Life of Cleopatra is still one of the most captivating subjects in a world’s history. The figure of the majestic Egyptian queen was always covered with legends and mystery. Just this mystery made ordinary people create new stories connected with her life and reign, artists and writers – worship her in numeral art masterpieces, and historians – investigate thoroughly all existing documents in order to have the real notion about her as a historical character.
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The book under consideration is Cleopatra by Michael Grant (New York: Simon and Schuster,1972). This is not another one attempt by some author to achieve world fame using a remarkable person in his writing. This book is a new version of Cleopatra’s history. It is a new look on her person as an important historical figure, her role in the history of Egypt, her relationships with Rome.
In the introduction to Cleopatra the author designates the main thesis of his work. He points out that the traditional version of Cleopatra’s life was very easily adopted by lots of historians. As the result, in modern society the name Cleopatra is, first of all, associated with magical beauty and love relationships with two noble Romans: Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. At the same time the real services of Cleopatra to her country are simply forgotten or are not taken into account. They seem to be faded in comparison with bright legends existing around her name.
In another his book Greek and Roman Historians: Information and Misinformation, Grant emphasizes that “the one thing that is certain about history is that what we are told is by no means always true” (90). This point of view the author explains by huge amount of inadequate information, fabrication, facts distortion and pure lie. He also points out that some information fabrications are made purposely to distort the political and social picture of a country in a determined period of time.
Michael Grant says “it is evident that we do not ever obtain the whole truth about what is happening today, and in consequence it is equally or even more evident that we do not, cannot, glean the whole truth about things that have happened in the past” (90).
The author develops his argue by emphasizing that goals of the Egyptian queen were not limited only by dynastic ambitions. She dreamed a huge territory of Empire to be reined not only by Romans how it was till those times.
Cleopatra envisaged that this whole vast territory, together with the external regions dependent upon it, should not longer be under the sole, exclusive domination of Italians, as it had been hitherto. Instead it should be a partnership, in which the Greek and Hellenized orientals that inhabited the regions east of the Adriatic were to be associates of the Romans rather then merely their subjects, enjoying their status almost equal to theirs (Engle, 219).
This, of course, led to misunderstanding among historians as for Cleopatra’s biography. Thus, Michael Grant tries to resolve this problem in his book by separating true facts of the queen’s life from pure invention.
Successful Vice-chancellor and President of the Queen’s University in Belfast, Michael Grant, as a real historian, tells a story of Cleopatra chronologically, carefully examining all historical documents and fiction. About the importance of ancient history authors he says the following:
There is, we are told, a widespread feeling that the ancient authors are somehow privileged, exempt from the normal canons of evaluation. But they ought not to be when it is a question of arriving at the truth, not the “higher truth” but the truth of how things actually happened (95).
The book consists of several parts such as Cleopatra’s life up to 21 year, Cleopatra and Caesar, Cleopatra and Mark Antony, Cleopatra against Rome. Numeral chapters of the book describe in detail all events and people living at those times. Discussing the most disputable questions and trying to throw daylight upon true facts of Cleopatra’s story, the author draws his evidences from the scientific works of ancient Roman historians, modern historians and literature artworks as well.
In conclusion to the book introduction Michael Grant points out that all those sources give a lot for understanding of this problem. But one should still recognize that there is a lot of points not studied and incomprehensible in this theme nowadays. The nature of sources allows not only to resolve some questions but puts new ones. The author hopes that future researches will be able to cast light on Cleopatra’s role in history which was, of course, of the great importance.
To evaluate the author’s success in his subjects, I should say that his argues are very convincing. To prove this point of view, we should consider one material, presenting new vision of Cleopatra’s origin.
Michael Grant also believes that, although Cleopatra lived and ruled in Egypt, she did no possess “a drop of Egyptian blood in her veins.” Grant also brings up the issue of the identity of Cleopatra’s mother, concluding that she must have been Cleopatra V Tryphaena – the first wife of Cleopatra’s father. It is unlikely Cleopatra was an illegitimate child because the negative Roman propaganda against her never mentioned it. Although Grant adamantly insists that Cleopatra had no “Egyptian blood,” he does suggest that she was racially mixed and quite “dark,” a fact he attributes to her Macedonian forebears who “were of very mixed blood”. He concludes, significantly, that, although the “racial ingredients” of Cleopatra’s Macedonian identity might have been mixed, culturally she was entirely Greek (Shohat, 170).
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This approach to the history facts investigation made me believe in new hypothesis proposed by Michael Grant. Moreover, I consider this book to be valuable and useful not only for historians and professors but for general readership as well. Writing about Egypt, Rome and Greece, the author provides a huge amount of personal and background details fueling readers’ curiosity. Popular history described in Grant’s works has scholarly foundations. His books open the world in a new way, they orient without overpowering. At the same time they instigate curiosity and indicate other useful resources.
The modern reconstruction captures very accurately the reality of ancient times and characters.
The marked tendency of twentieth-century historians to break into Shakespearean tragic dialogue when describing the queen’s death demonstrates the pervasiveness of the particular ancient fiction, from Plutarch in a direct line of descent through his translators Amyot and North, to Shakespeare and the first 1930s edition of The Cambridge Ancient History. Similarly, when Michael Grant, at the outset of his own biography of the queen, invites his readers into the “story of a woman who became utterly involved, in her public and private life alike, with two men,” he borrows his narrative strategy from the ancient historian Cassius Dio who centers Cleopatra’s reign around her captivation of two Roman men, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, and her destruction by a third, Octavian (Wyke, 197-198).
The main motives and agendas of the author provided by this book, are to examine thoroughly all possible ancient historian resources, evaluate their importance in world history heritage and separate pearls of truth from fiction in order to present the veritable portrait of a famous Egyptian queen. “The main reason, why we should read the ancient historians, says Grant, is not because they were great historians (which, by modern standards, they could not expected to be) but because they were literary artists” (97). Thus, he does not consider their works to be authentically true, though some valuable historical facts still can be found there. The task of Michael Grant was to pick up those pearls of truth from the fancy garbage. As the practice shows, he succeeded in doing this hard task and his work may be evaluated with the highest mark.
The estimation of Michael Grant’s Cleopatra by the scholarly community was diverse. Some people considered it to be very specific research, because this book depicted a rather new vision of Cleopatra’s life version. This was a daring attempt to present one’s own understanding of ancient history events.
From the other hand, this book was highly estimated for its vivid narration and captivating plot. Though the volume of a book is not big, the information presented in it, is rather extensional. The book is also valuable because it provides answers on the most disputable questions. However, there are some points to be studied in more detail.
In conclusion I would like to say that Michael Grant did not aim to put a bullet point in Cleopatra’s history. His goal was to help readers know more true information and push them to other researches. Because, as the author fairly noted, “historiography in antiquity dealt with important and noteworthy events, or at any rate those regarded as such, according to principles, interests, aims and tastes of great diversity” (5).
Engle, Lars. Shakespearean Pragmatism: Market of His Time. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
Grant, Michael. Greek and Roman Historians: Information and Misinformation. New York: Routledge, 1995.
Shohat, Ella. Taboo Memories, Diasporic Voices. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006.
Wyke, Maria. The Roman Mistress: Ancient and Modern Representations. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.