By Joyce Tyldesley
Basic Books. 304 pages. $27.50.
Reviewed by C. Bertelsen
Shakespeare immortalized the notorious Egyptian queen, Cleopatra VII, in his play (circa 1607), “Antony & Cleopatra.” Through the centuries, other writers and artists took up similar themes in numerous works of literature and art, including film director Joseph L. Mankiewicz who directed the 1963 film, “Cleopatra.” People today might be forgiven if Elizabeth Taylor comes to mind when they think of Cleopatra. Long considered the immoral and blood-thirsty Egyptian paramour of Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, the legendary Cleopatra gets a new public relations agent, as it were, in British Egyptologist Joyce Tyldesley’s “Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt.”
With the goal of putting “Cleopatra back into her own, predominantly Egyptian context,” Tyldesley traces Cleopatra’s Ptolemy family tree and the convoluted relationships therein. She confirms Cleopatra’s romantic liaisons with Roman rulers and conquerors, Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, who appear in the book in detail. In Egyptian culture of the time, Cleopatra may well have thought she was married to these two men, a lawful wife. Archaeological and documentary evidence portray an entirely different Cleopatra from the one vilified in propaganda spewed by her contemporary Octavian and other powerful Romans. “The Romans, who looked long and hard at Cleopatra, never saw a wife. They saw an unnatural, immodest woman who preyed on other women’s husbands.” Unlike Greek and Roman women of the time, many Egyptian women lived free, intellectual lives. In this fact perhaps lay the seed of the rumors and back-stabbing behind Cleopatra’s legacy centuries after her suicide.
Tyldesley provides many scholarly tools for readers to use as she excavates Cleopatra’s life story from the many layers of Roman innuendo. Family trees, photographs of archaeological finds and statues, and maps help to make sense of the political intrigue characterizing Cleopatra’s times. Quotations from Plutarch round out details of Cleopatra’s palace life: “Philotas, the physician of Amphissa, used to tell my grandfather, Lamprias, that … having got well acquainted with one of the royal cooks, he was easily persuaded … to take a view of the extravagant preparations for a royal supper. … [He] saw … eight wild boars a-roasting,” for only twelve diners.
A solid piece of scholarship, Tyldesley’s revisionist “Cleopatra” examines the whole arc of Cleopatra’s life and her cultural milieu. The power struggles between Rome and Egypt predominate. And the city of Alexandria merits its own chapter, as it was an important center for the Ptolemies, their seat of intellectual and political power.
Tyldesley rebukes many academic accounts of Cleopatra’s life, a number of which “have been unable to cast aside Shakespeare’s vision and have been seduced into quoting Shakespeare as if he were a primary historical source.” Ironically, Arab historians, with access to Egypt’s oral history, preserved much of Cleopatra’s real story.
© 2008 C. Bertelsen. Published in The Roanoke Times, Sunday, November 2, 2008.