Cleopatra≈Game of Thrones

Have you heard about the series Game of Thrones? For sure it’s a stupid question because even a squatter in the middle of the woods has the mass market paperback. Christina and I started the HBO show about 4 years ago, and I finally convinced my parents to give it a try – they are almost caught up after binge-watching for a month straight. I started to read the first book because I figured in 50 years it will be considered a classic like Lord of the Rings – there are five total installments in the series with two more set to release in the distant future. The reason I love Game of Thrones is that it reads like historical fiction and it helps me understand real life ancient history. Of course, the plot, characters, and dragons are not real, but the foundation of the series is based on an era of our very own past: an era of kings and queens,  love and murder, conquests and defeats. While reading the first book in the series – A Song of Ice and Fire – I was concurrently digesting a nonfiction work on Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff. At times I thought both books were fiction because Cleopatra’s life mirrored the drama taking place in the medieval fantasy. Cleopatra’s rise and fall is no fantasy, but I hope to clear up a few misconceptions about one of the world’s most powerful women.

image-placeholder-title

Cleopatra was born in Alexandria, Egypt and was a member of the royal Ptolemaic family. The Ptolemaic dynasty began its rule over Egypt after Ptolemy I – a general of Alexander the Great – was appointed the leader of the region. The Ptolemies believed in keeping their family line pure and hence practiced incest. The very close-knit and confusing family tree of the Ptolemies resulted in an endless stream of murder for the sake of political power. By the time Cleopatra took control in 51 BC, the Ptolemaic dynasty was in a severe decline from its once prosperous beginnings; that decline was primarily due to the rising power in the west – the Roman Empire. Cleopatra was a ruthless politician who understood how to wrestle with Rome; her domestic resume included killing her brother-husband and most of her family members to ascend the throne.

 

0eddd4273dbe0943a7ffbfeaab43a853

The most authentic image of Cleopatra we have today…not what most people imagine.

 

Along with murder, Cleopatra understood the art of seduction, and she found favor with Rome’s highest official – Julius Ceasar. The couple would have a child together and Cleopatra gained a critical military alliance. All came crashing down however for the Queen when Ceasar was assassinated by his fellow senators. Wasting no time, Cleopatra seduced Ceasar’s predecessor Mark Antony. Mark Antony was one of three Roman rulers after Ceasar’s death and was the man most likely to take total control of the empire. Antony would eventually be defeated by his co-ruler Octavian – later known as Ceaser Augustus. Cleopatra and Antony both committed suicide in their defeat; arguably history’s most dramatic love affair.

3794241

Cleopatra’s life is fascinating, and throughout the ages, her image has been negatively caricatured. She is portrayed as a beautiful temptress who used sex to advance her political power. This picture is not entirely accurate and doesn’t give the Queen her due justice. Cleopatra was not physically beautiful, and she had to use her personality to seduce the greatest playboys of the age. That speaks to Cleopatra’s intelligence and wit during an era when women were little respected for their minds. Cleopatra also was not a sex-addict who was only concerned with hedonism. She was a compassionate ruler who was loved by the Egyptian people – her conquests of love brought prosperity to the citizens and her dynasty. More than anything, Cleopatra genuinely loved Antony and her children – a benevolent wife and mother until the very end. Cleopatra was one of the most wealthy and powerful women in the history of the world. We turn her into a sexual sound bite today, but have no doubt, she was an intelligent, reliable, and compassionate ruler. To understand Cleopatra’s success, let’s remember that the span of the Ptolemaic dynasty covered three centuries – a period longer than the current age of the United States of America. Cleopatra was the most successful and famous leader during that long rule. Before you dig into Game of Thrones, read about Cleopatra; incest, murder, politics, and power has no better model.

Vikings Changed the World

At some point in the 9th century, a Viking was accused of being a “child-lover” because he didn’t want to impale babies with his spear. Vikings are known as gruesome-raiders which struck fear into the heart of villagers throughout medieval Europe. They were pagans who worshiped Odin and Thor – believing that an eternal feast awaited them in Valhalla. Today, Viking culture inundates our everyday life. Early morning TV has commercials for Viking River Cruises. “Bluetooth,” which connects electronics, is named after a Vtumblr_npgzguhvtp1un9i1ko1_1280iking king. Four days out of each week are named after Norse Gods: Tuesday (Tyr), Wednesday (Wodan which was Anglo-Saxon for Odin), Thursday (Thor), and Friday (Frigg). Dublin, York, and Kiev were a few major cities founded by Vikings for trade. The Normandy region of France was named after Viking inhabitants. The modern states of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine were first centralized by Vikings. Iceland, Greenland, and North America were first discovered by Vikings. The nautical terms of starboard, port, and keel were created by the Vikings. Most importantly, the Mad Max series was inspired by the Vikings. I was able to learn more about Vikings in this month’s edition of National Geographic and the book – The Sea Wolves: A History of the Vikings by Lars Brownworth.

The Vikings homeba3c6b3f59deb9c86cf5d8950c8c38d06dse was in Scandinavia between 800 and 1100 AD. There were the Norse (modern day Norway) to the west, the Swedes (modern day Sweden to the east), and the Danes (modern day Denmark) to the south. The actual word “viking” is believed to derive from the Vic region near the Oslo Fjord where iron was plentiful for sword production – eventually all raiders were referred to as “Vic-ings.” There were two types of Vikings: homesteaders and raiders. The Vikings had permanent communities which tried to live off the land and coast. There were also men who sought out fame and fortune on the sea – these were the “sea wolves” that changed the world. These Sea Wolves mastered the construction of the longboat and were able to sail quickly to any location. These men were motivated by treasure, women, and power. The more a raiding party could collect, the more respected they were on their return to Scandinavia. The first raids occurred at monasteries in Ireland, England, and France. Monasteries at the time stored many valuable relics, manuscripts, and currency. osebergskipet1A raid would usually consist of a few longboats (picture to right) quickly docking with 10-50 Vikings, subsequent killing of inhabitants, collection of plunder, and a quick getaway. Vikings were fierce warriors and their strengths were stealth, quickness, and cunning. Eventually, the raids started to dry up and the Vikings were forced to travel further from their homes; they would eventually reach as far as Italy.

Some of the greatest Vikings wanted more than just plunder, they wanted land. Forces
would eventually conquer Irish, French, English, and Eastern European armies to control huge swathes of territory. They controlled key ports and became handsomely wealthy through trade, extortion, and sheer intimidation. To find more land, many Vikings traveled west and eventually founded Iceland and Greenland – getting as far as North America; they were never able to permanently settle the Western Hemisphere because of limited colonists. To the a3e4c310d1c9ca0d11ac277a991d9b40east they settled into modern day Ukraine and traded with the Byzantine Empire. Vikings in the east were called “Rus,” (picture to left) which is the origin of the word “Rus-sian.” Eventually, the Vikings in these land-grab areas would lose much of their raiding culture and eventually became established monarchies. Many Viking kings decided to adopt Christianity to unite their strongholds which many times consisted of several types of ethnic groups and cultures; Scandinavia also shifted to a monarch structure to have better relations with European kings. In the end, the Viking culture fizzled out with the creation of Christian domains which promoted domestic virtues over sea-faring vices. Overall, the Vikings altered the political and social landscape wherever they went and are in large part responsible for the unification of Scotland, France, Britain, The Holy Roman Empire, and the kingdom of Sicily. They were pagans, who more than any other medieval power, spread Christianity throughout the world. Their enduring reputation truly held up to the Viking belief that all men are mortal – only the noble name can live forever.

How Islam Shaped Shakespeare

Did you know there was a time when Protestant Christians partnered with Muslims to usurp the Catholic Empire? Did you know that Queen Elizabeth sent a carriage to the head of a harem as a political gift? Did you know Shakespeare included many Muslim characters in his most famous plays? If you knew all these things give your brain a break and go watch the remake of Gilmore Girls. For all of us still reading, let’s take a weird journey into 16th century England where the teeth were black from Moroccan sugar and the houses were ordained with Turkish rugs. As a guide to our journey, we will reference my most recent read – The Sultan and the Queen: The Untold Story of Elizabeth and Islam by Jerry Brotton.

Our journey begins in 1558 when Queen Elizabeth took the throne and began ruling a island in a very fractured world. Elizabeth was a protestant while Spain and the Holy Roman Empire were obviously Catholic. The Holy Roman Empire was the beez neez back in those days and made the rules of the land. Well, Pope Pius V and King Phillip II of Spain hated Queen Elizabeth because of her religious views. They colluded against her for decades and finally in 1570 the Pope excommunicated Queen Elizabeth from the church and all of its domains. This put the Queen in a sticky situation – England could no longer trade openly with European countries but needed trade to survive on an island. Added to her woes, Elizabeth was also cut off from the Americas because of Spain and Portugal’s dominance. She had one option that could work but the chances of success were slim. Trade with Muslims in North Africa and the Ottoman Empire.

Englishmen were sent to the Ottoman Empire and Morracan Sultanate in hopes of opening up economic partnerships. What is interesting is the fact that when the Englishman met with the Turkish Sultan, he didn’t know where England was and viewed it as politically insignificant. He was correct in this assessment because England and Europe as a whole during the 16th century were far less powerful than the Ottoman Empire (Constantinople had a population of 500,000 compared to 200,000 in London). The Sultan agreed to the trade because he needed valuable metals to make weapons and in exchange the English would receive all sorts of exotic goodies. Guess where a lot of the metal came from for the production of Turkish weapons? Catholic church bells. Protestant English were using Catholic metal to arm Muslims. The same Muslims that were targeted by the Crusades. By the late 1580’s, thousands of English merchants, sailors, and privateers were moving about the Muslim world exchanging goods, beliefs, and culture.

One unlikely cultural exchange occurred in the world of English theater. The theater, up until that point, had primarily consisted of moralistic plays which followed similar patterns of plot and structure. This all changed with the play Tamburlaine which enlisted Muslim characters with plots that included conflicts of religion, politics, and power. Guess who was inspired by Tamburlaine and came out with his own play 6 months later? William Shakespeare. Shakespeare would go on to include 150 references to Islam in 20 different plays – many of which included main characters who were Muslim.

This weird time in history, thanks to inter-Christian quarrels, led to major cultural changes that we still experience today. Every year thousands of students read about Islam through Shakespeare. Everyday millions of people use words that were introduced to the English language from this period of trade: candy, turquoise, and tulip to name a few. Maybe most of all, the Moroccan sugar that blackened Queen Elizabeth’s teeth, led many to search for new sources in the New World. Unfortunately, Christianity and Islam’s 16th century partnership soon ended after Elizabeth’s death. Fast forward today, what can we learn from these previous partnerships? Would we have Shakespeare? Would a England, who decided not to trade with Muslims, have the resources to settle the New World? Interesting questions that all root to the fact that intermingled cultures are powerfully synergistic.