Cleopatra was a descendant not of pharaohs but of the Macedonian rulers who succeeded after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C.E. The dynasty founded by Ptolemy, Alexander's crafty and seasoned general, shrewdly grafted Greek sensibilities to the ancient religions of the land it occupies. Eventually the Ptolemies followed Alexander's example and pronounced themselves gods, intermarrying to ensure the purity of their bloodline. What was ensured, of course, was decline. Culture and diversity thrived under the Ptolemies, but Egypt was an unruly kingdom, a complex and volatile chemistry of cultures. And the Ptolemies ran to fat. Egypt's decay coincided with the rise of Rome, and it is in the contest between East and West that Cleopatra's story unfolds. As Foss shows, Cleopatra played her hand in the only manner she could. Determined that her kingdom would survive, she was prepared to do whatever it took to retain power and very nearly achieved dominance of the whole of the eastern Mediterranean world. When finally she surrendered her ambitions, it was with the larger-than-life style that inspired ancient chroniclers, and Shakespeare and Hollywood alike.
Is there any historical basis to the myriad myths and legends surrounding the eternally fascinating Queen of the Nile? Foss (People of the First Crusade) believes there is, and his insightful biography re-creates not only her life, but also offers a panorama of ancient Egyptian history from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C. to 30 B.C., when Cleopatra died. Foss's absorbing description of Egyptian politics, culture and religion in the two centuries of Ptolemaic rule preceding Cleopatra's birth is tightly packed with information, notable for its clarity and brevity. From the time she became queen at the age of 18, Cleopatra was a strong leader, ruthless with her enemies, including members of her own family, but careful to identify herself with the spirit of ordinary Egyptians. But Egypt was an unruly kingdom on the decline, and just as Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy XIII were about to actually set to, the Roman legions marched in, setting the stage for Cleopatra's ascendancy and her romance with Julius Caesar. Cleopatra had good reason to suspect Rome's intentions toward her country, but had little option save to form an alliance. She stayed with Caesar until his murder in 44 B.C., and when the ensuing power struggle awarded Egypt to Marc Antony, historyand Cleopatrarepeated herself. While the art and myth of Cleopatra's life are extensive, the historical record is frustratingly limited. Still, Foss makes vivid use of what's available and, thankfully, without trying to shoehorn history into a political agenda. Illustrations. (Apr.)