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Power, Love, and Politics in the Ancient World

by Diana Preston

Pub Date: April 1st, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-8027-1738-2
Publisher: Walker

Historian Preston (Before the Fallout: From Marie Curie to Hiroshima, 2005, etc.) casts Cleopatra as the fulcrum of power in the one of the world’s first power couples.

Before discussing the pivotal first encounter between young Cleopatra and the newly victorious Julius Caesar in Alexandria in 48 BCE, the author wades through a dense bloody history involving the Ptolemy dynasty of Egypt and the civil wars in Rome. Once the highly educated, politically astute, alluring Egyptian queen takes center stage, she commands complete attention. Preston describes her at length, even enlisting a specialist in “archaeosteology” to reconstruct her face. The author notes that Cleopatra was “probably not conventionally beautiful”; her appeal lay in her artfulness, charm, daring and shrewdness, qualities that warlike Caesar and later Antony greatly admired, and rarely saw in women. While Caesar served as her early protector, giving her a “divine heir” in the son Caesarion, Antony helped consolidate the power she needed to stabilize her reign. The two played at being godlike—Cleopatra was Isis incarnate, Antony the “new Dionysus”—and both were sensualists and fond of pomp and spectacle. Their passion for each other was driven by their shared “hunger for life,” Preston asserts. Cleopatra skillfully coaxed from Antony territory concessions that nearly restored the empire of the early Ptolemies, and she proved a valuable political ally in the face of threats by Parthia and Octavian. Although Antony was criticized for losing his self-control and dignity by remaining with Cleopatra, Preston emphasizes how each fulfilled the other’s “wider strategy.” Had they prevailed, they might have co-ruled a vast empire. Preston closes with an analysis of how later mythmaking was particularly unkind to Cleopatra.

Preston ably conveys her admiration for the Egyptian queen.