Salad Days and Egyptian Nights

Peter Stothard’s lifelong ambition was to write a biography of Cleopatra. The charming result says as much about the author as it does about the Egyptian queen

According to Greek legend, Thessalonike, half-sister of Alexander the Great, metamorphosed into a mermaid. “Is Alexander still alive?” she would ask sailors after her brother’s death. “Yes, he is alive and in power over the world.” Right answer! These words granted safe passage across the seas, and, closer to home, the threshold of a 1970s Oxford society of lustful “mermen”, known as Red Tents. While others were exploring the eccentricities of this half-imagined Oxford haunt, Peter Stothard was making his fourth, somewhat more salubrious foray into the world of Alexandria. His lifelong ambition was to write a book about its greatest queen, Cleopatra. 

Forty years later and we have the fruit of that ambition, Alexandria: The Last Nights of Cleopatra, Stothard’s eighth attempt and first result. It pays homage to a topic that has touched every part of his life to date, his childhood, student days at Oxford, his experience as editor of The Times and Times Literary Supplement, and more besides. It is a book concerned as much — or as Stothard himself often pauses to observe, more — with his life as with his life’s obsession, the strong-willed seductress herself.  

Cleopatra was one in a line of Macedonians who ruled Egypt after it submitted to a general of Alexander the Great (the son, in fact, of Alexander’s father’s mistress). Her father was King Ptolemy XII “the Flautist”, who famously established a relationship with Rome to secure his throne. The relationship between the two centres set an important precedent for the future ruler. 

So much of the luscious detail that surrounds Cleopatra’s life and rule is the stuff of fiction that Stothard is justified in giving it short shrift. Why, he shrugs, would a highly intelligent woman rely on an asp to inject her with death when she is surrounded by men who are expert in administering painlessness? 

“Biographers want the dead but they have only the living. We must work with the tools we have,” Stothard remarks. Which tools are these? There are the ramblings of historians often too young to remember the events they describe, the dialogue of great playwrights, the snippets of context and detail, such as what people might have eaten and why (Stothard is particularly good on this), but the gaping lacunae which inhabit all ancient lives are often the biographer’s most useful tools.

In this book Stothard is not terribly concerned to fill them in with speculation about how Cleopatra spent her average day. Rather, he uses them to make his life of her his own. What, at the beginning of the book, risks being construed as self-indulgence, transpires to reinvigorate the hotchpotch of ancient historical facts with their relevance to the present. 

Take the Library at Alexandria. In Cleopatra’s day it was the city’s greatest treasure, unique and, as fate proved, irreplaceable. If it weren’t for this heritage, it is doubtful whether France would have donated to its modern replacement, the Biblioteca Alexandrina, some 500,000 volumes. It doesn’t take Stothard many hours there to realise that it is, nonetheless, a shell of a place, hardly a library at all. 

Not that he is wistful for a past he never knew. The book is written in the form of a diary of a holiday he spent in Alexandria in January 2011, just as a bomb tore through a church, a presage of the unrest to come. 

Stothard documents his guide Mahmoud’s distaste for those who seek to find there something that once, or never, existed. This is a stance he has every sympathy with:

I have no nostalgia for the sexual invention and cosmopolitan beauty that Lawrence Durrell and E.M. Forster so longingly describe. I have not arrived with half-admitted hopes of the city being what it used to be at some other time or something or somewhere other than it is.

And he certainly convinces. His greater nostalgia is evidently reserved for the things he knew: the Thatcher days, the period before journalists moved east and Fleet Street became just another street on a flickering GPS screen. 

This is not a book for those who seek a detailed biography of Cleopatra. The characterisation of men in her middle ranks, such as Lucius Munatius Plancus, “the consul with the mermaid’s tail”, who organised her parties and financed Mark Antony’s armies, among much else, is often the fuller one. But Alexandria is a thoroughly engrossing read. With much subtlety, it proves what a classicist knows in his marrow. In snatching at a distant past, one cannot help but clarify the distance in between. In following the thread to Cleopatra, Stothard has found himself.

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