August 27, 2013

Guest Post: R.W. Peake's Marching with Caesar

Please welcome R.W. Peake as part of the virtual tour for his novel, Marching with Caesar: Antony and Cleopatra, Part II-Cleopatra.

Cleopatra: Heroine or "Ho"?

Before I begin, I want to ask forgiveness for this title, but ever since I first saw Eddie Murphy's skit on Saturday Night Live as Velvet Jones, hawking his Velvet Jones School of Technology and its course, "I Wanna Be a Ho", I've always wanted to use that term in some way. And of all the female figures in history, I think that Cleopatra VII has generated more debate about which characterization suits her best than any other. Considering that during a period of history where women were little more than reference points used to determine bloodlines and were relegated to the shadows, Cleopatra is one of the few women of her, or any era up until recently for that matter, who excited commentary from a number of different sources.

But, like with anything that falls under the auspices of "history", it behooves us to look askance at those contemporary chroniclers, and at the very least, try to understand the context under which they operated. And I would argue that, more than just about any other figure from history, Cleopatra is a victim of the adage that talks about history being written by the winners. 

I will be the first to acknowledge that I am not a scholar whose focus was Cleopatra, or the Ptolemaic dynasties; my knowledge of the woman who would be the last in the dynasty established by Alexander's general that ruled Egypt is based on the research I did to support the part of Titus Pullus' story that was begun in Marching With Caesar-Conquest of Gaul, and continues with the recent release of Marching With Caesar-Rise of Augustus. However, from the outset I have wanted to maintain a high fidelity to the historical record, such as it is, for the 42 years that the Marching With Caesar series covers. Because Cleopatra figures prominently in two books; Marching With Caesar-Civil War, where we first meet the young monarch during Caesar's sojourn and ordeal in Alexandria in the immediate aftermath of Pompey's defeat at Pharsalus, while the second book, and the one that is the subject of this online tour, Marching With Caesar-Antony and Cleopatra: Part II-Cleopatra, covers an older, wiser and more ambitious Cleopatra, I had to become more familiar with the Macedonian queen than I might otherwise would have, left to my own devices.

And what I found, even after devouring the obligatory primary sources and going on to more contemporary authors, including Stacy Schiff's book, Cleopatra-A Life, still left me with no true grasp on who the woman was. As I plowed through Plutarch, Caesar, Appian, Suetonius, et. al., I was always cognizant of one thing; this was a woman who was personally hated by the man who would become the most powerful and important figure of his age in Augustus. And considering that, with the exception of Caesar's account of his time in Alexandria, which was probably written by someone else and not him personally, all of the writers only knew the queen secondhand, and then it was through a filter. A filter provided by the ultimate victor in the titanic struggle that took place in the last century of the B.C. era, that saw the final death throes of the Roman Republic and established an Empire. In other words, by someone with a vested interest in how not only he himself is portrayed, but his adversaries as well. How better to paint oneself as the ultimate good guy by making sure that your enemy is painted in the darkest shade of black? And in that, I have to acknowledge that I think Augustus' demonization of Cleopatra is the best example of successfully defining one's adversary that has ever taken place throughout history. Neither Saddam Hussein nor Osama bin-Laden were so thoroughly defined by their enemies as was Cleopatra. 

So, who was Cleopatra, really? I would say that your guess is as good as mine, but what I hope is that the Cleopatra who walks through the pages of Marching With Caesar-Antony and Cleopatra is more than just the cardboard cutout villain. Considering the fact that she was in the very unique and dangerous position of being a sovereign of a country that couldn't hope to hold its own with the ranking superpower of the day, I for one understand that she had to be willing to do everything imaginable, to and for others, just to keep her position. I don't think it's a stretch to say that, because of the Ptolemaic practice of keeping things in the family, the babe Cleopatra probably had a basic understanding of the need for planning and scheming, even before she could talk. In her treatment of her siblings, she wasn't doing anything that hadn't been done before by those of her own blood. It's a tribute to that ability to plot that she survived to rise to the accession of the throne of Sedge and Bee, and to her ruthless focus and willingness to use every tactic available to her to stay there. 

Much has been made of Cleopatra The Temptress, the Eastern harlot that seduced not one, but two of the most powerful men, not just in Rome but in the entire known world. What is less well known by the casual reader, at least until the HBO series Rome, is that Cleopatra only went two for three in her attempts to bring the mover and shaker of the moment under her sway. And while every pro baseball player alive would kill to have that kind of batting average, I would argue that Cleopatra's last "batting attempt" was the most important. The fact that she failed in her attempt to seduce Octavian (even now I am loath to call him Augustus; of all the characters I've written about in this series, he is my least favorite or admirable) I think had less to do with her womanly charms and more to do with the fact that of all the men she could attempt to dazzle, Octavian was last on the list to be susceptible. While this tactic of seduction may seem unseemly, particularly to people of our age, what I realized as I thought about it was that, simply put, Cleopatra's options were pretty much limited to one move, and one move only. Egypt's army, such as it was, had been soundly defeated by a motley collection of Cohorts from the 6th Ferrata, a green 28th Legion, and a Legion consisting of the remnants of Pompey's defeated army, some sixteen years before. Granted, it was a Roman army led by the greatest general Rome, and the world, had ever seen, but it had to be an important lesson for the monarch. By the time she and Octavian faced off, the other arm of her military might, which on papyrus at least, was the greatest naval force in the world, had also been crushed at Actium. Out of options militarily, what did she have left? As I see it, she had two, of which one of them was money, and it was true that she had a LOT of money. But as it would turn out, Octavian already held the keys to the treasury; how he knew the location of Egypt's wealth has been attributed to his adoptive father's astonishing memory, but the truth is, nobody really knows how he knew. I think it's just as likely that one of the keepers of what was the biggest state secret in the world succumbed to persuasion of one sort or another. But it makes a better story to have the location relayed to Octavian from Caesar, and I for one am content with that. 

So no military or naval action was available to her, and money wasn't the answer either. Which leaves, what, exactly? What else could she have done, as a woman in the ancient world, no matter how powerful she may have been, other than what she tried? No matter what she attempted, one thing is certain; Octavian and his massive propaganda machine was going to paint it in the worst possible light, and it's the remnants of that smear campaign that come down to us now. Like all good propaganda, there was a grain of truth to Octavian's accusations; I think it strains credulity to think that Cleopatra decided to have an affair with Caesar, particularly when in all likelihood she was a virgin at the time, just because she liked the color of his eyes. There was undoubtedly more than a grain of calculation in her decision, and self-interest for that matter. But again, what I came away with after my research was the question; what other options did she have to retain at least a semblance of her autonomy? Enter Marcus Antonius, and while the man was different, the essential underlying issue, and her answer, was the same. Cleopatra simply did what she had to do in order to protect herself. 

However, where I think the biggest mystery lies is not in what she did to look after herself, and by extension, Egypt. What intrigues me is, once she had established herself as Mark Antony's paramour and partner, what were her ambitions concerning Rome? In her maneuvering, was she just doing what she thought she needed to do in order to keep Rome out of Egypt's business, at least as much as possible? Or did her ambitions extend to re-establishing Egypt as the predominant power in the Mediterranean, and the only way to do that was to bring down Rome? That is the real mystery of Cleopatra, at least to me, and is what makes her one of the most fascinating characters of her age. No matter what Octavian says!

About the book
Publication Date: April 1, 2013
Paperback; 598p
ISBN-10: 0985703083

In the fourth book of the critically acclaimed Marching With Caesar series, Titus Pullus and his 10th Legion are still in the thick of the maelstrom that follows after the assassination of Gaius Julius Caesar. With the disastrous campaign in Parthia behind them, Mark Antony continues his struggle with Octavian, both men vying for ultimate control of Rome. Enter Cleopatra VII, the Pharaoh of Egypt and mother of Julius Caesar's son, who harbors ambitions and dreams of her own. Through her son Caesarion, Cleopatra is a powerful player in her own right in the continuing drama being played out for control of the most powerful society on Earth. With Cleopatra combining forces with Mark Antony, Octavian, the legitimate heir to Caesar's fortune is facing the most formidable barrier to his ascendancy yet. Through it all, Titus Pullus and his men must tread a very careful path as the two forces head for an inevitable showdown at a place called Actium.

About the author
I am a retired Marine, with a primary MOS of 0311, although over the years I picked up a few other designators, but I guess I will always think of myself as a grunt. I was born and raised in Houston, and have only recently relocated to the Olympic Peninsula of Washington. After my medical retirement from the Marines and realizing that my experience at locating, closing with and destroying the enemy by fire and maneuver was not exactly going to have employers knocking down my door, I decided to earn a Bachelor's degree, majoring in History, with a goal of teaching. Then my daughter came to live with me full-time, and while thrilled, I learned very quickly that a teacher's salary would not support her in the style in which she was accustomed.

So I went into the software business, starting at a small startup that I stayed at for 10 years, clawing my way to middle management, to echo a commercial of that era. My company went public, and I had these things called stock options, so for a brief period of time I was one of those tech paper millionaires. Then the great NASDAQ crash of 2000 happened, and I was a working stiff again. When my company got bought in 2006 by one of the largest software companies in the world, I very quickly learned that working for a big company was not for me, so I took the lure of the (relatively) big bucks as a VP of a much smaller company. It was the worst professional mistake of my life, but the one good thing that did come out of it is that my dissatisfaction drove me to consider taking a risk on something that those who know me had pushed me to do as long as I can remember, and that was to write.

I must admit that I have always enjoyed writing; in fact; I wrote my first novel at 10ish, featuring myself and all of my friends from the street where I lived who almost singlehandedly fought off a Soviet invasion. I was heavily influenced by WWII history at that time, it being my second historical passion after the Civil War, so our stockpile of weapons consisted almost exclusively of Tommy guns, M1's, etc. Why the Russians chose my particular street to focus their invasion I didn't really go into, but after a series of savage, bloody battles, my friends and I were forced to make a strategic withdrawal to the only other part of the world I was familiar with at that time, the Silverton area of Colorado. I recently re-read this magnus opus, and it is interesting to track the course of my friendships with the core group that were the main characters of my novel. Some sort of argument or disagreement would result in the inevitable serious wounding of the friend with whom I quarreled, and depending on how serious it was, they might linger for days, clinging to life before they recovered, but not after suffering excruciating pain.

From that beginning, through my adult life, I was always told that I showed talent as a writer, but it wasn't until I hit the age of 50 that I decided it was time to find out if that were true. And the result is Marching With Caesar-Conquest of Gaul, the first in a completed trilogy that is the story of one of the lucky few men who managed to survive and retire, after rising through the ranks of the 10th Legion. I hope that you enjoy following Titus Pullus' exploits as much as I enjoyed bringing him to life.

For more information, please visit R.W. Peake's website.

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  1. I'd like to thank R.W. for sharing such a wonderful guest post with us. I've long been fascinated by Cleopatra and I feel that you've given us great insight into this enigmatic figure.

  2. Fascinating- Absolutely fascinating- Excellent post!!! Having my morning coffee to this first read of my day- loved it. Thank you:)


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