Listening to History

I’ve been listening to some great historical biographies over the last month. Simon Sebag Montefiore’s latest book is a history of The Romanovs from 1613-1918. This is a huge subject, telling the story of all the Romanov tsars from Michael, who reluctantly took the throne in the 17th century during the Time of Troubles, to Nicholas II, whose downfall & abdication in 1917 led to the murder of his family at Ekaterinburg the following year. I’ve read a lot of Russian history & there are some periods I know well – Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, the Decembrist period, Nicholas II – but I knew very little about the 17th century tsars & the Empresses Elizaveta & Catherine I. Montefiore tells his story with gusto & includes as much violence & sex as possible.

The story of the Romanovs is one of excess & violence. Most royal families, at least until the modern period, found themselves at war with each other. There have been many examples of rulers & their heirs not getting along. Power is a precious thing to those who have it & an irresistible attraction to the next in line. The Romanovs were no different. Peter the Great imprisoned his son, Alexis, had him tortured & may have taken part in the torture himself. Catherine the Great wasn’t exactly distraught when her husband, Peter III, was murdered, leaving her to rule. Catherine’s son, Paul, was murdered as well, although his son, Alexander I, never fully emerged from the guilt he felt about his father’s death.

Excess in the form of wealth & extravagant consumption is another theme. From Peter the Great’s determination to build his city on the Neva, St Petersburg, to Catherine the Great’s refurbishment of palaces in the city & at the village of Tsarskoe Selo, where the Imperial family could live more privately, no expense was spared. Catherine was a great collector, amassing the collection at the Hermitage Palace. The incredible wealth of the Romanovs lasted until the end, with the Fabergé Easter eggs of the last Tsars exemplifying the conspicuous consumption of the aristocracy. This excess was paid for by the labour of millions of serfs & citizens. The divide between the autocratic regime & the vast majority of Russians could only lead to disaster. The assassination of a reforming tsar like Alexander II led to the reactionary reign of his son so that even when moves were made towards modernising Russia, they were often stymied by the inherent problems of ruling such an enormous country & the logistical problems caused by the tyranny of distance.

I enjoyed Simon Sebag Montefiore’s telling of the story very much & Simon Russell Beale’s narration was excellent. I did wonder if we needed so many quotations from the racy love letters Alexander II wrote to his young mistress (& later, his morganatic wife), Katya Dolgorukaya, or so many descriptions of knoutings & tortures, but the book has been amazingly successful for a serious history (over 50 reservations on our copies at work) so the author knows what sells. It kept me listening for nearly 29 hours & I listened to the last 5 hours over a weekend as the compelling description of the last years of Nicholas & Alexandra was so enthralling.

My interest in the ancient world led to my other history audio, Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra : a life. The last of the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt, Cleopatra is almost a mythic figure. I knew the basic outline of her story but this biography filled in a lot of gaps. Cleopatra was an amazingly determined woman. She was co-ruler with her father & then after his death, with her younger brother as co-ruler & husband, according to tradition because a woman wasn’t thought to be capable of ruling alone. She was able to consolidate her position & survive the attempted treachery of her brother & his advisers. Several plots by this brother, Ptolemy XII, &, after his death, by another brother  & co-ruler, Ptolemy XIV, led to Cleopatra appealing to Rome’s most famous general, Julius Caesar, for assistance. Egypt’s enormous resources made it an irresistible prospect for Rome who were keen to have as many client kingdoms ruled by compliant rulers as possible. Cleopatra’s personal relationship with Caesar, which led to the birth of their son, Caesarion, caused scandal but neither cared. I hadn’t realised that Cleopatra was in Rome, living in one of Caesar’s villas, when he was assassinated. She very quickly left Rome for Alexandria, where she proclaimed Caesarion her co-ruler, thereby satisfying tradition & removing the need for her to marry.

Cleopatra’s relationship with the Roman general Marc Antony has become legendary. Stacy Schiff does an excellent job of picking her way through the myths & the hostile propaganda to try to explain the attraction between them. As most of the contemporary or near-contemporary accounts of the period were written by Roman historians, Cleopatra has been attacked & blamed for everything that went wrong. The relationship between Cleopatra & Antony lasted ten years & they had three children together. Cleopatra needed Antony’s military assistance & he needed the wealth & resources she could bring in his battles with his rival & co-Tribune, Octavius. The personal dynamic between the two men was complicated by Antony’s marriage to Octavius’ sister, Octavia, & Octavius’ reputation as a sickly man, not a warrior like Antony. Octavius had been adopted by Julius Caesar as his heir but Cleopatra had Caesar’s son, a situation that was always a threat to Octavius’ power base. The breakdown of the relationship between Octavius & Antony, complicated by Antony’s affair with Cleopatra & his divorce from Octavia, led to the battle of Actium, where Octavius was triumphant. In the aftermath, both Antony & Cleopatra committed suicide.

I loved all the detail in this book about Cleopatra’s Court & the city of Alexandria. Cleopatra was an incredibly shrewd politician. She used her advantages well. Although she was not thought to be particularly beautiful, she was intelligent & witty, able to enthrall Caesar & Antony. She was also pragmatic in a very cut-throat world. She had her siblings exiled or murdered when they threatened her power; she made her son co-ruler so she didn’t need to marry again; she constantly identified with the goddess Isis to enhance her prestige with her own people & put on extravagant public ceremonies – she knew the value of spectacle in politics. She seems to have been the dominant partner in her relationship with Antony, she certainly had the financial clout & she seems to have been the stronger personality. Antony almost fell apart after Actium, he apparently believed that he would be allowed to disappear into exile. Even his suicide was a mess. Cleopatra was determined that she would not become a trophy for Octavius, paraded through Rome as a captive in his Triumph. She meticulously planned her death (it may have been poison rather than the famous asp) & denied Octavius his prize. Her enduring reputation rests on a few images – smuggling herself in to see Caesar wrapped up in a carpet; floating down the Cydnus River to Tarsus to meet Antony, dressed as Aphrodite; dying from the bite of an asp in her own mausoleum. Stacy Schiff has used the available sources brilliantly to create a portrait of a remarkable woman & queen whose career was unique in antiquity & still fascinates today.

I also want to mention a history podcast that I’ve recently discovered. Dan Snow is a historian & broadcaster & he has a podcast called History Hit. He talks to historians, mostly British, about their latest book or a topic in the news & I’m really enjoying browsing the back catalogue. I’ve recently listened to Anna Keay on the Duke of Monmouth, Adrian Goldsworthy on his new book, Pax Romana, Marc Morris on 1216, Anna Whitelock on the Tudors & Janina Ramirez on the Anglo-Saxons. Of course, it’s all adding to my tbr shelves but everything I see, read or hear seems to do that! You can listen to the podcast at the website or subscribe from wherever you get your podcasts.

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