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Review: Cleopatra. The Queen Who Challenged Rome and Conquered Eternity

Alberto Angela

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Cleopatra. The Queen Who Challenged Rome and Conquered Eternity

The book “Cleopatra. The Queen Who Challenged Rome and Conquered Eternity” by Alberto Angel is a position, as the name suggests, about the queen of Egypt – Cleopatra VII, whose life and relationship with Julius Caesar and then Mark Antony have forever been inscribed on the pages of history.

Alberto Angela is an Italian journalist, palaeontologist, writer and, above all, passionate about the history of ancient Rome. He has already published several books about the Roman state, among which “Pompeii. Three Last Days”, “One Day in Ancient Rome” and “Empire. A Journey through the Roman Empire” have already been translated into Polish. All the author’s books are characterized by the fact that they are a form of a story and a guide to ancient locations and events. The writer tells the world from the perspective of not only the upper class but also the poor.

Alberto Angela decided to show history through a story that, in his opinion, appeals to readers much more and better presents the substantive value and past events. The author tries to search for the emotions that tormented the characters and reconstruct the probable course of events. For some, Alberto Angela’s writing style may be an oversimplification and prove unprofessionalism, for others it guarantees an interesting journey into a mysterious and ancient world. I was personally captivated by all the author’s works and with curiosity, I reached for the next title.

The life of Cleopatra, the last queen of Egypt, who ends the rule of the Macedonian Ptolemaic dynasty, has fascinated both researchers and writers for centuries. Despite numerous ancient materials, the events of Cleopatra’s life are not always obvious, due to gaps in the accounts or mutually exclusive information of ancient writers; for example, to this day it is not certain whether the cause of the queen’s death was snake venom or poison of plant origin. Scientists conduct digressions on selected issues, and the author – based on the support of a wide range of scientists – has tried to create the most credible description of the queen’s life. The great advantage of the book is that it abounds in numerous quotes from ancient historians: Cassius Dion, Plutarch, Suetonius, Pliny the Elder, Nicholas of Damascus and others, which are additionally marked with a footnote and exact location in the work. Quotes perfectly complement the content and reflect the events. Alberto Angela also refutes myths – for example, it is commonly believed that Cleopatra got to Caesar in Alexandria while wrapped in a carpet. As it turns out, however, it is a translation error and, according to ancient records, it was brought there in a sack.

The author does not focus only on the description of Cleopatra’s biography, but reaches much wider, presenting a larger context of events in Egypt and Rome and describing historical figures. Thanks to this, even people who do not know much about ancient history will fully find themselves.

The story of Cleopatra does not normally begin with her birth. The author assumed that it would be best to start the story by showing Rome under the dictatorial rule of Julius Caesar and describing the events related to his murder during the Ides of March – March 15, 44 BCE. We learn that Caesar’s plot was predicted by bad omens, and the information about the assassination was personally given to Caesar by Artemidorus, a philosopher and friend of the dictator. Unfortunately for himself, Caesar hid the scroll among other documents he planned to read later.

Cleopatra, as the monarch of a foreign country and not being officially invited by the Roman Senate, had no right to enter through the sacred borders of Rome – the pomerium. As such, she stayed in Trastevere, on the west side of the river, where Caesar’s beautiful palace and gardens were located. The news of Caesar’s murder forces her to leave the hostile city and return to Alexandria. Her grand plans to unite the Roman and Egyptian states through her relationship with Caesar are put in jeopardy.

In the book we meet Gaius Octavian, a new competitor for power in Rome and adopted son of Caesar; Mark Antony, leader of the “Caesarians” and Caesar’s trusted general; Brutus and Cassius, representatives of the “optimates”, who plotted Caesar’s life. Cleopatra eagerly awaits the outcome of a new civil war that is set to determine her next ambitious political moves. Thanks to his charm, wealth and intelligence, he wins Antony’s heart, as well as Caesar before him. The author is of the opinion that the feeling that united the young woman, first with Caesar, and then with Antonius, was sincere and love cannot be ruled out.

I have noticed only one factual error – the author, describing Octavian’s marriage to Livia, claims that her ex-husband Tiberius Claudius Nero took part in the battle of Philippi; As far as I know, Livia’s father took part in the battle in which he died.

Moving on to the publication of the book – hardcover, good print quality, numerous graphics and illustrations as well as sketches of the map of Rome and Alexandria are proof that Czytelnik Publishing House has put a lot of effort into publishing and the book is of very good quality. Of the errors, I only noticed a spelling error in the “Featured” section.

Overall, the book is highly recommended. Both the content and the quality of the release are top-notch. The author has made sure that the reader receives a solid dose of knowledge in an accessible setting. The extensive bibliography proves that Alberto Angela relied on numerous materials, and the content and conclusions were consulted with researchers of the ancient world. I believe that the book will meet again with great interest in the Polish market, and in my opinion it is deservedly so.

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