Book Corner 2021.16

by Stacy Schiff

I would never have picked this up at all if not for book club. Biographies and histories that are all about great rulers are pretty boring to me. They have nothing to do with anything remotely touching life as I know it. What does it even mean to “amass an army”? As for political stuff – I can’t even stand to read it in the newspaper.

So the writing had to be positively dazzling, considering how interested I ended up being. Cleopatra is a household name to us today due to her sheer charisma. She wasn’t Elizabeth Taylor – she had a hooked nose and prominent chin; and incidentally she wasn’t African, either, but Greek. No beauty or stunning tactician – she ended up losing her kingdom – but no spoilers. I’m serious, I didn’t really know how things ended for her until I read this! I didn’t know much of anything on her at all, obviously.

Of greatest pleasure to read are the more mundane aspects of what life was like in Alexandria (Egypt’s then-capital) in the first few decades B.C. (her lifetime) (yet two more facts I did not know). It was quite a hotbed of feminism. Women enjoyed the right to make their own marriages, to inherit equally, to own property independently, to divorce and be supported after divorce; etc.

And Egypt was of such interest to the Romans because it was swimming in wealth. Golden grain, bananas, apricots, grapes, figs, mulberries, peaches, all were to be had in abundance. Goats were said to bear five kids at a time in Egypt rather than two. Pigeons to produce twelve broods rather than ten. The male skull was stronger near the Nile and rarely went bald. Whites came out whiter, brights came out brighter…

Alexandria itself seems to have been a of marvel – literally a wonder of the world. Its famous lighthouse, half a mile out on a man-made causeway, was the signature of its skyline. One can imagine the visitor first casting eyes upon it, like the skyline of old New York or London, and running out to buy a souvenir lampshade or tile with its likeness. The city was a “sumptuous suffusion of gleaming marble”. We think of ancient times as nasty, brutish, smelly, but I bet Alexandria had it hands down over NYC any day for quality of life. Certainly for quality of figs. (  )

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