look to any number of female forebears who built temples, raised fleets, waged military campaigns, and, with their consorts, governed Egypt. Arguably she had more powerful female role models than any other queen in history. Whether this resulted from a general exhaustion on the part of the men in the family, as has been asserted, is unclear. There would have been every reason for the women to have been exhausted as well. But the standouts in the generations immediately preceding Cleopatra's were—for vision, ambition, intellect—universally female.

Cleopatra moreover came of age in a country that entertained a singular definition of women's roles. Well before her and centuries before the arrival of the Ptolemies, Egyptian women enjoyed the right to make their own marriages. Over time their liberties increased, to levels unprecedented in the ancient world. They inherited equally and held property independently. Married women did not submit to their husbands' control. They enjoyed the right to divorce and to be supported after a divorce. Until the time an ex-wife's dowry was returned, she was entitled to be lodged in the house of her choice. Her property remained hers; it was not to be squandered by a wastrel husband. The law sided with the wife and children if a husband acted against their interests. Romans marveled that in Egypt female children were not left to die; a Roman was obligated to raise only his first-born daughter. Egyptian women married later than did their neighbors as well, only about half of them by Cleopatra's age. They loaned money and operated barges. They served as priests in the native temples. They initiated lawsuits and hired flute players. As wives, widows, or divorcées, they owned vineyards, wineries, papyrus marshes, ships, perfume businesses, milling equipment, slaves, homes, camels. As much as one third of Ptolemaic Egypt may have been in female hands.

♥ Well before the Ptolemies, Egypt exercised its spell on the world. It boasted an ancient civilization, any number of natural oddities, monuments of baffling immensity, two of the seven wonders of the ancient world. (The capacity for wonder may have been greater in Cleopatra's day but the pyramids were taller too, by thirty-one feet.) And in the intermissions between bloodlettings, largely in the third century and before the dynasty began to wobble under its own depravity late in the second, the Ptolemies had made good on Alexander the Great's plans, establishing on the Nile delta a miracle of a city, one that was as sleekly sophisticated as its founding people had been unpolished. From a distance Alexandria blinded, a sumptuous suffusion of gleaming marble, over which presided its towering lighthouse. Its celebrated skyline was reproduced on lamps, mosaics, tiles. The city's architecture announced its magpie ethos, forged of a frantic accretion of cultures. In this greatest of Mediterranean ports, papyrus fronds topped Ionic columns. Oversized sphinxes and falcons lined the paths to Greek temples. Crocodile gods in Roman dress decorated Doric tombs. "Built in the finest situation in the world," Alexandria stood sentry over a land of fabled riches and fantastic creatures, a favorite enigma to the Roman world. To a man like Julius Caesar, who for all his travels had ever before set foot in Egypt, few of its astonishments would have been as great as the quick-witted young woman who had emerged from the traveler's sack.

♥ Even before she graduated to sentences, even before she learned to read, the love affair with Homer began. "Homer was not a man, but a god," figured among the early penmanship lessons, as did the first cantos of the Iliad. No text more thoroughly penetrated Cleopatra's world. In an age infatuated with history and calibrated in glory, Homer's work was the Bible of the day. He was the "prince of literature"; his 15,693 lines provided the moral, political, historical, and religious context, the great deeds and the ruling principles, the intellectual atlas and moral compass. The educated man cited him, paraphrased him, alluded to him. It was entirely fair to say that children like Cleopatra were—as a near contemporary had it—"nursed in their learning by Homer, and swaddles in his verses." Alexander the Great was believed to have slept always with a copy of Homer under his pillow; any cultivated Greek, Cleopatra included, could recite some part of the Iliad and the Odyssey by heart. The former was more popular in Cleopatra's Egypt—it may have seemed a more pertinent tale for a turbulent time—but from an early age she would have known literally what she at twenty-one discovered empirically: there were days you felt like waging war, and days when you just needed to go home.

♥ The rhetoric master worked the real magic. Though less so for girls, Cleopatra's was a speechifying culture, appreciative of the shapely argument, of the fine arts of persuasion and refutation. One declaimed with a codified vocabulary and an arsenal of gestures, in something of a cross between the laws of verse and those of parliamentary procedure. Cleopatra learned to marshal her thoughts precisely, express them artistically, deliver them gracefully. Content arguably took second place to delivery, "for," noted Cicero, "as reason is the glory of man, so the lamp of reason is eloquence." Head high, eyes bright, voice carefully modulated, she mastered the eulogy, the reproach, the comparison. In verse and vigorous language, summoning a wealth of anecdote an allusion, she would have learned to discourse on a host of thorny issues...

..These arguments were to be made with particular and exact choreography. Cleopatra was instructed as to where to breathe, pause, gesticulate, pick up her pace, lower or raise her voice. She was to stand erect. She was not to twiddle her thumbs. Assuming the raw material was not defective, it was the kind of education that could be guaranteed to produce a vivid, persuasive speaker, as well as to provide that speaker with ample opportunity to display her subtle mind and clever wit, in social settings as much as in judicial proceedings. "The art of speaking," it was later said, "depends on much effort, continual study, varied kinds of exercise, long experience, profound wisdom, and unfailing strategic sense." (It was elsewhere noted that this grueling course of study lent itself equally to the court, the stage, or the ravings of a lunatic.)

♥ To the punishing study of Egyptian, however, Cleopatra applied herself. She was allegedly the first and only Ptolemy to bother to learn the language of the 7 million people over whom she ruled.

The accomplishment paid off handsomely. Where previous Ptolemies had commanded armies through interpreters, Cleopatra communicated directly. For someone recruiting mercenaries among Syrians and Medians and Thracians that was a distinct advantage, as it was to anyone with imperial ambitions. It was an advantage as well, closer to home, in a restive, ethnically diverse, cosmopolitan city to which immigrants flocked from all over the Mediterranean. An Alexandrian contract could involve seven different nationalities. It was not unusual to see a Buddhist monk on the streets of the city, home to the largest community of Jews outside Judaea, a community that may have accounted for nearly a quarter of Alexandria's population. Egypt's profitable luxury trade was with India; lustrous silks, spices, ivory, and elephants traveled across the Red Sea and along caravan routes. There was ample reason why Cleopatra should have bee particularly adept in the tongues of the coastal region. Plutarch gave her nine languages, including Hebrew and Troglodyte..

♥ The history of [Greek language in Rome] parallels that of French on American soil. In colonial America, the language of the dissolute Old World was a vehicle of contagion; where French went, depravity and frivolity were sure to follow. By the nineteenth century, French was the indispensable agent of high culture, fuller of expression, richer of vocabulary, somehow maddeningly superior in its nuance and suppleness. At its edges the admiration bordered on resentment, to which it finally succumbed. A eventful century later, French was outmoded, long-winded, largely irrelevant, an affectation.

♥ When Ptolemy I had founded the library he had set out to gather every text in existence, to which end he made considerable progress. His gluttony for literature was such that he was said to have seized all texts arriving in the city, on occasion returning copies in their stead. (He also offered rewards for contributions. Spurious texts materialized in the Alexandrian collection as a result.) Ancient sources indicate that the great library included 500,000 scrolls, which would appear to be a hopeless exaggeration; 100,000 may be closer to the truth. In any event the collection dwarfed all prior libraries and included every volume written in Greek. Those texts were nowhere more accessible, or more neatly arranged—ordered alphabetically and by subject, they occupied individual cubbies—than in the great library of Alexandria.

Nor were those texts in any danger of collecting dust. Attached to the library, near or within the palace complex, was the museum, a state-subsidized research institute. Which teachers elsewhere in the Hellenistic world were held in little esteem—"he's either dead or off teaching somewhere" went the expression; a teacher earned slightly more than an unskilled laborer—scholarship reigned supreme in Alexandria. So did this community of scholars, cosseted by the state, housed tax-free in luxurious quarters, fed in a vast communal dining hall. ..For centuries both before and after Cleopatra the most impressive thing a doctor could say was that he had trained in Alexandria. It was where you hoped your children's tutor had studied.

♥ It was in Alexandria that the circumference of the earth was first measured, the sun fixed at the center of the solar system, the workings of the brain and the pulse illuminated, the foundations of anatomy and physiology established, the definitive editions of Homer produced. It was in Alexandria that Euclid had codified geometry. If all the wisdom of teh ancient world could be said to have been collected in one place, that placed was Alexandria. Cleopatra was its direct beneficiary. She knew that the moon had an effect on tides, that the Earth was spherical. She knew of the existence of the equator, the value of pi, the latitude of Marseilles, the behavior of linear perspective, the utility of a lightning conductor. She knew that one could sail from Spain to India, a voyage that was not to be made for another 1,500 years, through she herself would consider making it, in reverse.

♥ Caesar was of illustrious birth, a gifted orator, and a dashing officer, but those distinctions were meaningless compared to a woman who, however inventively, descended from Alexander, who was in Egypt not only royal but divine. Caesar was very nearly deified in the late years of his life. Cleopatra was born a goddess.

♥ Beauty had unsettled the world before; the Hellen allusion was there for the asking, but only one Latin poet picked up on it, primarily to emphasize Cleopatra's bad behavior. Plutarch clearly notes that her beauty "was not in itself so remarkable that none could be compared with her, or that no one could see her without being struck by it." It was rather the "contact of her presence, if you lived with her, that was irresistible." Her personality and manner, he insists, were no less than "bewitching." Time has done better than fail to wither in Cleopatra's case; it has improved upon her allure. She came into her looks only years later. By the third century AD she would be described as "striking," exquisite in appearance. By the Middle Ages, she was "famous for nothing but her beauty."

♥ Apollodorus came, Caesar saw, Cleopatra conquered, a sequence of events that does not necessarily add up in her favor. In his account—it may well derive from Plutarch's, which preceded it by a good century—Dio too acknowledges Cleopatra's power to subjugate a man twice her age.

♥ Auletes knew only too well that Caesar was in 48 discovering firsthand: the Alexandrian populace constituted a force unto itself. The best thing you could say of that people was that they were sharp-witted. Their humor was quick and biting. They knew how to laugh. They were mad for drama, as the city's four hundred theatres suggested. They were no less sharp-elbowed. The genius for entertainment extended to a taste for intrigue, a propensity to riot. To one visitor Alexandrian life was "just one continuous revel, not a sweet or gentle revel either, but savage and harsh, a revel of dancers, whistlers, and murderers all combined." Cleopatra's subjects had no compunction about massing at the palace gates and loudly howling their demands. Very little was required to set off an explosion. For two centuries they had freely and wildly deposed, exiled, and assassinated Ptolemies.

♥ Whether or not Caesar had considered annexing Egypt he had clearly discovered that Cleopatra was in many respects similar to her country: a shame to lose, a risk to conquer, a headache to govern.

♥ From east to west the city measured nearly four miles, a wonderland of baths, theatres, gymnasiums, courts, temples, shrines, and synagogues. A limestone wall surrounded its perimeter, punctuated by towers, patrolled at both ends of the Canopic Way by prostitutes. During the day Alexandria echoed with the sounds of horses' hooves, the cries of porridge sellers or chickpea vendors, street performers, soothsayers, moneylenders. Its spice stands released exotic aromas, carried through the streets by a thick, salty sea breeze. Long-legged white and black ibises assembled at every intersection, foraging for crumbs. Until well into the evening, when the vermilion sun plunged precipitously into the harbor, Alexandria remained a swirl of reds and yellows, a swelling kaleidoscope of music, chaos, and color. Altogether it was a mood-altering city of extreme sensuality and high intellectualism, the Paris of the ancient world: superior in its ways, splendid in its luxuries, the place to go to spend your fortune, write your poetry, find (or forget) a romance, restore your health, reinvent yourself, or regroup after having conquered vast swaths of Italy, Spain, and Greece over the course of a Herculean decade.

♥ Both had daringly crossed line in their bids for power; both had let the dice fly. Both had as great a capacity for work as for play and rarely distinguished between the two. Caesar answered letters and petitions while attending games. Cleopatra engaged in games for reasons of state. Neither shrank from drama. Both were natural performers, as secure in their ability as in the conviction of their superiority. Much was expected of Cleopatra, who liked to surprise, believed in the grand geste, and did not sell herself short. Caesar put a premium on style and admired talent in all its forms; in Alexandria he was in the constant company of a deft conversationalist, linguist, and negotiator, one who shared his unusual gift of treating new acquaintances as if they were old intimates. There was ample reason on his part for close attention. Cleopatra provided a timely lesson in comportment. Having the year before been declared dictator, Caesar was enjoying his first taste of absolute power. Cleopatra moreover handled matters no woman of his acquaintance had touched. He would have been hard pressed to find a woman in all of Rome who had raised an army, lent a fleet, controlled a currency. As incandescent as was her personality, Cleopatra was every bit Caesar's equal as a coolheaded, cleareyed pragmatist, though what passed on his part as strategy would be remembered on hers as manipulation. Both were emerging from wars that had nothing to do with issues and everything to do with personalities. They had faced similar difficulties, with similar constituencies. Caesar was no favorite of the Roman aristocracy. Cleopatra was unloved by the Alexandrian Greeks. Their power derived from the common people. The ambitions shine especially in the company of the ambitious; Caesar and Cleopatra came together as might two heirs to legendary fortunes, larger than life and abundantly aware of their gifts, who are accustomed to thinking of themselves in the plural, or writing of themselves in the third person.

♥ It was not unusual for a royal barge to include a gym, a library, shrines to Dionysus and Aphrodite, a garden, a grotto, lecture halls, a spiral staircase, a copper bath, stables, an aquarium.

♥ That had been true since time immemorial, an expression that in Egypt actually meant something. Even in Cleopatra's day there was such a thing as ancient history; somehow the world was older then, thick with legend, swathed in superstition. At her side Caesar could have marveled at twenty-eight centuries of architecture. Already visitors had burgled—and scrawled graffiti over—the tombs in the Valley of the Kings.* Already by the spring of 47 one of the seven wonders of the world lay in ruins. Cleopatra's country had been in the hospitality business long before the rest of the world so much as suspected gracious living existed. At the same time, the centuries felt closer than they do to us today. Alexander the Great was further from Cleopatra than 1776 is to our century, yet Alexander remained always vividly, urgently present. While 1,120 years separated Cleopatra from the greatest story of her time, the fall of Troy remained a steadfast point of reference. The past was at all times within reach, a nearly religious awe aimed in its direction. This was especially true in Egypt, which had a passion for history, and which for two millennia already had kept a written record. For the bulk of those years the insular, inaccessible country had changed little, its art barely at all. There was good reason why Cleopatra's subjects viewed time as a coil of endless repetitions. Recent events only reinforced that notion. Ptolemaic advisers had persuaded earlier boy-kings to murder their immediate families. Previous queens had fled Egypt to muster armies. Much that could be said of the conquering Romans in 47 could have been said three centuries earlier of Cleopatra's Macedonian ancestors, a parallel by no means lost on her.

*The most common graffito: "I saw, and I was amazed."

♥ Had she wanted to, Cleopatra could have availed herself of volumes of advice on contraception and abortion, some of it surprisingly effective. Nothing better revealed the conflicting tides of science and myth, enlightenment and ignorance, between which she lived than the literature on birth control. For each valid idea of Cleopatra's age there was an equally outlandish belief. Hippocrates' three-hundred-year-old recipe for inducing miscarriage—jump up and down, neatly touching your heels to your buttocks seven times—made some of the first-century measures look perfectly reasonable. A spider's egg, attached to the body with deer hide before sunrise, could prevent conception for twelve months. This was no stranger (or more effective) than attaching a cat liver to one's left foot, but then it was also asserted that a sneeze during sex worked wonders. In Cleopatra's day crocodile dung was famed for its contraceptive powers, as was a concoction of mule's kidney and eunuch's urine. Generally the literature on abortifacients was more extensive than that on contraceptives; the time-tested ingredients for a morning-after pill were salt, mouse excrement, honey, and resin. Long after Cleopatra, it was asserted that the smell of a freshly extinguished lamp induced miscarriage. At the same time, some of the popular herbal remedies of Cleopatra's age proved effective. White poplar, juniper berries, and giant fennel have qualified contraceptive powers. Others—vinegar, alum, and olive oil—remained in use until recently. Early diaphragms existed, of wool moistened with honey and oil. All offered better results than the rhythm method, of dubious benefit to a people who believed that a woman was at her most fertile around the time of menstruation.

♥ The Egyptians were willing to submit to a female pharaoh, but as Berenice IV's messy marital history made clear, a woman needed a male consort, if only as a ballerina does in a Balanchine pas de deux, as ornament rather than support. With Caesarion—or little Caesar, as the Alexandrians nicknamed Ptolemy XV Caesar—on her lap, Cleopatra had no difficulty ruling as a female king. Even before he began to babble, Caesarion accomplished a masterly feat. He rendered his feckless uncle wholly irrelevant. Whether Ptolemy XIV realized it or not, his older sister had gained control both of the imagery and the government.

♥ Caesarion's birth drove home Cleopatra's association with Isis, but on that count Cleopatra took her cue from her most illustrious ancestors, who for 250 years had identified with that ancient goddess. In an age of general longing, she ranked as the greatest deity of the day. She enjoyed nearly unlimited powers: Isis had invented the alphabet (both Egyptian and Greek), separated earth from sky, set the sun and the moon on their way. Fiercely but compassionately, she plucked order from chaos. She was tender and comforting, also the mistress of war, thunderbolts, the sea. She cured the sick and raised the dead. She presided over love affairs, invented marriage, regulated pregnancies, inspired the love that binds children to parents, smiled on domestic life. She dispensed mercy, salvation, redemption. She is the consummate earth mother, also—like most mothers—something of a canny, omnicompetent, behind-the-scenes magician.

♥ Motherhood had only enhanced Cleopatra's authority—in her day the Egyptian queen was more earth mother than femme fatale—but solidified her links with the native priests, to whom she granted significant privileges. In this she continued the work of her father. Even while abroad he had distinguished himself as a prolific builder of temples and had cultivated his relation with the Egyptian clergy. They were central to order amid the native populace, also intimately engaged with matters of state. As the temples stood at the center of both religious and commercial life, there was an interpenetration of the Greek bureaucracy and the Egyptian hierarchy. The minister of finance might equally supervise the feeding of the sacred animals. The priest in charge of cult revenues for special occasions might double as a reed merchant. Those with weighty titles at the Temple of Memphis held equally weighty titles in the world of commerce and occupied privileged positions in Cleopatra's court. The relationship was symbiotic: a god on earth, a pharaoh was as necessary to the priests theologically as were the priests to Cleopatra economically and politically. Priests functioned as lawyers and notaries, the temples as manufacturing centers, cultural institutions, economic hubs. You might visit one to work up a contract, or consult a doctor, or borrow a sack of grain. A temple could grant refuge within its walls, a right Cleopatra extended in 46 to an Isis shrine, toward the end of her reign to a synagogue in the southern delta. (It may have represented her half of a bargain. The Jews of the region were fine soldiers; Cleopatra needed an army at the time.) In principle, no one granted asylum could be driven or dragged away. It was where you withdrew when you had had the temerity to organize a strike. The temples lent money, even, on occasion, to Ptolemies.

♥ Cleopatra's responsibilities very nearly rivaled those of Isis: She not only dispensed justice, commanded the army and navy, regulated the economy, negotiated with foreign powers, and presided over the temples, but determined the prices of raw materials and supervised the sowing schedules, the distribution of seed, the condition of Egypt's canal, the food supply. She was magistrate, high priest, queen, and goddess. She was also—on a day-to-day bass and far more frequently—chief executive officer. She headed both the secular and the religious bureaucracies. She was Egypt's merchant in chief. The crush of state business consumed most of her day. And as that early, weary Hellenistic monarch had acknowledged, absolute power consumes absolutely.

♥ Cleopatra's harvests were the greatest in the Mediterranean world. With them she fed her people, and from them she derived her power.

..The same punctilious oversight extended to every corner of the economy. The Ptolemaic system has been compared to that of Soviet Russia; it stands among the the most closely controlled economies in history. No matter who farmed it—Egyptian peasant, Greek settler, temple priest—most land was royal land. Only with government permission could you fell a tree, breed pigs, turn your barley field into an olive garden.

♥ A Hellenistic monarch ventured abroad with a purpose rather than on a whim. Nor did Cleopatra slip out of the city quietly, as her father had done. The assembled flotilla made for an extraordinary sight, one that had not greeted Alexandria for at least a generation. There was nothing remotely discreet or economical about it. Crowds gathered on shore to admire the spectacle and to send off their queen, with music and with cheers, amid spicy-sweet clouds of frankincense. Aboard ship she would have heard the commotion until those faces, the spindly palms, the rocky coast, the colossi, the gold roof of the Serapeum, and finally the lighthouse itself faded from view. It is unlikely that Cleopatra had ever before seen that limestone tower with its reflective mirrors from the windward side. Only after a good four hours at sea did the massive statue of Poseidon at its top dissolve completely in the silvery haze.

♥ Alexandrian girls were often literate girls, who would go on to buy houses, lend money, run mills. Herself exquisitely educated, Cleopatra was said by a later chronicler to be "a woman who regarded even the love of letters as a sensuous pleasure."

♥ He extended citizenship to anyone in Rome who taught the liberal arts or who practiced medicine, "to make them more desirous of living in the city and to induce others to resort to it." He suggested stripping the city of some of its lesser sculpture, which after Alexandria looked decidedly shabby; it was difficult for anyone to come into contact with Ptolemaic Egypt and not contract a case of extravagance. Like Cleopatra herself, not all of Caesar's imports were welcome or entirety logical. Just after her arrival, he recognized the cult of Dionysus, a Greek of even more dubious heritage and questionable habits than the exceedingly rich Egyptian queen. On nearly every front Caesar demonstrated prodigious activity, the maniacal capacity for work that had for years distinguished him from his rivals.

♥ The very palette of Rome was different. She was accustomed to ocean views, invigorating sea breezes, to sparkling white walls and a cloudless Alexandrian sky. There was no glinting turquoise Mediterranean out her window, no purple light at the end of the day. Nor was there any rapturous architecture. Rome was monochromatic next to the blaze of color to which Cleopatra was accustomed. All was wood and plaster. Music pervaded every aspect of Alexandrian life, where the flutes and lyres, rattles and drums, were everywhere. Only reluctantly did the Romans admit such frivolities to their culture. One apologized for one's ability to dance or play the flute well. "No one dances while he is sober," offered Cicero, the greatest of Roman killjoys, "unless he happens to be a lunatic."*

If she spent any time in the thick of the city, Cleopatra found herself amid a gloomy welter of crooked, congested streets, with no main avenue and no central plan, among muddy pigs and soup vendors and artisans' shops that tumbled out onto footways. By every measure a less salubrious city than Alexandria, Rome was squalid and shapeless, an oriental tangle of narrow, poorly ventilated streets and ceaseless, shutter-creaking commotion, perpetually in shadow, stifling hot in summer. Isolated though Cleopatra was on her wooded hill, there were advantages too in Caesar's address. She was at a remove from the incessant hawking and haggling, the pounding of blacksmiths and the hammering of stonemasons, the rattling of chains and squeaking of hoists below. Rome was a city of nonstop construction, as homes collapsed or were torn down regularly. To easy the racked Caesar had curtailed daytime traffic in the streets, with the predictable result: "You have to be a very rich man to get sleep in Rome," asserted Juvenal, who cursed the evening stampede, and felt he risked his life each time he set foot outside. To be trampled by litters or splattered with mud constituted peripheral dangers. Pedestrians routinely crumpled into hidden hollows. Every window represented a potential assault. Given the frequency which pots propelled themselves from ledges, the smart man, warned Juvenal, went to dinner only after having made his will. Cleopatra had any number of reasons to yearn for what a Latin poet would later term her "superficially civilized country."

*Some took Cicero's distaste further. If a man was an excellent piper, it followed that he was a worthless man. "Otherwise he wouldn't be so good a piper," notes Plutarch, quoting approvingly. The axiom did not work to the advantage of Cleopatra's father. Despite ample evidence to the contrary, he would be written off as "not a real man, but a pipe-player and a charlatan."

♥ Rome remained provincial, but increasingly aware if itself as such. Greece continued to spell culture, elegance, art. If you wanted a secretary, a doctor, an animal trainer, a craftsman, you wanted a Greek. An if you wanted a bookstore, you dearly hoped to find yourself in Alexandria. It was difficult to get a decent copy of anything in Rome, which nursed a healthy inferiority complex as a result. It manifested itself the time-honored way: The Roman waxed superior. His was hardly the first civilization merrily to impugn the one it aspired to be. So the pyramids—marvels of engineering and of ancient exactitude, constructed with primitive tools and equally primitive arithmetic—could be reduced to "idle and foolish ostentations of royal wealth." Gulping down his envy with a bracing chaser of contempt, a Roman in Egypt found himself less awed than offended. He wrote off extravagance as detrimental to body and mind, sounding like no one so much as Mark Twain resisting the siren call of Europe. Staring an advanced civilization straight in the face, the Roman reduced it either to barbarism or decadence. He took refuge in the hard edges and right angles of his own language, even while—sniffing and scorning—he acknowledged it to be inferior to the sinuous, supple, all-accommodating Greek tongue. Latin kept its speaker on the straight and narrow. Regrettably, there was no word in that language for "not possessing." But neither, blessedly, was there a Latin term for "gold-inlay utensils" or "engraved glasses from the warm Nile."

♥ Well before she became the sorceress of legend—a reckless, careless destroyer of men—she was suspect as an extravagant Easterner, a reckless, careless destroyer of wealth. If moral turpitude began with shellfish and metastasized into purple and scarlet robes, it found its ostentatious apogee in pearls, which topped the extravagance scale in Rome. Suetonius invoked them to prove Caesar's weakness for luxury.

♥ A subtle and clever guest, Cleopatra would have warmed to the political gossip and to the kind of learned, leisurely discourse prized in Rome, the brand of talk that was said to improve the wine. In the definition of an erudite contemporary, the ideal dinner companion was "neither a chatterbox nor a mute." Over the course of several late afternoon hours, he discoursed fluently on a variety of political, scientific, and artistic subjects, taking aim at the eternal questions: What came first, the chicken or the egg? Why does distance vision improve with age? Why do Jews shun pork? Cleopatra had Caesar's favor; she could not have been friendless. (For his part, Caesar paid no heed to the tongues that wagged over her presence. "He was not at all concerned, however, about this," Dio assures us.) At Caesar's villa she was surrounded by distinguished intellectuals and seasoned diplomats. She was refined, generous, charismatic. Some impressions may well have been favorable. We are left, however with the testimony of a sole witness, at once the most silver-and acid-tongued of Romans, who, it was noted, could always be counted on for "a great deal of barking." "I detest the queen," railed Cicero. History belongs to the eloquent.

♥ Generally the great Cicero had two modes: fawning and captious. He could apply both equally well to the same individual; he was perfectly capable of maligning a man one day and swearing eternal devotion to him the next. He was a great writer, which is to say self-absorbed, with an outsize ego and a fanatical sensitivity to slights real and imagined. The Roman John Adams, he lived his life with one eye always on posterity. He fully expected that we would be reading him two thousand years later. As accomplished a busybody as he was a master of eloquence, Cicero made it his mission to know precisely which lands every eminent man in Rome possessed, as well as where he lived and what company he frequented. Having stood at the center stage of Roman politics for three decades, he refused to be sidelined. He was irresistibly drawn to power and fame. No celebrity was going to escape his caustic clutches, especially one with an intellectual bent, a glamorous, international reputation, the resources to raise an army, and a habit of entertaining in a style that taxed the Roman vocabulary. The turnips sickened Cicero on several levels. He was a confirmed lover of luxury.

..Brilliant though he was, quotable though he was, Cicero was so keen on extolling himself as to be nauseating. He larded his works with shameless self-advertisements. Dio does not mince words either regarding Cicero: "He was the greatest boaster alive." The vanity extended most of all to his library, arguably the real love of Cicero's life. It is difficult to name anything in which he took more pleasure, aside possibly from evasion of the sumptuary laws. Cicero liked to believe himself wealthy. He prided himself on his books. He needed no further reason to dislike Cleopatra: intelligent women who had better libraries than he did offended him on three counts.

♥ He was not the last to note Cleopatra's high-handedness. Strategy came more naturally to her than did diplomacy. She may have been tactless; megalomania ran in the family. She had no trouble reminding those around her that—as she would assert later—she had for many years governed a vast kingdom by herself. Disdain is a natural condition of the mind in exile; Cleopatra had every reason to believe she hailed from a superior world. No one in Rome had a pedigree to rival hers. It bothered Cicero that she seemed to know as much.

♥ In February 44, Caesar was named dictator for life. Further privileges rained down on him. He was to wear triumphal dress and to occupy a raised ivory and gold chair, suspiciously like a throne. His image was to grace Roman coins, a first for a living Roman. Resentment accumulated in equal measure, although it was the Senate itself that "encouraged him and puffed him up, only to find fault with him on this very account and to spread slanderous reports how glad he was to accept them and how he behaved more haughtily as a result of them." Caesar perhaps erred in accepting the tributes but was also in something of a bind: to reject them was to risk offending. It is difficult to say which expanded to meet the other, the superhuman ego or the superhuman honors, under the weight of which Caesar would finally be buried.

♥ A prophecy either materialized or was said to, asserting that Parthia could be conquered only by a king. Word had it that the title was to be conferred imminently on Caesar. That may have been little more than a rumor—oracles were nothing if not convenient—but it spoke to the thorny question of why Cleopatra was living in Caesar's villa in the first place. Caesar may have had monarchical ambitions. Or he may not have. Certainly he was carelessly out of touch with Rome, less focused on domestic affairs than was wise, autocratic where he should have been solicitous. If one prefers not to be perceived as a king, one is ill advised, for starters, to spend one's time consorting with a queen.

♥ As for the catalogue of portents, they are impeccable only in retrospect. They might at the time have added up to any number of futures; ancient history is oddly short on incorrect omens. Only later were the unmistakable signs fitted to the occasion, compiled by men who happened to believe Caesar's murder as much justified as preordained.

♥ Certainly Cleopatra contributed to Caesar's downfall, although there is no evidence of imperial design on her part or on his, no treachery, or for that matter, any blinding, fatal passion. How much of a role she played is debatable. For all her persuasive talents, she was unlikely to have been much involved in domestic politics in any meaningful way. Were she and Caesar considering a joint monarchy? Possibly, but no evidence remains. Sometimes a business trip is just a business trip. Suetonius recognized the lot of the unadorned historical account, destined to be improve upon by "silly folk, who will try to use the curling-irons on his narrative." The polymathic Nicolaus of Damascus, who tutored Cleopatra's children, was the first to implicate Cleopatra. A century later Lucan was happy to follow that lead, neatly rolling her dual offenses against Caesar into a single line: "She aroused his greed." Those assertions made for a better narrative than did the plain fact that Caesar had plenty of enemies for plenty of reasons, few of which had anything to do with either Egyptian queens or the Roman constitution. Even the reworking of the calendar had earned him enmity, as he had inadvertently curtailed the appointments of men in power. Those who had reason to be grateful to Caesar resented their debts. Others agonized over wartime losses. Some hoped only to upset the system. "And so," conceded one contemporary, "every kind of man combined against him: great and small, friend and foe, military and political, every one of whom put forward his own particular pretext for the matter at hand, and as a result of his own complaints each lent a ready ear to the accusations of the others."

♥ The crowd went wild, indulging in a spur-of-the-moment cremation and destroying the hall in which Caesar had been killed. A frenzied spree of murder and arson followed, during which, as Cicero had it, "almost the whole city was burned down and once more great numbers were slaughtered." Rome was very much unsafe for Cleopatra or for that matter anyone. All the qualities the Romans attributed to the Alexandrians—those fanatical, intemperate, bloodthirsty barbarians—were on vivid display. In the marketplace a man wrongly understood to be an assassin was torn limb from limb.

♥ In sunny Alexandria she returned to the grind of public business and private audiences, to a round of rituals and ceremonies. She would never again set foot in Rome. Nor would she ever let that city out of her sights. She had played the game cannily and correctly, more effectively than any Ptolemy before her, only to find herself at square one, blindsided by events, sabotaged by a wholesale revision of the rules. As a ear contemporary marveled: "Who can adequately express his astonishment at the changes of fortune, and the mysterious vicissitudes in human affairs?" Cleopatra was twenty-six years old.

..She was free of rustic Rome, delivered from the swells of the waves and the turbulence abroad to a land that recognized her as a living goddess, every bit Venus's equal, returned to a city where monarchy received its proper due, where a queen could hold her head high without being flailed for arrogance, where no one yelped over golden chairs or shuddered at the sight of diadems. She was, in short, back in civilization. That was particularly evident over an Egyptian summer, the season of celebrations. In its festivals too Cleopatra's kingdom inverted the Roman order. With the fields under water, Egypt devoted itself to song, dance, and feasting. "Home is best," went the Greek adage, and so it must have felt to Cleopatra, returning from a land that defined the world differently.

♥ At some point after July—a newly eponymous month that occurred in 44 for the first time, to much gnashing of teeth at Cicero's address—Caesarion was named pharaoh. With his ascensions began the third of Cleopatra's co-regencies. Hers was an original solution, also an ideal one. Caesarion became "King Ptolemy, who is as well Caesar, Father-loving, Mother-loving God." Cleopatra had her obligatory male consort. A Roman, and a doubly divine one, sat on the Egyptian throne. And a three-year-old was unlikely to meddle in any way with his mother's agenda.

Not only was hers a brilliant strategic calculation—Cleopatra symbolically swathed Egypt in Caesar's mantle, for which she could see a violent contest brewing—it was also a deft iconographical one. If Caesar had returned from Alexandria more royal than before, Cleopatra returned from Rome more godly. She vigorously embraced her role as Isis, with full emphasis on her maternal command, a novel instance coaxing a promotion from childbearing. At festivals she appeared in her striking Isis attire. Recent events provided a powerful assist; Caesar's assassination may have destroyed Cleopatra's years of meticulous planning but represented a boon to the imagery. In the legend, the enemies of Osiris, Isis's earthly partner and the supreme male divinity, savagely dismember him. Osiris leaves behind a young male heir and a devoted, quick-thinking consort. In Isis's grief, she collects the butchered pieces, to effect his resurrection. The Ides of March handily buttressed the tale; Cleopatra emerged stronger for her loss, the real wife of a martyred deity. It did not hurt that in Rome in the first day of 42 Caesar was—in a solemn religious ceremony—declared a god.

♥ Under Cleopatra, Alexandria enjoyed a robust intellectual revival. Gathering a coterie of thinkers around her, Cleopatra reconstituted a Greek intelligentsia in the city, to which she had no difficulty luring scholars. Among her intimates she counted Philostratus, an orator celebrated for his spellbinding, extemporaneous performances. He may also have been her personal tutor. The only indigenous school of philosophy emerged under Cleopatra; a skeptic, Aenesidemus of Knossos, wrangled with the relativity of human perceptions and the impossibility of knowledge. Scholarly work in grammar and history enjoyed a renaissance, although the revival generated few of the dizzyingly original theoretical leaps of previous centuries. Medicine and pharmacology represented the sole exceptions. Doctors had long been attached to the Ptolemaic court, where they were influential, public-spirited statesmen, and where in Cleopatra's reign the most eminent men in their fields wrote prolifically, on medicine and maladies, on eye and lung ailments, both as scholars and practitioners. In surgery particularly these thinkers made bold strides, producing a new body of specialized skills.

..A decadent abroad, she was an able-bodied intellectual at home. She has been variously cited as an authority on magic and medicine, inseparable still for some time; on hairdressing, on cosmetics; on weights and measures. These were realms Cleopatra may well have explored, at least at the dinner table. As for medicine, she was a great patron of the Temple of Hathor, devoted to female health. She was all the same only slightly more likely to have written about baths of asses' milk than to have invented aspirin.

..Plutarch holds that she concocted "all sorts of deadly poisons," with which she experimented on prisoners. "When she saw that the seedy poisons enhanced the sharpness of death by the pain they caused," she moved on to a survey of venomous animals. These she studied systematically, daily "watching with her own eyes as they were set one upon another." The Talmud hails her for her "great scientific curiosity" and as "very interested in the experiments of doctors and surgeons." Given the preponderance of medical professionals at court, the progress in the field, and the lively interest demonstrated in the natural sciences by other Eastern kings—many of whom performed experiments and wrote on biology and botany—this was likely true. ..Cleopatra was rumored to be especially skilled in the occult sciences, though the only alchemy she worked was in turning the fields of Egypt into gold.

Much of Cleopatra's supposed scholarship derives from the Arab world, where Roman propaganda did not penetrate. There she established herself as a philosopher, physician, scientist, scholar. Her name was powerfully resonant, the more so for her association with the pharmacologically inclined, miracle-working Isis. As credible as were some of the imputations, it is difficult to determine how many of the accomplishments were genuine; how many the flattering fallout of Plutarch's account of an intellectually inclined woman, comfortable in the company of philosophers and physicians, living in enlightened times; and how much they constitute the usual assault on the composed, capable woman, suspect for being too good at her craft, whose talents can be attributes only to "magic arts and charms." Dissected or not, the bodies must be buried somewhere, the cauldrons and the books of spells nearby. Cleopatra's abilities were great, but the fertile male fancy incontestably greater.

♥ Customarily the Jews were loyal supporters of the female Ptolemies. They were river guards, police officers, army commanders, and high-ranking officials. They had fought for Auletes; they numbered among Cleopatra's supporters in the desert in 48. And they had fought for her during the Alexandrian War, at the end of which Caesar had granted them citizenship.

♥ (It is notable that when she is not condemned for being too bold and masculine, Cleopatra is taken to task for being unduly frail and feminine.)

♥ Whatever [Quintus Dellius] had heard failed to prepare him adequately for Cleopatra He "had no sooner seen her face, and remarked her adroitness and subtlety in speech" than he realized he would need to reassess his approach. On Cleopatra's disarming effect all sources unanimously, even actively, agree. Plutarch so much falls under her posthumous spell that—from the moment of Dellius's arrival—he essentially lets her run off with Mark Antony's narrative.

♥ Antony wielded political power. Octavian was fresh from his studies. Certainly in the course of them he had learned that the populace considered it their business to prolong discord, that they built up demagogues for the pleasure of knocking them down, that they encouraged them to destroy each other. He was of course right. And no one was better at fomenting dissension than Cicero, who could always be counted on, as a contemporary put it, to malign the prominent, blackmail the powerful, slander the distinguished. He now gamely obliged.

♥ (It is interesting that few deigned to take Octavian seriously at eighteen, at which age Cleopatra already ruled Egypt.)

♥ Sometimes it indeed seemed as if there were only ten women in Rome. And in Cicero's view, Mark Antony had slept with every one of them.

♥ Politics have long been defined as "the systematic organization of hatreds." Certainly nothing better described Rome in the years following the Ides, wen enmity rather than issues divided Caesar's assassins, Caesar's heirs, and the last of the Pompeians, each of whom, it seemed, had an army, an agenda, and ambitions of his own.

♥ From his father, Mark Antony inherited a joyful, capricious temperament. He was given to sulks and sprees. His mother—by all accounts a force of nature—appeared to have fostered in her reckless son a taste for competent, strong-minded women. Without them Antony arguably would have self-destructed well before March 44. Already his personal life was something of a catastrophe. He cemented the family reputation for insolvency while still in his teens. His sterling military reputation was eclipsed only by his fame as a reveler; he left tutors half-dead in his carousing wake. He was given to good living, great parties, bad women. He was generous to a fault, always easier when the house you are rashly giving away is not yours in the first place. What was said of an earlier tribune was more true of Antony: "He was a spendthrift of money and chastity—his own and other people's." The brilliant cavalry officer had all of Caesar's charm and none of his self-control. In 44 the conspirators had deemed him too inconsistent to be dangerous.

..Certainly Antony gave Cicero plenty to work with. He had mismanaged funds. He had indulged in scandalous affairs. He had appropriated property. He had made a spectacle of himself, at one point allegedly attaching lions to a chariot for a joyride through Rome. Excess and conviviality were his middle names. His colorful stunts accounted in large part for his popularity; to his men he was irresistible. There had been ample carousing, even if "the fume of debauch" did not attach itself to Antony quite as tenaciously as Cicero insisted. He was all the same happy to retail and amplify tales of Antony's indignities. The morning he had opened his mouth to speak in the Senate and instead vomited the putrid remains of a wedding feast into his lap was not one Cicero would ever let him forget. Antony was henceforth "the belching, vomiting brute," prone to "spewing rather than speaking." ..He charged Antony with the worst crime that could be leveled against Caesar's former lieutenant: Mark Antony, he bellowed, "would prefer to answer to a most audacious woman than the Senate and Roman people." With his have-you-no-decency offensive Cicero settled an invaluable inheritance on Octavian, who would avail himself of each and every line, without once crediting the best ghostwriter in history.

♥ As the Roman historian Florus put it much later: "Lepidus was actuated by a desire for wealth, which he might expect to gain from confusion in the State; Antony desired vengeance upon those who had declared him an enemy; Caesar [Octavian] was spurred on by the thought that his father's death was still unpunished and that the survival of Cassius and Brutus was an insult to his departed spirit." At the end of two days the three nonetheless hammered out an agreement, essentially appointing themselves dictators for five years and carving up the empire among them. Each man swore to uphold the terms and joined hands. On the mainland, their exultant armies saluted one another. The agreement—to be known later as the Second Triumvirate—was to take effect as of January 42.

..That state of affairs led inevitably to the sticky subject of personal enemies. The three men withdrew to compile a list in private. There was some high-level horse trading as they offered up "their stanchest friends in return for their bitterest enemies." In such a way Antony sacrificed a much-loved uncle for Cicero. Lepidus threw over a brother. Your chances of survival were especially poor of you had funds at your disposal. "Extra names were constantly added to the list, some from enmity, other only because they had been a nuisance, or were friends of enemies, or enemies of friends, or were notably wealthy," Appian tells us. Separately the triumvirs hastened with their men to Rome, where they presided over a season of bloodletting. "The whole city," notes Dio, "filled with corpses," often left in the street to be devoured by dogs and birds, or cast into the river."

..Drawing the curtain fully open, [Cicero] stretched his neck out as far as he could, so that it might be cut properly. He suspected that he was in the hands of an amateur, as indeed he was. With some expert sawing, Cicero's head was severed from his body. By Antony's prior command the hands that had penned the Philippics were hacked off as well, to be sent from the seaside for display in the Senate. It was said that Fulvia—a longtime enemy of Cicero's for her own reasons—first spit on the head, forcing open the mouth and piercing the tongue with a hairpin. In the end two thousand prominent Romans lay dead, including nearly a third of the Senate. The triumvirs found themselves unopposed in Rome, at the command of frothy-three legions, and broke, the proscription having proved less profitable than anticipated.

♥ Brutus threw himself upon his sword. The victors approached his corpse differently. Antony removed his expensive purple cloak and laid it carefully over the body, to be buried with his brilliant former colleague. Shortly thereafter Octavian arrived on the scene. He ordered Brutus's head severed from the body and displayed in Rome.*

*It was lost en route.

♥ Across the Mediterranean, Cleopatra—managing domestic crises of her own—would have been within her rights to wonder why the Romans did not subscribe to the tidier monarchical model, given the bloodshed their personal ambitions had over the previous years cost them. As Dio observed later, democracy sounded very well and good, "but its results are seen not to agree at all with its title. Monarchy, on the contrary, has an unpleasant sound, but is a most practical form of government to live under. For it is easier to find a single excellent man than many of them."

♥ The world was now in the hands of two men who got on as well as any with diametrically opposed interests and radically different dispositions, one of them ruthless, calculating, patient, the other sentimental, simple, impulsive, which is to say that civil war would rage for the rest of Cleopatra's lifetime. Had it not, we are unlikely ever to have heard of the last queen of Egypt, who stepped into a role that—in part thanks to Cicero—seemed scripted for her in advance.
Tags: 1st century bc in non-fiction, 2010s, 21st century - non-fiction, 3rd-person narrative non-fiction, american - non-fiction, ancient egypt in non-fiction, ancient rome in non-fiction, anthropology, biography, egyptian in non-fiction, feminism, history, italian in non-fiction, my favourite books, non-fiction, political dissent, politics, romance (non-fiction), sociology, war non-fiction

  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.