3PP is delighted to welcome Vicky Alvear Shecter, author of Alexander the Great Rocks the World(2006) and the recently released Cleopatra Rules! The Amazing Life of the Original Teen Queen.
Reading Cleopatra Rules! one gets a clear sense of how passionately Vicky feels about this topic. Owing to writers such as Plutarch and Shakespeare, and later portrayals in Art and Film, the Egyptian Queen has come to symbolise the exotic temptations of the east. This is something which Octavian, heir of Julius Caesar was quick to exploit when making his play for power in Rome in the first Century BCE.
In her book, Vicky describes life in Ancient Egypt, the Ptolemaic Dynasty and Cleopatra VII's attempt to safeguard her nation by an alliance with Rome. As a book targeted at younger audiences, it is written in upbeat and engaging modern language. Commendably, there is also a bibliography, chapter end-notes, timeline and glossary section, which reveal historical sources and give further detail about the places and persons mentioned.
A special comment must be made for the book's visual presentation. From the cover onwards, Cleopatra Rules! is a visual treat,wonderfully illustrated with full colour photographs.
Time for the Q & A!
3PP: From reading this book and your online posts, it is easy to get a sense of your own personal attachment to this figure from the past. Can you describe what Cleopatra VII means to you?
VAS: Originally, this book was supposed to focus on several queens of antiquity. My fascination for ancient queens was sparked when I visited London several years ago. I had stopped at a busy, touristy corner overflowing with t-shirt and trinket sellers. It was actually a fairly grimy, crowded scene. I leaned against a marble base to review my map and after a few minutes looked up, squinting, to see a piece of art that took my breath away—a magnificent statue of Boudicca, the ancient British queen who rebelled against Rome and almost succeeded in pushing them out of Britain.
Installed in 1905, Thomas Thornycroft's famous Equestrian Statue of Boudicca is located near Westminster Pier in London.
But at the time, I knew nothing about her and I became consumed with curiosity. Who was she? What did she do? And how come I’d never heard of her?
After my first children’s book, Alexander the Great Rocks the World(2006) was released, the publisher was interested in seeing more from me. I proposed a book on several ancient queens, including Cleopatra and Hatshepsut as well as Boudicca and Zenobia of Palmyra. Unfortunately, the publisher closed its doors right after I delivered the manuscript in 2008. I then had to find a new publisher for the book, so it's been a circuitous route for ol’ Cleo.
3PP: What lead to the decision to write a book for younger audiences about Cleopatra VII?
VAS: I think the larger question here is why did I want to write for younger audiences about ancient history? The answer is simple: because I never “outgrew” my fascination with the ancient world. I wanted to write books about fascinating people in a style I would have loved as a kid.
Regarding Cleopatra specifically, I had originally wanted to cover the lives of several queens, as I mentioned earlier. But when Editorial Director, Larry Rosler at Boyds Mills Press, told me he was interested in the manuscript he also said that we should stop at Cleopatra. “Her story is so amazing, I didn’t want to read about anyone else after her,” he said at the time. So we cut the other queens and focused only on Cleopatra.
3PP: Can you describe some of the inherent challenges in writing for younger audiences?
VAS: Keeping younger readers interested is always the challenge, especially since they have so many electronic distractions pulling them away from reading. They are a very unforgiving audience and have no qualms in telling you if something is “stupid” or “boring.”
At the same time, they love to laugh and delight in the absurdities of the world around them. So I wrote in a conversational, (hopefully) humorous tone and kept the story moving quickly. What’s interesting is that kids and teachers tell me they love the slightly snarky, sometimes-goofy tone of the book but some “old guard” reviewers seem to struggle with it a bit. Almost every reviewer has commended the research but the more conservative ones always seem to add a little jibe about the “juvenile” humor, which makes me laugh. Um, that was the point! I’m writing for kids! There’s plenty of time in high school and college to get staid and stuffy about history. Right now, I just want kid readers to enjoy the story and think—wow, history is not boring at all—in fact, it’s pretty hilarious!
3PP: Your book is wonderfully visual, adding a dimension of beauty and wonder to the histories related. Classicists often bemoan the arduous process of permissions applications for images. What advice do you have to these scholars that seem to be struggling with making their work visually appealing?
VAS: I’m glad you enjoyed the visual presentation of the book, for which we can thank the brilliant Tim Gillner, the Art Director at Boyds Mills Press. It was definitely an arduous process to get the images. We were also constrained by limited budgets, which forced us to learn very quickly that Wikimedia Commons is your friend! Of course, cost-free public domain images are abundant, but we didn’t want to sacrifice quality, so it often required additional digging to find just the right image.
Also, we relied on the kindness of strangers, such as historian and photographer Mary Harrsch who gave us permission to sift through hundreds of her photos on Flickr and use any ones we liked. Photographer Jon Bodsworth in the UK was also very generous with his permissions. Still, some shots we had to obtain from museums and those were costly, but they were necessary.
Karnak Temple - Photography by Jon Bodsworth
There was one issue, unique to children’s books that added to the difficulty—we could not publish nudes! There are countless gorgeous paintings and statues of Cleopatra with her breasts bared and, unless we could find some way to crop the nudity, we simply could not use them. By the way, that tendency to depict Cleopatra as nearly naked (since baring one’s breasts is certainly top of mind when commencing to end one’s life!) reinforces her image as a seductress rather than as a politician.
3PP: I personally enjoyed Lyndsey Marshal's portrayal of Cleopatra in HBO's Rome. When I first saw her, I indeed thought of Plutarch's comment that she was beautiful, but not incomparably so. She also looked decidedly more Hellenistic than Liz Taylor. Which depiction of Cleopatra do you prefer? (if any)
Lyndsey as Cleopatra is HBO's Rome.
VAS: It’s funny that you bring up Lyndsey Marshal from HBO’s Rome! I too thought that she was absolutely perfect for the role. She even looked a little like one of the ancient busts of Cleopatra. She wasn’t conventionally “pretty” but she was fascinating to look at. The young woman(Elizabeth Salib) who photographed herself for the cover of my book is also how I pictured a young Cleopatra—that picture in particular conveys an intelligence and fierceness that captured the essence of her depiction in my book. By the way, I wanted to include a picture of Lyndsey Marshal in Cleopatra Rules! but HBO’s legal language made it impossible for us to afford it.
Although dramatised from an historical point of view, this chilling conversation in HBO's Rome does great service to both Cleopatra and Octavian - the confident queen vs the calculating politician. Lyndsey Marshal and Simon Woods are absolutely brilliant in their respective roles.
3PP: Your book describes the fate of The Library of Alexandria. Do you feel our world would be different had the knowledge from this era survived intact, or do you feel that the important concepts of Science, Philosophy and Politics still managed to filter through?
VAS: Well, I think everyone wonders how the world would have been different if we hadn’t lost so much in the library’s destruction. When you think about how Heron of Alexandria built the first automaton with just pulleys and wheels(video here) and how he created the first steam engine, the sense of so much lost opportunity is inescapable. What if all those works had been available to some brilliant young thinker who could have seen the applications of such technology—applications that didn’t find expression until the modern age?
Fascinating introduction to the Ancient Library of Alexandria- courtesy of The History Channel. A small remnant of the ancient complex still exists
Still, I find it endlessly ironic that it was the brilliant Arab thinkers who kept the remnants of the fallen west alive for us to “rediscover” during the Renaissance. The ancestors of those with whom we are fighting today are the very ones who preserved and protected the classical writings that inspired modern democracy. History is full of such ironies.
Despite the xenophobia towards the Arab world, Moorish Scholar Ibn Rushd 'Averroes' was revered by the west for his contributions to Science, Mathematics and commentaries on Hellenic Philosophy. He is depicted by Raphael in The School of Athens - adorning the walls of the Pope's personal library at the Vatican.
3PP: As you know, 3PP is chiefly focused on painting and sculpture from the Renaissance and subsequent eras in Art. Cleopatra is less prominent in the Art of the 15th and 16th Centuries. This is in contrast to the paintings in the 17th Century onwards, most notably by Tiepolo and Gerome. Do you think depictions of opulent and tyrannical rulers made Cleopatra VII an obvious choice for these artists working within the great Courts of Europe?
15th-16th century depictions of Cleopatra were relatively scarce. The most notable examples being these by Giampietrino(1520), Michelangelo(1533-4) and Piero Di Cosimo(1485-90), the latter also being an homage to famed Florentine 'Queen of Beauty' Simonetta Vespucci.
VAS: What a fascinating question! I am no art historian, but it certainly makes sense that Cleopatra and her stories of excess (the pearl) and high drama (death by snake) make her an excellent subject for artists already depicting opulent and possibly disdainful rulers. I wonder if anyone has tracked the acquisitions of ancient writings to see if there is a correlation between what was being discovered and what the art world depicted. In other words, did the subject matter of Renaissance art follow a sort of literary model—first, Homer and Hesiod, focusing on the births, lives, and loves of the gods; then Polybius (and possibly Livy and Appian) and the depiction of great warriors, generals and battles; and then finally Plutarch with his moralistic take on flawed leaders of the Republic and Empire?
Giambattista Tiepolo's The Banquet of Cleopatra(1743-44) is displayed at the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia. The style and setting is decidedly Rococo(Late Baroque). A variation of his work is at the National Gallery UK. The scene depicts a story recounted in Pliny's Natural History, where Cleopatra mocks the wealth of Mark Antony by dissolving a pearl in a cup of vinegar.
3PP: Knowing the likely biases against Cleopatra by authors such as Plutarch and Shakespeare, it is still difficult for some to accept the concept of Cleopatra as a ruler governed by passion, as opposed to reason alone. Queen Elizabeth I is a perfect example of a female Monarch whose Court went to great pains to keep her personal life out of her affairs of state. Does the fact that Cleopatra VII so intertwined her personal and political lives doom her to the Western perception which has endured for Millennia?
VAS: I think Cleopatra’s attachments to first Julius Caesar and then Marc Antony were always political. What other way could the daughter of the king who nearly bankrupted Egypt to Rome do but find some way to ally herself with the very power that threatened to ruin her kingdom? Marriages between rulers have a long history in politics as a way to promote peace and create allies. From the Roman view (which is all we get of Cleopatra), the queen of Egypt was nothing but a harlot who seduced Caesar and Antony just to toy with them. But if you look at the situation from the queen’s point of view, the greatest chance of survival for Egypt was to make herself indispensable to Rome, not just as a trading partner, but in terms of administering and managing the eastern provinces. Cleopatra’s strategy worked for decades. The model of management that Cleopatra and Antony were creating in the East, in fact, presaged exactly what happened hundreds of years later when Constantine founded a “second” Rome in Byzantium so that he could have better control over the eastern empire. I’m afraid that the western preoccupation with her “passions” is more the result of Octavian’s propaganda, which just got reinforced over and over again in art and theater over the millennia.
The very real love affair that existed between Richard Burton and Liz Taylor filtered into their performances as Antony and Cleopatra - intensifying the public fascination with Cleopatra's personal life.
3PP: I have to admit, your book is a bit harsh on two of my favourite characters from Antiquity! In Octavian's case, you do explain his transition to becoming Emperor Augustus and the achievements of his long tenure. But poor Marcus Tullius Cicero....you have reduced this great campaigner for Justice and proto-Humanist to a cranky man bitter about an undelivered scroll. Can I request a sequel, "Cicero Rules!" to redress this?!
Statesman, Orator, Cranky old man. The great Marcus Tullius Cicero was not particularly enamoured of Cleopatra, nor she of him! It is a shame, as Marcus would have fit right in at the Library of Alexandria.
VAS: I cannot help but chuckle as I respond to this question—I can certainly see how you would feel as if your heroes (and they are heroes) got short shrift in my book, and you’re right! But again, this was Cleopatra’s story. A cranky man bitter about an undelivered scroll is, most likely, precisely how she would have seen him. Her opinion of him, we can imagine, could hardly have improved after Cicero took on Antony in his Philippicae. So, yes, Cicero and Augustus don’t come out looking too great but, then again, there are countless books extolling their accomplishments and virtues. This just isn’t one of them!
3PP: I think you should be highly commended for the list of references and sources at the end of the book, something not commonly seen in titles for younger audiences. Why did you decide to include this layer of detail?
VAS: The “voice” of the book—its colloquial tone and humor—is quite different than most history books for kids and I suspected that the “old guard” might have trouble adjusting to it. And sure enough, reviewers such as Kirkus and the Bulletin for the Center for Children’s Books (BCCB) seemed a little uneasy with the “new-fangled” tone. Both in fact, said that the book read more like a “gossipy blog” or magazine than a stilted history lesson (which was, of course, by design). Yet both went out of their way to commend the research. Quality research is always important, of course, but in this case, I knew I needed it to balance the light tone of the writing.
3PP: What other characters in history interest you? Do you plan on re-visiting them as a subject for another book in the future?
VAS: I had intended to write about Hannibal next and even had a proposal in the works but everything got sidetracked when I sold my first historical fiction novel which debuts next summer. However, I really want to sell a picture book I’ve written about a great Nubian pharaoh named Taharqa. I have not had much luck so far, but I’m determined to find some way to get his story more widely known. Hannibal—and possibly even Julius Caesar—will have to wait! But again, getting any kind of book published on ancient history is a hard sell these days, especially in the U.S. So hopefully, Cleopatra Rules! will do well enough to convince publishers that kids still have an appetite for the fascinating stories of antiquity.
Thank you very much for your precious time Vicky!