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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

The American Dream…Nightmare

What is the American Dream? Is it a dream of opportunity and wealth? Is it a dream that is still attainable? Is it even a dream and not a nightmare in disguise? I always saw the American Dream as the ability to reach any goal in life. America was and still is the land of entrepreneurship, innovation, and Cinderella stories. Great men and women came to this country for a better life – many times from places where dreams were never mentioned. My wife and I are blessed to be on the right side of the American Dream (read on to know what that entails), but many people do not have the same position. For a majority of Americans, the dream is no more realistic than an episode of Leave it to Beaver. 

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Everyday people struggle to meet their bills, pay for food, find employment, save for retirement and notice optimism in the nightly news. It is even worse for minorities who not only struggle to find well-paying jobs but also worry about harassment and unfair treatment on an institutional level. To better understand the nightmarish side of America, I read Death of a Salesman by Arthur MillerDeath of a Salesman won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1949 and is one of the greatest American plays of all time. It follows the downfall of Willy Loman – an exhausted salesman who is losing his mind in the rat race of business. It is a gut-wrenching ride that requires you to question the very foundations of success.

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On the surface, Willy Loman looks like a prime candidate for the American Dream: He has a beautiful wife, two sons, a suburban house, a successful traveling sales job, and friends who admire him. These surface level attributes quickly fade away with reality: He regularly cheats on his wife, his one son is a womanizer while his other son is a wandering thief, his house constantly requires repairs, his job no longer pays the bills, and his supposed friends are nowhere to be found. By the end of the play, Willy is completely lost in the past reminisces of “better” times and his dreams of being a respected businessman. Arthur Miller paints a sad picture of what the American Dream can look like – a lifetime of sacrifice only to be fired and thrown to the curb of American capitilism.

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In the end, Willy kills himself so his family can collect the life insurance – his funeral is only attended by a few people. So what should we take away from this anecdote of the American Dream? I think Arthur Miller was pretty spot on. The American Dream is not for everyone and success is as elusive as a fleeting mistress. We should reframe the American Dream from one of material/prideful success to one of relational/altruistic success. Let’s not dream of being loved by everyone and impressing others with our possessions. Let’s dream of lives filled with close relationships that are synergistic – fostering self-actualization. A life well-lived is in our grasp, but we have to reframe our dreams – less external pridefulness and more internal peacefulness.

“Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.”
-Arthur Miller

Want to Join a Cult?

What does it take to start a cult? What does it take to join a cult? Both of these questions are extremely interesting because they try to get at the heart of human behavior. We are social creatures who crave acceptance – sometimes this acceptance leads people to believe in bizarre things. For example, take the Mormon cult leader Warren Jeff who controls a group of fundamentalists from prison – even after being charged with sexually assaulting children and having 70 wives.

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How about one of the most famous cult leaders of all time – Jim Jones. Jones led a group of over 900 people to Guayana, South America to start their own socialist colony. This socialist experiment in Jonestown quickly turned into a horror movie after Jones convinced everyone to commit mass suicide. I am amazed at the ability of cult leaders to have total power over their followers; I barely can keep my chihuahua from peeing on the carpet. To better understand the birth, growth, and death of Jim Jones, I read The Road to Jonestown: Jim Jones and the Peoples Temple by Jeff Guinn. This book is exceptional and really helps the reader understand the evil of Jim Jones. Jones was a charismatic leader who never backed down and desired complete control. Unfortunately, these traits were mixed with just enough moral ambiguity that followers thought they were being led to the promised land rather than their gravesite.

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Jim Jones was born on May 31, 1931, in a small Indiana town. He was raised by an eccentric mother who defied conservative social norms with her independent attitude, beliefs in reincarnation, and prickly personality. Jones’ father was a WWI vet who could not work because of his disabilities and who had no energy to raise an energetic boy. Jones was a loner and soon began to stand out from the other boys with his religiousness. On any given Sunday, he would go to several services, not to praise God, but to understand what preaching style worked best to energize congregants. By the time he finished high school, Jones was working at a hospital where he would eventually meet his future wife, Marceline Baldwin (not pictured below).

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Jones and his wife would quickly move to Indianapolis where Jones attended some college and preached at evangelical-tent events. Jones would eventually establish the Peoples Temple in the mid-1950s – a church that trumpeted racial integration, socialism, and community action. It was at the Peoples Temple that Jones discovered the power of deception by performing false healings and false prophecy; he would many times walk around the congregation with rotted chicken offal claiming it was cancer just removed from a member. Jones quickly gained followers from all walks of life who appreciated his message of social equality and marveled at his God-like abilities. Jones would eventually move this congregation to Northern California using the tool of fear – he claimed that there would be a nuclear holocaust in the Mid-West and that they were no longer safe.

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It was in Northern California that the Peoples Temple morphed from an eccentric Christian church to a full-blown cult. Jone’s began to have his members live communally and give large portions of their paychecks to the “socialist” cause. With greater wealth, Jone’s was able to expand his ministry and garner even more membership. Jone’s quickly began to stretch himself too thin and eventually, he began to take painkillers and amphetamines. His drug use made him more erratic and power-hungry – he would gradually start asking for sex from his female congregants. This sex was supposedly meant to lift up the women, and few members resisted; he would even have sex with several male members asking some if they wanted to be “fucked in the ass” after church meetings. This “uplifting” sex gave Jones greater control which eventually expanded to increased paranoia. Staged assassination attempts led his followers to believe that the FBI, CIA, and Fascists were after their happy community.

[Jim Jones, Peoples Temple Church Services]

The Peoples Temple morphed into a military compound with several members patrolling the grounds with firearms. This paranoia and the fear of nuclear holocaust led Jones to found Jonestown in Guayana. Jonestown was meant to be a sanctuary, but it actually represented the apex of Jone’s control over his members. In 1978, Congressman Leo Ryan went to investigate Jonestown which led to him being attacked by a Temple member – Ryan escaped with 15 of Jone’s followers. Jones, in all his paranoia, told his members that the government would soon come to torture them and convert the children to fascism – to prevent this from happening everyone had to commit suicide. 909 people, including Jones and his wife, died from cyanide in the mass suicide – 304 were children.

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So how did Jone’s get 909 people to commit suicide? It began with his ability to twist the truth so that the majority of his followers believed he had special powers – all while an elite inner circle assisted with these deceptions. Why did the inner circle help him? Because they often believed in his message of social change and felt powerful being in the graces of such an influential leader. Most of the congregation was made up of poor-uneducated members who were entirely dependent on Jones for their jobs, housing, and food.

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It was hard to leave the cult because Jone’s would actively prevent dissenters and it was easy to rationalize that he was telling the truth – “If there are lawyers, teachers, and businessmen following him, then he must be the real deal.” Finally, Jones was an expert at fear which he used as a tool to further separate followers from leaving the Temple. All these things mixed to create a twisted peer pressure that propagated infidelity, drug use, bullying, harassment, corrupt morals, and eventually death. We need to study these things because there are cults today and leaders who use the same principles. Be wary of half-truths and always seek knowledge so that this particular past will never be repeated.

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