[Crossposted from New Books in History] “Swords and Sandals” movies always amaze me. You know the ones I’m talking about: “Spartacus,” “Ben-Hur,” “Gladiator,” and the rest. These movies are so rich in detail–both narrative and physical–that you feel like you are “there.” But the fact is that we don’t and really can’t know much about “there” (wherever “there” happens to be in the Ancient World) because the sources are very, very thin. As Joyce Tyldesley points out in her terrific Cleopatra: Last Queen of Egypt (Basic Books, 2008), Cleopatra is a mystery and necessarily so. We don’t know who her mother was, when she was born, what she looked like, whom she married, and a host of other details about her life. That means, of course, that every dramatist from Shakespeare on has been, well, making stuff up about Cleopatra. Actually, many of the “primary sources” about her are full of invention because they were written long after the events they describe by Roman authors who just didn’t like her very much. They did like a good story, so they embellished, as any good storyteller will. Joyce is an excellent storyteller herself, but she takes no poetic license. She tells us just what can be known–and trust me, that’s more than enough to hold our attention! This book is a great read for anyone interested in learning about the real world of Ptolemaic Egypt.
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