Sunday, January 10, 2010

Cleopatra: the Story of a Queen by Emil Ludwig

It beggars the imagination to know that four of the most epochal figures of the ancient world -- can there be a lot of epochal figures even in one part of an epoch? -- all were exact contemporaries, met each other, and that three of the four enjoyed the most intimate alliances, and had children. They were Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Cleopatra, and the Octavian who later became the emperor Augustus. Add a fifth to the Important mix, for there was also Cicero, and we should not forget Brutus and Cassius, assassins though they were, nor Octavian's general, Agrippa, nor the women besides Cleopatra: Fulvia and Octavia, Antony's two first wives, and then Octavian's second wife Livia, who for public television viewers in the last generation may have become the most recognizable of them all.

In 1937 -- just about the time Robert Graves was writing I, Claudius -- Emil Ludwig wrote Cleopatra: Geschichte einer Konigin, which was then translated and published in New York in 1939. His sources, as he writes in his introduction, were for the most part "my master" Plutarch, as well as the few other ancient historians whose scanty records of Cleopatra survive, men unknown now except I suppose to extreme specialists, -- men like Appian and Dio Cassius.

Emil Ludwig is anxious, in that same introduction, to explain why this novel is so unlike his others, he who has been "studying the human heart these thirty years." It contains no dialogue, for example, because none of the great Queen's talk is preserved, and he did not want to make things up entirely; from the mouths or pen of his four main characters, not an authentic word exists except a few lines from a letter of Antony's, noted by an ancient historian in an archive and paraphrased a century after the events. Ludwig happily includes this in his book. ("Are you upset that I sleep with the Queen?" Antony asked Octavian. "She is my wife ....")

This handicap of a lack of dialogue, stemming from those familiarly scanty sources which apparently gave Ludwig not much more information to work with, circa 1930, than Shakespeare had to work with circa 1630, doesn't make for an insurmountable problem if you don't mind reading a novel without the freshness and movement of dialogue -- a novel that takes place almost entirely in the characters' heads. Given his unwillingness to invent scenes around dialogue, there is not much for the author to do, and he admits this, but serve as a sort of psychological companion to the Queen, describing what she likely thought and saw, and whom she loved and hated, during her brief and spectacular career. What is noteworthy, if you compare the gist of his romance to a proper biography like that by Michael Grant (Cleopatra, 1972) is how much he gets essentially right. Perhaps this, again, reflects the uniform paucity of sources, and the fact that ancient historians operated much like modern novelists. They were more interested in their subjects' moral dilemmas, in their tragedy or bravery, than in mucking around with evidence or proving exactly how many men died in a battle. What he got right above all were two things, Cleopatra's politics -- "never against Rome," always Rome's ally, ancient Egypt having little other choice against the superpower -- and her most important ambition, which was to maintain a Greek-speaking cultural counterweight to Roman power in the eastern Mediterranean. She was three hundred years ahead of her time, Michael Grant thinks, for when Rome tottered in the fourth century, its rulers did move east, to establish a rejuvenated Empire for a thousand years in Greek-speaking Byzantium.

The focus of the psychological action, the necessary novelistic "conflict" (such as it is), seems to lie between Cleopatra and Octavian, and it's a simple, visceral conflict. These two people are actually not thrown much together in the story -- Octavian is the one supreme Roman whom Cleopatra never enchants, and in the book we understand it's because he was cold and unworthy of her -- but if it's true that Cleopatra's first child, her son Caesarion, was in fact the son of Julius Caesar, then after Caesar's murder this half-Egyptian boy instantly stood in the way of the official, Roman heir, Octavian. Octavian, after all, was only a great-nephew. And the grandson of a moneylender, as Ludwig gleefully points out more than once. The latter half of the novel is overshadowed by Cleopatra's ghastly problem, namely grooming her son for a supreme monarchy but keeping him, the prey, out of the predator Octavian's claws.

The only other possible source of dramatic conflict in the story of the Queen's life has to do with that plebeian side to Rome, with the clash of personalities or more accurately, the clash of two entirely different civilizations' approach to the world and to life. (Of course Rome is convulsed by civil war at this time, which is why so many great people are so busy with gigantic action, but this is a novel about a woman, and Ludwig is a historian of the human heart.) We see Ludwig illustrate something of this in comparing Cleopatra to her rivals for the great men's affections, Caesar's other mistresses and Antony's other wives, not least of whom was his second wife Octavia, Octavian's sister. Roman women are portrayed as certainly formidable and beautiful in their way, but distinctly un-royal, un goddess-like. They are married to the grandsons of moneylenders and know nothing of what it is to be glorious, silver-robed Isis come to life; Ludwig once compares Cleopatra to a force of nature, an "artist in love," as opposed to the "pious" Octavia who conforms her behavior to the expectations of her noble and yet proudly republican neighbors. He says, noting the fact that the two women did not meet during the time when they both were married to Antony, even as they both sent him ships and supplies and money for his wars, from their two different homes in the Mediterranean:

"But the Roman matron was too much the great lady, too much a part of her family, to desire a [face to face] contest. Such things could be risked by a queen who was also an Amazon and an artist in love, since what she did was right because she did it; but not by a patriotic citizeness whose dignity was determined by the judgment of her fellow citizens."

And Octavia covered her eyes piously when a rhinoceros spitted a criminal in the arena. Cleopatra, "cynically innocent," laughed -- and was the only force of nature capable of holding her own with Caesar. Is the theme of the novel, possibly, something to do with a man's ultimate fantasy of the perfect, lawless, overripe woman? There are tiny hints that somehow, Cleopatra knew secrets characteristic of the ancient Orient, so that in her early twenties she could fascinate and satiate an "ageing" and experienced conqueror, a force of nature himself. The laughing at spitted criminals, or the relishing having younger brothers and sisters executed, or the testing snake venom on slaves, merely added an excusable whiff of piquancy to the Queen's more important splendors ....

The historian Grant agrees with the novelist Ludwig that in her own day, only Cleopatra was simply this, "the Queen." There was no need even to specify what country she ruled. The details of her romance may be found in Grant, or in Ludwig, or in Plutarch -- she had herself unrolled from a smuggled carpet at her first meeting with the well guarded Caesar, she sailed into Tarsus as Aphrodite, in a golden ship exuding perfumes and song, at her first meeting with Antony -- but what beggars our modern imaginations is not only the fact of her permanently bewitching these great men, but the very nature of the world she lived in. Two foundations seem to have supported the whole structure of pagan antiquity: Homer and Alexander. Homer had laid down in his poetry what heroes and gods did in life; Alexander had shown in his life how a hero, and king, could translate those emulations beyond what anyone had ever known as empire. Ludwig describes Caesar assassinated on the eve of carrying out his "Alexander-dream," the conquest of Persia which would make him as great as his model. For her part Cleopatra, a Ptolemy, united Egypt and Greece and Alexander's legacy in herself. It would have been an already stupendous combination even in a personally charmless woman. The Queen was not, never that. To have united with Caesar as well, and to have founded a dynasty with him, would have meant the gathering of almost unfathomable power, and we cannot forget Egypt's wealth, too, and its status as the importer of food into Rome. If Caesar and Cleopatra had had a son, in this world where the gods were understood to walk among men and the expectation and acceptance of divine and royal births seems to have served as a kind of mortar between the foundation stones, that son might, as comically extravagant as it sounds, "have ruled the world."

But they did have a son, it seems, and after the Queen and Antony (who had his own Alexander dream, funded with the Queen's money) and Caesar were all dead, Octavian made sure to annex Egypt and, in Ludwig's telling, have the seventeen-year-old Caesarion strangled. The Queen loses this novelistic conflict, and the predator Octavian wins.

Image from the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow

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