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369 pages, Hardcover
First published November 1, 2010
From east to west the city measured nearly four miles, a wonderland of baths, theaters, 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 vermillion sun plunged precipitously into the harbor, Alexandria remained a swirl of reds and yellows, a swelling kaleidoscope of music, chaos, and color…
"Among the most famous women to have lived, Cleopatra VII ruled Egypt for twenty-two years. She lost a kingdom once, regained it, nearly lost it again, amassed an empire, lost it all. A goddess as a child, a queen at eighteen, a celebrity soon thereafter, she was an object of speculation and veneration, gossip and legend, even in her own time. At the height of her power she controlled virtually the entire eastern Mediterranean coast, the last great kingdom of any Egyptian ruler. For a fleeting moment she held the fate of the Western world in her hands. She had a child with a married man, three more with another. She died at thirty-nine, a generation before the birth of Christ. Catastrophe reliably cements a reputation, and Cleopatra's end was sudden and sensational. She has lodged herself in our imaginations ever since. Many people have spoken for her, including the greatest playwrights and poets; we have been putting words in her mouth for two thousand years."
"[...] in the absence of facts, myth rushes in, the kudzu of history."
"For well over two thousand years, a myth has been able to outrun and outlive a fact."
"Apollodorus came, Caesar saw, Cleopatra conquered, a sequence of events that does not necessarily add up in her favour."
"Her power has been made to derive from her sexuality, for obvious reason; as one of Caesar's murderers had noted, 'How much more attention people pay to their fears than to their memories!' It has always been preferable to attribute a woman's success to her beauty rather than to her brains, to reduce her to the sum of her sex life. Against a powerful enchantress there is no contest. Against a woman who ensnares a man in the coils of her serpentine intelligence - in her ropes of pearls - there should, at least be some kind of antidote. Cleopatra unsettles more as sage than as seductress; it is less threatening to believe her fatally attractive than fatally intelligent...She remains on the map for having seduced two of the greatest men of her time, while her crime was to have entered into those same "wily and suspicious" marital partnerships that every man in power enjoyed. She did so in reverse and in her own name; this made her a deviant, socially disruptive, an unnatural woman. To these she added a few other offenses. She made Rome feel uncouth, insecure, and poor, sufficient cause for anxiety without adding sexuality to the mix."
Appian has Antony exclusively in the company of Cleopatra, “to whom his sojourn in Alexandria was wholly devoted.” He sees in her a poor influence. Antony “was often disarmed by Cleopatra, subdued by her spells, and persuaded to drop from his hands great undertakings and necessary campaigns, only to roam about and play with her on the sea-shores.” More likely the opposite was true. And while Cleopatra focused exclusively and intently on her guest, she did so without sacrificing her competitive spirit, her sense of humor, or her agenda. Here are the two on an Alexandrian afternoon, relaxing on the river or on Lake Mareotis in a fishing boat, surrounded by attendants. Mark Antony is frustrated. He commands whole armies but on this occasion somehow cannot coax a single fish from the teeming, famously fertile Egyptian waters. He is all the more mortified as Cleopatra stands beside him. Romance or no, to prove so incompetent in her presence is a torture. Antony does what any self-respecting angler would: Secretly he orders his servants to dive into the water and fasten a series of precaught fish to his hook. One after another he reels these catches in, a little too triumphantly, a little too regularly; he is an impulsive man with something to prove, never particularly good at limits. Cleopatra rarely misses a trick and does not miss this one. She feigns admiration. Her lover is a most dexterous man! Later that afternoon she sings his praises to her friends, whom she invites to witness his prowess for themselves.
A great fleet accordingly heads out the following day. At its outset Cleopatra issues a few furtive orders of her own. Antony puts out his line, to instantaneous results. He senses a great weight and reels in his catch, to peals of laughter: From the Nile he extracts a salted, imported Black Sea herring. She is no scold, having instead mastered that formula for which every parent, coach, and chief executive searches: She has ambition, and no trouble encouraging the same in others. “Leave the fishing rod, General, to us,” Cleopatra admonishes, before the assembled company. “Your prey,” she reminds Antony, “are cities, kingdoms, and continents.”