Books

08.08.13

Chasing Cleopatra: Peter Stothard Writes About the Queen

After seven tries, Peter Stothard, the editor of the Times Literary Supplement, has finally written the book on Cleopatra that he always wanted to. Here he recounts how the sole surviving example of her signature helped inspire him to write.

On New Year’s Eve 2010, three weeks before the beginning of the Arab Spring, I was in Alexandria to try for the eighth time to complete a book about Cleopatra. I was certain it was the eighth time. Sometimes it seemed the only certainty. In Room 114 of the Metropole Hotel, Place Saad Zaghloul, there was written evidence of all the other seven attempts, long pages and short scraps, bleached and yellowed, each piece patch-working into the bedcover as though they had always been here. I had unpacked them as carefully as though they were ancient history itself, more carefully than I had packed them in London the previous day.

This bed soon became crowded. The papers did not form easy categories or files. Each lay flat and alone. The earliest words were from 50 years before, the first efforts of an English schoolboy; the latest from the 1980s from a classicist on his way to becoming a newspaper editor. Between these beginnings and ends, which showed uneven patterns of progress, there were pages written in Oxford between 1969 and 1971 and at an oil company desk in London in 1976 and in the Calthorpe Arms, a crepuscular pub beside what once were the offices of The Times.

It was not a clear pattern. But I could already see debts that had to be paid, to V, an Essex schoolgirl when her contribution began, to a troubled boy called Frog, to two types of Oxford mermaid, to a gray mistress of the oil industry, to Margaret Thatcher, and to Her Majesty the Queen, as museum-keeper as well as monarch.

There were others to thank too, an athletic schoolmaster, a not-at-all athletic Oxford authority on ancient plagues, a long-distance swimmer, a hero of the Anzio landings against Hitler’s Italy, a cancer-stricken newspaper editor, and my oldest friend who also died of cancer, just before this journey, and without whose dying memories it would not be happening as it is. On New Year’s Eve, the eve of a new decade, the eve of the year in which I would be 60 years old, every remnant of my past Cleopatras was a different patch, in a fraying quilt, on a bed, beside an iron balcony, before a view over the bay where her palaces, ships, and libraries used to be.

Most of my surviving words were handwritten. Only a few of the later parts were typed. Many other pages had been lost entirely, left in desk drawers of abandoned jobs and buildings. But that hardly mattered. After New Year’s in Alexandria there would be new words each day as though in a diary, the only reliable way that I knew I would write at all. This book was never going to be a reconstruction. It was a new start, and this time there would be an end.

This time there was also an instruction from the queen herself, a signed order, the only surviving autograph from any classical figure whose life story has flourished beyond life. This document was unknown in 1985 when the last page was closed on my seventh Cleopatra. It was found at the turn of the new millennium among Roman office papers reused for stuffing mummies, Cleopatra’s single word, her last word as I intended to see it, written in her own first language, in Greek, in neat, small, upward-sloping letters, ginestho, let it be done, do as I command, make it happen.

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“Alexandria: The Last Nights of Cleopatra” by Peter Stothard. 400 pages. Overlook; $26.95. ()
The date is February, 33 BC, as we now designate our months and years, the prelude to the most dramatic time in even as dramatic a life as Cleopatra’s.

The ginestho papyrus is of no special kind. The ink is dull. The order is securely dated like any proper product of a well run office. The date is February, 33 BC, as we now designate our months and years, the prelude to the most dramatic time in even as dramatic a life as Cleopatra’s. The order, dictated to a secretary and presented in a fair copy for signature, is that one of her most loyal protectors should be freed from certain taxes. I imagined her taking up her pen at a forty-five degree angle, routinely, relaxedly, running the last four letters together in a single fluid stroke, and writing the ginestho on the decree that Mark Antony’s general, Publius Canidius Crassus, and his heirs in perpetuity, could export each year from Egypt 300 metric tons of wheat and import 130,000 liters of wine without paying tax to her or to her children.

This was a tax exemption for the far future from the Egyptian head of a great Greek family who had entered Rome’s civil wars, world wars then, with every intention of being on the winner’s side. Her man, Canidius, commanded the greatest army of the time. She herself commanded the most massive personal treasury. The odds were that her lover, Mark Antony, would soon defeat his rival Octavian for the leadership of the Roman world, the legacy of her earlier lover, the assassinated Julius Caesar.

“Make it happen,” she wrote. Her word went out into corridors of bureaucrats and bandits, corrupters and corrupted. Her fellow Alexandrians would never be as admired as much as the “classical” Greeks from Athens who lived 400 years before. Nor would they be as feared as the Romans who conquered and followed them. But Cleopatra’s people were bureaucratic pioneers, masters of the catalog and file, inventive manipulators of myth, model office workers as well as models for much else in the ways of life they exported to the future. Although Cleopatra signed orders for music and poetry, wars and executions, medical experiments, and monumental theater, exempting a man from taxes was in no way a smaller matter than these. Revenue made things happen; or stopped things happening.

Of course, this ginestho soon became an unnecessary concession. Within two years Cleopatra was dead. The Romans took all Egypt for themselves. Her promise had become a bribe that she need not have made, a few words on a fragile piece of papyrus, a part of the rubbish used to fill the space between a body and a coffin. For the next 2,000 years it would cushion an unidentified cranium against a painted piece of wood, a lesson in recycling from an age resourceful in the arts of reuse. Only in the last 10 years has it become a thing of resonance once again, one of those rarest of objects, a direct connection between a great queen and those of us who have so long tried to make her our subject.

© Peter Stothard. From “Alexandria: The Last Nights of Cleopatra.” Published by The Overlook Press. All rights reserved.