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The Wicked Witch of the East, or, The Glory That Wasn’t Rome

December 22, 2010

They’re going to make a movie out of Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra, starring Angela Jolie as Egypt’s last Pharaoh – Hollywood bending the truth already, as Cleopatra, as depicted on the statues and coins in Schiff’s wonderful book, was more zaftig and less button-nosed than Jolie.  What remains to be seen is what they’ll do with the tone of the book, which works hard to build striking analogies between our times and hers.  In Schiff’s narrative, Egypt is a combination of a “blue state,” full of beauty and art and splendor and learning, an oil state, the grain of Egypt then being as abundant and profitable as petroleum is now to other Middle Eastern countries, and a totalitarian state, for which Schiff’s apologia for sundry tortures, executions, and the level of corruption was that “everybody did it back then.”

Rome is Young America, militarily powerful, scornful of intellectual and artistic pursuits, puritanical and hypocritical, publicly contemptuous of pleasure while privately more decadent than the unspeakably vice-ridden Greek culture of Egypt.  Cicero and Augustus are prime examples in the book – they fulminate against the “feminizing” effects of luxury, and yet had fine palaces, gambling habits, and all the comforts slavery could buy.  Egypt was their Middle East; as Schiff noted, it was too problematic to conquer (in addition to the problem of its unruly citizenry, especially its women, accustomed to degrees of liberty unavailable in Rome, whoever conquered and/or governed it would have more wealth at hand than any of his rivals) and too wealthy to leave it be, to not “supervise” it through a puppet government if not rule it outright. 

Rome’s historians, having successfully burkaized their own women for centuries, found it impossible to believe that such Noble Romans as Julius Caesar and Marc Antony could have been led to ally with and support Cleopatra on the basis of canny politicking and strategizing, as well that support being a result of the physical passion she was clearly capable of inciting – she must have been a potion master and sorceress who had “bewitched” them away from their modest and virtuous Roman wives, and all their bad decisions thereafter were not byproducts of their own personal flaws but the fault of “Yokopatra.”  (Jolie, already familiar with the “homewrecker” label, will have some experience to work with in dealing with such denunciations.)  Besides, for a woman to have obtained such command of languages and philosophy and history clearly made her a witch.

But Hollywood loves its “Noble Romans.” Even when they’re persecuting Christians they look so good doing it, and in the end the “glory of Rome” is restored by a dead gladiator or a religious conversion or whatnot.  The Rome of Caesar’s time was actually a terribly drab and ugly provincial place, made of bricks and mortar, and as Schiff notes, the “glory” we associate with the Empire, the marble ruins so lovingly recreated in film, were byproducts of the “corruption” brought to the Empire after the conquest of Egypt.  Like all conquered cultures, Egypt’s values were assimilated by the Romans – once they had seen the glorious temples and statues and broad, procession-ready avenues, the lavish art and gratuitous beauty luxury can bring, well, how you gonna keep ‘em down on the farm once they’ve seen Alexandria?

If the film keeps the tone of the book, with its splendidly Gibbonian asides and footnotes (if Gibbon had interned at Spy, that is), it’ll be something unlike any costume drama ever cranked out – but what are the chances…


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