30 October 2010

Day 217: Cleopatra

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff.  ISBN: 9780316001922 (ARC - releases Nov. 1, 2010).

I'm not much of an armchair traveler, but I think this is a novel for those of you who are.  If I had to armchair travel anywhere, it would definitely be somewhere in ancient history.  The modern day version isn't really all that much fun as it just makes me wish I had the money to travel (since I have the time now) and while the futuristic version is appealing, it's all based on guesswork and fantasy.  Armchair traveling to ancient Rome on the other hand, is at least based on the ruins left over from the Roman Empire.  There is some concrete fact or influence in the fictions and non-fictions created about the ancient and even not-so-ancient world.

Schiff does an excellent job of painting a picture of both Ancient Rome and Egypt.  Since I don't know where her footnotes/endnotes have actually been placed, she starts a lot of sentences with "Cleopatra knew" and "Cleopatra wore" and "We don't know what Cleopatra looked like, but...."  In this way we are given an image of Cleopatra's life that is perhaps more vivid than previous caricatures, but I'm not sure it's any more accurate than what we already have.  This is a time when vast amounts of information were destroyed and/or stolen on a regular basis.  Cleopatra's history does not survive through her own hand or the hand of her people, but through Rome's.  Therefore, as interesting as her life was, as far as I know the bulk of it is still rumor and intrigue.

So to be able to actually see her court and see the pyramids would be incredible.  To observe the rise and fall of the Nile and the erection of new monuments would be amazing beyond words.  Since I am not capable of this through the unfortunate combination of time and space I have to settle for a historian's accounting of what it might have been like to witness these things.  Fiction provides slightly richer details usually, but then I get sidetracked trying to figure out how much of the narrative is accurate.

If I could time travel to any place in ancient history, I think Egypt would be pretty high on the list given its advanced (for the time) medical technologies, culture, and libraries.  Japan and China would also be somewhere near the top.  Where do you like to travel to from the comfort of your own home?

My review can be found on Goodreads.

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