First things first: that wasn’t my real name. The Empress Elizabeth, who was Peter the Great’s daughter (now, tFROM THE MEMOIRS OF CATHERINE THE GREAT
First things first: that wasn’t my real name. The Empress Elizabeth, who was Peter the Great’s daughter (now, that is a man who truly deserves “the Great” after his name!), changed my name to Ekaterina when she converted me into the Russian Orthodox religion. As for that superfluous title that follows my new name, it was prematurely bestowed on me by the Legislative Commission that I convened to give Russia a more enlightened legal code (more on this later). I brought them together to study laws, and they were busy discussing my virtues instead. Imagine that! I still blush with embarrassment whenever I recall the incident, although I cannot say that I’m thoroughly displeased with it.
My real name is Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg. Yes --- I was a German import. Many Romanov royals, including my future husband Tsar Peter III, are actually Germans, specifically Prussians. This caused some awkwardness later when we went to war against Prussia in my reign --- but that was still far in the future. Papa was the ruler of the Anhalt-Zerbst principality. Some people would call him a minor aristocrat, but he was still a prince, nein? Mama was formerly a princess of the house of Holstein-Gottorp (yes, that’s where those lovely cows come from), whose late brother was affianced to the young Empress Elizabeth. He died of smallpox before the wedding, but Elizabeth never forgot him, and when it was time to look for a spouse for the Tsarevich, she naturally turned toward his family.
I was all of 14 years old when Elizabeth summoned Mama and me to Russia to marry Peter III. I was just a tiny slip of a girl then! The entirety of my trousseau consisted of three old dresses, a dozen chemises, a few pair of stockings and a few handkerchiefs. You see, Mama had spent all of the money that the empress sent for me on her own wardrobe. That’s Mama for you. Soon after my wedding, Elizabeth unceremoniously sent her back home for being a meddlesome mother-in-law and a clumsy Prussian secret agent. I never saw her again for the rest of my life.
That’s my husband. As you can see, he’s not much of a catch, but he’s still Peter the Great’s only surviving grandson, and that’s who I married --- the future Tsar of all the Russias. Peter was a sickly man-child who would rather play with his toy soldiers on our marital bed than with me. He was not allowed to play with them during the day, so they were hidden under the bed. As soon as we were both in bed, Madame Krause, our nanny/supervisor, would come in and brought out the toy soldiers. I couldn’t even move in the bed --- they were so many of them! Peter played with them until well after midnight, and every time someone knocked at the door to check on us, we had to scramble to hide the toys under the blanket. It was farcical: a newly married couple constantly on guard lest they be caught playing with toys. But the Empress Elizabeth was not amused when, years into our marriage, we had not produced the heir that she was expecting from us.
The fact is that my husband never touched me for the first nine years of our marriage. There was a lot of speculation as to the reason why. He openly told me that he was in love with another woman --- one of my ladies in waiting --- but it seemed that the relationship was similarly unconsummated. Others speculated that he was just simply too physically and mentally immature to father a child. Some of our learned doctors even diagnosed him with phimosis (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phimosis). Sergei Saltykov, the first of my twelve lovers (oh, how handsome he was!), convinced him to have an operation to correct the condition. You see, once Sergei was involved with me, he became anxious of his own safety. What if I got pregnant? But if Peter had been known to be able to consummate our marriage, who could say that Sergei was responsible? It turned out that my paramour was unnecessarily worried: the empress herself had instructed her minions to provide me with a more reliable male for the purposes of begetting an heir --- and Sergei was one of those considered! Anyway, I soon fell pregnant, resulting in Paul, the long-awaited Romanov heir.
Many people claimed to see a marked resemblance between my son and my husband, not just in looks, but also in their shared hobby of playing soldier. But whenever I wanted to needle my son, I always said that Sergei Saltykov was his father. We never got on well, Paul and I, perhaps because I rarely saw him during his childhood. The Empress Elizabeth whisked him away right after he was born, smothered him with frustrated maternal love and casted me aside. When my first grandson was born, I contemplated bypassing Paul altogether and make him Tsar Alexander I, but it was not to happen.
After the empress passed way, Peter briefly got to be Tsar, before he was forcibly deposed by the army, who made me empress instead. Peter idolized Frederick II, the Prussian king who was at war with us, and wanted to make peace with him. The patriotic Russian people hated this radical change in foreign policy and casted their lot with me instead. My then boyfriend, Grigory Orlov (that’s him below, by the way --- isn’t he dashing?), and his brother made sure that Peter was mysteriously dispatched soon after, and I got to gloriously rally the Russian people on horseback wearing the uniform of a colonel of the Preobrazhensky Regiment.
The reign of Catherine II officially begins!
I believed in the strong Russian motherland and added many territories, 520,000 km2 in all, to Peter the Great’s empire. When he was only able to gain a toehold in the south, I completed his conquest by defeating the ailing Turks (and gaining a warm water port, so crucial for Russia, in the process). The former Ottoman territories around the Black Sea, the Ukraine, and Crimea (which the love of my life, Grigory Potemkin, administered as my Viceroy) became Russian possessions. I also partitioned Poland, after putting my second lover, Stanislaus Poniatowski, on the throne of that country (poor sweetie, he actually didn’t want to be king, imagine that!).
On the home front, I tried my best to drag Russia into the modern age. Eighteen years of boredom and loneliness as an unhappily married woman gave me the opportunity to read many books. I imbibed the best ideas of the Aufklarung through the writings of M. Montesquieu (whose ideas I pillaged for the Nakaz, the new legal code that I envisioned for Russia), Mr. John Locke (what is more important than our children’s education, especially our girls?) and Signore Beccaria (torture is barbaric!). I corresponded with the best minds in France, including M. Voltaire (he called me “The Star of the North” --- such a sweet man!) and M. Diderot, whose work on his Encyclopedie I supported, and whose library I purchased --- on the condition that he got to keep it during his lifetime as I thought that it would be so cruel to separate a scholar from his books. M. Diderot actually visited me in St. Petersburg to express his gratitude, the poor sickly man. Unfortunately, many of these progressive ideas proved to be far too advanced for the country, and I had to reassert my absolute powers as the autocrat of all the Russias to prevent the total collapse of the social order, particularly during the savage Pugachev rebellion. That rough Cossack pretended to be my long dead husband --- what insolence!
The Benevolent Despot in action
Finally, I must say for myself that as a sovereign I wanted nothing other than what was good for my country, and that I had employed all the powers on my disposal to bring happiness, liberty and prosperity for my subjects. I am aware, however, that I have a number of detractors, who do not hesitate to concoct lies and outright fabrications to sully my good name. They alleged, for example, that the so-called “Potemkin Villages” deceived me during my visit to the Crimea in 1787. My darling Grigory (below --- mwah, mwah!) might have put some fresh paint on some of the settlements that we passed through, but he did not construct whole made-up villages for my benefit. And even if he did, do you think that they could have fooled me, and my whole entourage, which included courtiers, foreign diplomats and even Emperor Joseph II?
And as for that unspeakable, much more egregious fabrication--- let us just say that some men were troubled by the fact that there was an accomplished, powerful woman on the throne and would stop at nothing to slander her. Besides, I had had twelve handsome young men at my beck and call --- what would I need a horse for? ...more
What I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. Cleo was an insatiable vamp who seduced two of the most powerful men in Rome using her femiWhat I learned from this book (in no particular order):
1. Cleo was an insatiable vamp who seduced two of the most powerful men in Rome using her feminine wiles. Cleo might have used her wiles to seduce them, but both Julius and Mark were hardly paragons of chastity themselves: Julius specialized in seducing “aristocratic wives”, while Mark had numerous affairs with both single and married women.
2. Cleo looked like Elizabeth Taylor with too much mascara. We just don’t really know how she looked. The only surviving images of her are stylized coin portraits. Accounts that were written during or shortly after her lifetime didn’t say much about her looks, while later sources seems to have exaggerated her beauty to fit the vampy seductress mold. However, as a Macedonian Greek, she must have looked Caucasian, thus probably closer to the aforementioned Ms. Taylor than say, Queen Latifah.
3. Mark Antony looked like Richard Burton. Mark Antony was “broad-shouldered, bull-necked, ridiculously handsome, with a thick head of curls and aquiline features.” Who knows, he might have looked like a certain Welsh actor. They both surely drank a lot.
4. Cleo was a dumb floozy who had nothing going on for her except her seductive beauty. As a Ptolemaic princess, Cleo received a first rate education by ancient standards, which is to say that she was well versed in mathematics, astronomy/astrology, Greek philosophy and literature, and rhetoric. According to Plutarch, she spoke nine languages, in addition to Egyptian, which other Ptolemaic rulers didn’t even bother to learn. She managed to make herself the absolute ruler of Egypt, while preserving her country’s independence against Roman encroachment for almost two decades. She must have been a pretty smart lady to be able to accomplish such feats.
5. Cleo was an incestuous queen who murdered her siblings to gain the throne of Egypt. Essentially true. The Ptolemies followed the ancient Egyptian custom of royal intermarriages. She was married to her 13-year old brother (prior to fighting him for the throne and causing him to be killed by Caesar’s men), and then to another brother. She also had her sister Arsinoe, a rival claimant to the throne, murdered. But to be fair, murdering relatives had been a centuries old tradition in her family, and those siblings would not have hesitated to off her if they had the chance anyway.
6. Ptolemaic Alexandria was an astounding city of Cecil B. de Millean proportions. Alexandria’s famous lighthouse (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world), library and gymnasium dwarfed anything in other 1st century B.C. cities. Forty-foot tall sculptures of former Cleopatras greeted new arrivals in its harbor. At least one “colossal hawk-headed sphinx” towered over the palace wall. “Glossy thirty-foot long sphinxes” guarded the temples. The Canopic Way, Alexandria’s main drag, could accommodate eight chariots driving abreast. The cosmopolitan population was “hyperkinetic”. Rome was nothing but a staid, crude muddy hamlet in comparison.
7. Cleo corrupted the Romans with her Eastern luxuries and debaucheries. Orientalism nonsense that began as Octavian’s propaganda. It’s true that the Ptolemies threw the best parties in the ancient world (at one particular feast, the gold dinner vessels alone were said to have weighed 300 tons), but Cleo was also one of the richest ruler on earth, so she could well afforded them. Peacock-eating Romans could be perfectly extravagant and corrupt without any Eastern influences.
8. Cicero is the “greatest boaster alive”, a fawning hypocrite who “was perfectly capable of maligning a man one day and swearing eternal devotion to him the next.” Cleo didn't want to lend him her book (probably from the great library of Alexandria) and he spent the rest of his life maligning her.
9. Herod was an “entertaining” friend of Mark’s who later turned treacherous. He was also a fake Jew who probably didn’t deserve the throne of Judaea. Herod and Cleo fought over asphalt and balsam monopolies, and this resulted in Flavius Josephus maligning her.
10. Cleo killed herself by putting an asp to her bared breast. Painters and moviemakers love this scene. But it’s most probably not true. Cleo, a “woman who is known for her crisp decisions and meticulous planning” would surely have hesitated to entrust her fate to an unreliable wild animal. She had plenty of quicker, less painful options, such as the poisons that she was reported to have experimented with. It was also as well a little too convenient to be killed by the royal emblem of Egypt: the snake made more symbolic than practical sense. Octavian did display a model of Cleo with an asp in his triumph, and this was probably where the legend started.
“…We are left to square intelligible decisions with obscure accounts…”, Schiff wrote of the contradictory historical accounts about Antony and Cleopatra’s conduct at the battle of Actium. The same might be said of virtually all historical accounts about her, be they written by Plutarch, Suetonius, Dio, Josephus or others. If your agenda is to remove 2,000 years of sexist and/or orientalist distortions from Cleopatra’s portrait, which account are you going to accept as reliable and which are not? Are you going to accept those that support your thesis only and disregard those that do not, even though they are consistent with other accounts? After all, “no story in the ancient world is unvarnished”. In Cleopatra’s case, the varnish might have been so thick and persistent that it has become virtually impossible to remove.
Schiff’s book is an entertaining, occasionally snarky, impressively detailed reconstruction of what Cleopatra might have been like, but there were times when I wondered whether she was just as biased as her ancient predecessors. What really happened 2,000 years ago? Who knows?
This book is about that other papal bastard, not the infamous Lucrezia Borgia, of whom numerous biographies --- some more salacious than others --- haThis book is about that other papal bastard, not the infamous Lucrezia Borgia, of whom numerous biographies --- some more salacious than others --- have been written in the last five hundred years. Apparently, this book is also the only biography of Felice della Rovere that has ever seen print. It’s easy to discern why --- compared to Lucrezia, who (among other things) is accused by some of having an incestuous relationship with her father, Pope Alexander VI, Felice lived the relatively dull, virtuous life of a Renaissance clan matron. She was married twice, both arranged by her father for dynastic/political purposes, the second one to a scion of the powerful Orsini family, whose continuing street brawls with the Collonnas make the Capulets/Montagues feud looks like a schoolyard fight. In fact, their everlasting vendetta against each other drove the Papacy away from Rome for a while, and Julius II, Felice’s father, was desperate to engineer peace between the two clans. Marrying his bastard daughter into the troublesome, warlike family would ensure that they toed the papal line.
Unlike his predecessor (and arch-enemy) Alexander VI, who had numerous illegitimate children from several different mistresses, Julius was actually considered quite chaste --- the ‘Warrior Pope’ was more interested in making war than love. His having a daughter was nothing strange in an age when the preferred vice for a Catholic priest was not pedophilia but plain old-fashioned fornication with women, preferably aristocratic ones. The children that issued from such relationships became valuable pawns in their fathers’ political games and were mated with the sons of the powerful families that effectively ruled Italy. Their relatives, in turn, were given cardinals’ hats through blatant acts of nepotism (non-relatives were expected to engage in simony --- the Vatican did not believe in freebies for strangers).
Felice, despite having an unblemished reputation, was an adept of all the aristocratic arts of the day, which included everything that Macchiavelli advocated short of murder. Apparently, had she been born a man she would have been a formidable player, but being female, she had to be contented with being the dynastic brood mare of the Orsinis. When her mercenary husband died, she became the regent for her small sons and the de-facto ruler of the Orsini fiefdom. She spent the rest of her life managing the vast estates and outwitting the clan enemies, as well as envious, even murderous in-laws. She not only survived, but was able to hand over the family patrimony largely intact to her sons (who turned out to be totally undeserving, but that’s another story). To her credit, she was also piously charitable, ever ready to listen to sob stories and share her estate’s bounty with hard-luck tenant farmers and loyal retainers.
The story of her life, although not as piquant as Lucrezia’s, is an interesting glimpse into a fascinating period in Italian history; it was during her father’s reign that St. Peter was built and the Sistine Chapel painted by Michelangelo. Raphael preserved her likeness in frescoes commissioned by the pope. She survived the sack of Rome by paying an enormous ransom, fleeing the city in a disguise.
Not much is known about her private thoughts, save for a few hints gleaned from official correspondences, and it seems that the author had to form quite a number of conjectures about them. It’s hard to know which are hard facts and which are mere inferences as there is a dearth of footnotes about them. It makes her story reads more smoothly, but is it really an accurate portrait? ...more
Jane Austen's life might be one of the most elusive of major English writers; she left no diaries (although she almost certainly kept them at differenJane Austen's life might be one of the most elusive of major English writers; she left no diaries (although she almost certainly kept them at different points in her life) and many of her letters (no doubt including those which are most pertinent to biographers) were destroyed by her sister Cassandra or other heirs, either deliberately or through simple carelessness. Even the memoir written by her nephew is closer to hagiography then the truth, thus further obscuring her true character. Tomalin acknowledges this difficulty in writing about her in this brisk, page-turner of a biography, and wisely refrains from speculating too much beyond the few known facts about her. The result is that we read almost as much about her numerous relatives, neighbors and friends than the main subject herself. The story of their lives provides us with a panoramic view of Austen’s milieu, and the historical and social events which served as the background of her novels. That said, at times one feels that the profusion of details about these other lives threatens to overwhelm Jane’s story, which remains rather shadowy in contrast to the her siblings’. This lack of details is compensated by Tomalin’s empathetic and sensitive assessment of her character; the Jane Austen that appears before us is a tough, intelligent woman who could be both kind and defensively prickly, an astute observer of life who also longed to retreat into her imagination from time to time. She suffered from depressions, and did not always bear her lot as a poor spinster aunt with equanimity. Her literary success in her late thirties brought her joy and a modest income, things that were sorely needed in her life. An illness cut short her life at 41, and Tomalin poignantly tells us about her stoicism in the face of death. The book ends with a short section on Austen’s changing literary reputation through the centuries and some postscripts about the various characters that we have been following, some of them almost as interesting as Jane herself....more
Ever since I picked up the condensed, popular version of Needham's book years ago, I've been curious about the man who wrote it. Now Simon WinchesterEver since I picked up the condensed, popular version of Needham's book years ago, I've been curious about the man who wrote it. Now Simon Winchester provides us with the biography of the fascinating man behind the book, an eccentric Cambridge Don of prodigious intellect, an uncritical China lover, a playboy who spent most of his life in a menage a trois with his wife and mistress, as well as a comitted Catholic and socialist. The most interesting part of the book is the section describing Needham's adventures in war-torn China, when he undertook dangerous expeditions to Dunhuang and other remote places.
I wish that Winchester had spent some pages discussing criticism of Needham's works on Chinese scientific history, just to bring some balance to an otherwise glowing biography....more