Saturday, 30 October 2010

A new biography of Cleopatra

I have to say I agree with Elena Maria Vidal in being excited about Stacy Schiff's new biography of Cleopatra VII, the last Pharaoh of Egypt, whose suicide on August 12th 30 B.C. marked the capitulation of Egypt to Roman rule.

Interestingly, I can't help but feel that the late Roman Republic's obsession with fiscal virtue and its demonisation of Cleopatra's Egypt as "decadent" has a lot in common with the recent republican/Tea Party obsession with lambasting America's present elite, via the route of criticising people for being educated at an Ivy League university. This excellent education somehow allegedly makes them either a corrupting or alien influence. (Here's looking at you Christine O'Donnell and Glenn Beck...) The fact that many of the critics of "the elite" are themselves people who work in television, drive SUVs, have disposable incomes, take regular holidays, have private health insurance and send their children to private schools does not seem to have occured to them. They too are a long away from the economic reality most Americans live with. Not that they seem to be in anyway aware of this... too much self-reflection is alas apt to get in the way of a rant. Anyone who has ever seen Glenn Beck try to explain the Divine Right of Kings or medieval history on his show will attest that a knowledge of any elite - or indeed common sense - is not his in abundance ...

Equally, the ancient patriotic republican idea that Rome equated with virtue and hard-work, while the East was saturated with corruption, laziness, extravagance and moral degeneracy also seem to echo the Tea Party or radical Right's bizarre interpretation of "American values," in which the noun "European" has somehow become the political insult de jour and has been extended as a definition to include the entire north-east coast.

To quote Cleopatra's new biographer: -

"In the late republic, that outsized wealth impugned her morals. To wax eloquent about someone's embossed silver, sumptuous carpets or marble statuary was to indict him. In the Roman view, Cleopatra quite literally possessed an embarrassment of riches. This meant that every evil in the profligacy family attached itself to her. Well before she became the sorceress of legend—a reckless, careless destroyer of men—Cleopatra was suspect as a reckless, careless destroyer of wealth. Even if she never melted a pearl in vinegar, as legend has it, she could well afford to do so... Gulping down his envy with a chaser of contempt, a Roman found himself less awed than offended by Egypt. 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 many centuries later. Staring an advanced civilization straight in the face, the Roman dismissed it as either barbarism or decadence....  The divide between the civilized, virtuous West and the tyrannical, dissolute East began in part with Rome and its Egyptian problem. Cleopatra emerged as stand-in for her occult, alchemical land, the intoxicating address of sex and excess. She wielded power shrewdly and easily, making her that rarest of things: a woman who—working from an original script—discomfited the very male precincts of traditional authority. Two thousand years later, those tensions and anxieties have not relaxed their hold."

The full article can be read here and I would really recommend it. 

The new biography can be viewed here on


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