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Thursday, January 23, 2014

“Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt”, by Joyce A. Tyldesley

320 pages, Basic Books, ISBN-13: 978-0465009404

In our odd culture of changing values where truth is often misrepresented, it is no surprise that the commonly-accepted story of Cleopatra is so wrong. Based upon Hollywood’s depiction of Roman historical drama, how could it possibly be otherwise? Thankfully, in Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt, Joyce Tyldesley combines her scholarly precision with a warmth and wit to tell the true tale of a really remarkable woman. Calculating and charming, sagacious and seductive, intellectual and ingenious, a mother and a monarch – all of these describe the fascinating character of a queen who was ahead of her time. Dispelling the myths, mischaracterizations and motives attributed by Roman historians who were hostile to her influence on their home-grown heroes, Dr. Tyldesley’s Cleopatra emerges as a more complete and admirable stateswoman who seems more modern than ancient. In this case, truth is not stranger than fiction, it is simply better.

Unfortunately, Ms. Tyldesley has decided to write a book that is replete with digressions. She flies through Cleopatra's early life but then takes two chapters discussing the layout of Alexandria and how Cleopatra actually looked between the birth of Caesarian and the death of Caesar. There was a point where I despaired of finishing the discussion of diadems and triple uraei and getting back to the compelling story of the ultimate Roman conquest of Egypt.

This book is complimentary towards Cleopatra, but is not a hagiography. Ms. Tyldesley clearly is sympathetic towards her subject, but is clear that Cleopatra was, first and foremost, an ambitious leader in a cruel age. Her affairs with Caesar and Antony are presented as events that served mutual political agendas and not (as they so often appear in cinema) as the product of lust. Since there is no way to ever know the true nature of the relationships, Ms. Tyldesley's theory is as valid as any other, but those looking for the romance of the age will be disappointed.

The flaws of the book are, at the end of the day, relatively minor. The strengths – Ms. Tyldesley's prose, her setting of the entire episode into the proper historical context, and her willingness to look beyond the sordid Elizabeth Taylor version of history – are significant. This is likely not a book for academics or romantics, but if the general reader can work through the digressions they will find a book worth reading.

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