Monday, March 22, 2010

Book Review: Biography of Cleopatra (Roger Gathman)

Anachronism is the despair of the historian. Though it is easy to correct the misdating of objects and events, it is a lot harder to root out the intuitively appealing idea that the people in the past were somehow "aiming" at the people in the present us. George Bernard Shaw, in his notes to his play "Caesar and Cleopatra," wrote, "The more ignorant men are, the more convinced are they that their little parish and their little chapel is an apex which civilization and philosophy have painfully struggled up the pyramid of time from a desert of savagery."

Yet Shaw's play is a case in point. His Cleopatra is more like some Edwardian teenager than the plurilingual incarnation of the goddess Isis, which Cleopatra was firmly convinced she was. The hardest task for artists or historians is to efface the thumbprint of their own time when they handle times past.

Two recent biographers of legendary ancient monarchs Cleopatra and Mithradates have found different solutions to the anachronism problem. Duane Roller has sought to build a portrait of Cleopatra "based solely on information from the ancient world," and Adrienne Mayor, writing about Mithradates, seeks to "apply 'the scientific use of the imagination' to fill in the spaces between surviving accounts and contextual facts." Both authors present us, then, with new accounts of the most famous monarchs to make a last stand against the Roman takeover of the eastern Mediterranean.

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