What Did I Learn From Napoleon 2100 Years Ago
In a conversation with Vanessa one sunset in late summer we were discussing how there had been no women in power in western history until recently. The exception to this that came to mind was Cleopatra. I didn't know much about her, beyond whatever tropes I'd seen in cartoons as a kid and a university student, but I was suddenly intrigued. Who was Cleopatra? And how come she got to have a fanny and be in charge of Egypt? To answer this specific question I employed Joyce Tyldesley's book Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt, which was excellent. I placed a hold at the library and the library service shipped it to Adelaide for me to pick up at my convenience which was also super handy. That has nothing to do with Cleopatra or Napoleon but I just wanted to shout that out.
Writing a biography on a historical figure from classical antiquity is a bit of a trip. It's like being a private detective trying to solve a murder but all the suspects and witnesses are also dead and the police and the detectives are also dead. The crime scene has been defaced several times and then a hundred years ago was dismantled to be used as raw materials for a sugarcane factory. Is that torn piece of parchment used to wrap a mummy in a tomb 50 years after Cleopatra died that has her name on it evidence she was ruling and signing decrees? Maybe it is, maybe it was one of the other six Cleopatras. Maybe it was one of six million mummified Ibises.
Cleopatra's story was very interesting. Almost definitely because the majority of its primary sources were Roman writers who had vested interests in using her for propaganda and entertainment. I can only imagine what contemporary history would be rewritten as if all that the historians of the year 4023 have is access to a smattering of archived Tik Toks. Most of the artwork and records of Egypt were destroyed or lost between 33 BC and the invention of the paperback.
There was one piece of evidence of Cleopatra's reign that nearly survived to modern times. A temple depicted Cleopatra and her family on a stone wall. The stone wall was knocked down in the 19th century, but that was after Napoleon Bonaparte's campaign in Egypt during which a member of his Armée took down a drawing that survived to this day. There's something phenomenal about the idea of Napoleon and Cleopatra having this kind of tenuous connection over so much time.
Anyway, the answer to the question to how Cleopatra VII got to rule Egypt for quite a long time was due to 1) Her father (the king) dying young 2) Her brothers being too young to rule and then (cough) dying before they could be old enough 3) Cleopatra having a son that was too young to rule 4) Probably being a descendant of Alexander the Great 5) Being on very good terms with two of the most powerful Romans of the time.
This was not exactly an inspirational tale, but it was more inspiring than the history of Ptolemy VIII.
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The woman with the fake tan stepped into my office, sat across from my desk and lit a cigarette.
At least, she would, sometime in the next 20 minutes. Smelling the future has advantages, but precision isn’t one of them.