Posts Tagged ‘ancient egypt

22
Oct
13

3000 Years in 500 pages: Toby Wilkinson’s The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt

The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt

The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt by Toby Wilkinson

Ancient history is an interest of mine and earlier this year, I made the trip to Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum to get a look at some stuff first-hand. After all, it’s cool to read about Ancient Rome or Greece, but actually getting to look at statues of the Caesars and pottery decorated with the exploits of Heracles is something else completely.

It was a fun experience, but I was blindsided by something there: the sheer breadth of materials and knowledge of Ancient Egypt. I knew I didn’t know much about the period before I went there, but I was shocked at how little I knew, like how Cleopatra actually lived closer to our time than to the construction of the pyramids. This was the kind of thing I needed to remedy, so I started looking for a good volume of history to tackle. I’d hoped the ROM’s giftstore would have something, but the only books there generally went along these lines.

After a bit of looking around, I came across Toby Wilkinson’s The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt. It promises the nearly unthinkable: to distill over 2000 years of Egyptian history into a single, highly readable volume. It pulls it off, too, which is a remarkable achievement and not just because of the total number of years covered. Ancient Egypt had several wild changes of fortune, ranging from the early years under kings like Djoser and Khufu, to years of imperial power under Ramesses to subject rule under the Ptolemaic dynasty. Here, Wilkinson is able to lucidly go from one age to another, carefully showing how and why things changed, be it repressive taxation, the influence of the army or priesthood or foreign invasion. More importantly, he explains the human cost too: his history presents a sober look at a dictatorship, where the commoners were often worked until they died, the rich schemed to keep money and grain for themselves and the king used whatever means necessary to keep power, even if it meant skinning people alive and displaying the results to scare people into line.

Wilkinson’s specialty is the early years of Egypt and in the first half of the book, his scholarship shines. He spends a lot of time on the early kingdoms, detailing the construction of the pyramids, the growth of Egypt’s writing and religions and the reign of each line of kings. There’s a ton of information here on the first half of the Egyptian dynasties, especially on people like Narmer, who unified Egypt and was it’s first Pharaoh. He gives each of the early kings a detailed look, such as Khufu, who built the Great Pyramid and lost the support of the people: even centuries later, when Herodotus visited Egypt, Khufu was hated. Of him Wilkinson writes:

“So if the pyramid was not exactly a national project in which the whole country could take part and feel pride, what was it? The uncomfortable answer is that it was the ultimate projection of absolute power. Despots throughout history have been attracted to colossal buildings, from Nicolae Ceausescu’s Palace of the People in Bucharest to tin-pot dictator Felix Houphouet-Boigny‘s vast (and ridiculous) basilica in the jungles of Ivory Coast. The Great Pyramid of Khufu is merely the most audacious and enduring of such folies de grandeur.” (pg 71)

As Wilkinson moves along in Egyptian history, the pace picks up and less time is spent on each dynasty. His coverage of people like Thutmose III helps give lesser-known Pharaohs their due; indeed, Thutmose is called “the greatest of all pharaohs.” I’d wager his name isn’t familiar to the average person. But the pace keeps up and accelerates throughout the book. By the final couple of chapters, Wilkinson covers centuries in a matter of pages. But this mirrors the collapse of Egypt, too. By the time of the battles against the Sea Peoples, Egypt was a spent force. Eventually, it fragmented and was ruled over by the Nubians. By the time of Alexander the Great and the Ptolemys, it feels like Wilkinson is working at a record pace,  glossing over stretches of time, although it should be noted that he doesn’t have a ton of information to work with, thanks to fragmentary evidence.

His book ends with a section about Cleopatra, who he thinks ruled over a dead empire and unsuccessfully hedged her bets with Mark Antony. It’s interesting to compare his brief overlook with Stacy Scheff’s: Wilkinson is less giving of praise, all but brushing over how successful Cleopatra’s domestic politics were in favour of a pragmatic look at her disastrous foreign policies. Of Antony’s exchange of lands and collections of books for her support, he writes:

“Phony title deeds and a collection of books in return for real troops and supplies was hardly a fair exchange. In the far-off days of the Eighteenth Dynasty, Egypt had been respected and feared as the mighty bull of Asia; now, it was Rome’s milk cow.” (pgs 477-78)

Egypt ended with a whimper: after a succession of defeats, Antony fell on his sword and died in Cleopatra’s arms. Alexandra fell and Cleopatra shortly followed, most likely by her own hand. Egypt would be ruled by foreign powers for much of the next millennia: Rome, Byzantium, Ottomans and eventually the British. With it, interest in the Pharoahs dimmed and fell out of common knowledge; as Wilkinson notes, it was only revived by the French, when Napoleon visited the country.  But ever since, it’s rarely left us; at the ROM, their Egyptian section dwarfed their section on Rome.

Rating: 8/10. This is an interesting read that never feels especially bogged down in details and goes out of it’s way to provide visual evidence: besides a bunch of colour photographs, black-and-white images are interspersed throughout. And it’s supplemented by extensive notes and a bibliography that’s dozens of pages long. If you’re looking for a history of Ancient Egypt, I don’t think you can go wrong with this. They should sell copies in the ROM’s giftshop.

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15
Oct
13

A Fresh Take On An Ancient Story: Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life

Cleopatra: A Life

Well-researched and well-written, Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra is a fascinating read about a figure who, for all her fame, remains sadly elusive.

After all, everyone knows the outline of Cleopatra’s life: an Egyptian queen who slept with Caesar and Mark Antony, then when Octavian subdued Alexandra, she killed herself with an asp. People as diverse as Florence Nightingale and Shakespeare have thrown her under the bus as a witch, whore or worse. And for nearly as long as she’s been dead, her story was used to illustrate what happens when a female corrupts someone great: nothing good.

Of course, Cleopatra was none of those things. And Schiff’s biography aims to set the record straight.

It’s a tough job. Even the ancient biographers and historians didn’t like her too much, although it should be said they wrote for a Roman audience and under patronage that Cleopatra fought against. So even from the get-go, the sources weren’t sympathetic. And thats where there are sources: there simply aren’t many for Cleopatra’s early years. Consequently, Schiff has a lot of holes to fill and not much to fill them with.

She does an admirable job. In a biography that’s a little short on definite conclusions, but heavy on showing multiple ideas for what could’ve happened, she recreates what she can of Cleopatra’s life and tries to put it into a greater context. Her early years are a mystery, but it’s known she was exiled when her brother Ptolemy XIII seized the throne. A civil war ensued and Rome found itself embroiled in it after Caesar found himself after Cleopatra emerged from a sack in front of him. Later, she’s emerge as sole ruler of the Egypt as it’s empire expanded to it’s largest size. She funded Roman conquests and one half of a civil war, having children with two of it’s most famous citizens.

But at the same time, she was a conniving queen. She was ruthless to people who stood in her way, killing two of her brothers and a sister. She often tried to play sides against each other and alienated those close to her, fuelling her downfall. And her feud with Herod would make an interesting book in itself: he was alternately supporter and enemy, eventually an active participant in her downfall.

That downfall is a dramatic story, the narrative backbone of this biography. It reads a little like a history of Rome in this period, going from the troubles at Rome when Caesar was assassinated, to the bombastic speeches of Cicero to the war between Antony and Octavian, climaxing with the battle of Actium. It’s helpful to people without a lot of knowledge of those turbulant times. And while she defers to a wide variety of ancient sources – Plutarch, Cassius Dio, and Josephus, among others – she’s always careful to present their biases, too.

She’s right to. This book clearly sets out to try and restore Cleopatra’s reputation or at least strip away some of the propaganda. There are centuries of it. One example Schiff uses is when Cecil B. DeMille pitched her role by asking an actress “How would you like to be the wickedest woman in history?”

To that end Schiff was successful: in her pages, Cleopatra comes alive as a queen who was astute and rich, able to connect to her kingdom in a way few leaders can and who, sadly, fell for the wrong man at at the wrong time (spoiler: she dies).

Rating: 8/10. While some might object to the lengths Schiff goes to in calling out ancient sources and the leaps of faith she makes (there are a lot of holes in Cleopatra’s life, let alone her motivations), it helps cut through the noise and lets one of the most remarkable personalties of the ancient world come through. Recommended, especially for history buffs.




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