Thursday, September 8, 2011

Alexander's Loss Of Face

I'm still reading Anthony Everitt's biography of Augustus.

I started it about three weeks ago.

I think the older I get, the slower I read.

At the rate I'm going, I expect to start reading backwards by the time I'm 60.

Which is different than unreading things. That's an ability no one has apparently acquired yet.

Which is too bad because I really, really wish someone could teach me how to unread Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow.

But I digress. What I really wanted to say here is that I'm enjoying reading about Augustus and those who knew him.

I just finished the chapter in which he visited Alexandria after defeating Mark Antony and Cleopatra once and for all.

Like a lot of tourists to Egypt back then, he made it a point to go see the tomb of Alexander the Great.

Unlike all other tourists, however, he wanted to meet the long-deceased Alexander face to face, so he had his body disinterred.

I guess when you're the supreme ruler of an empire, people will do anything you ask them to do.

Unfortunately, something seems to have gone horribly wrong during this meeting of Augustus and Alexander and... well... somehow Alexander ended up losing his nose.

Today there's nothing at all left of Alexander or his tomb, so in retrospect the loss of a nose seems pretty minor, nothing more than the merest hint of what was to come, but still... it seems rather surprising and uncalled for all the same.

Just because the monuments of Washington DC are probably destined to eventually turn to dust is no excuse for Obama to dig up the body of JFK and break off his nose, you know?

Somehow "Oops - I didn't mean to do that!" seems like a pretty lame excuse no matter how many centuries pass.

And I don't think even today's ultra-sophisticated spinmeisters could convince the masses that a faux pas like that was actually a sign of deep respect.

Anyway, what I'm trying to say is that history often seems to me to be one long catalog of the grotesquely and/or hilariously unexpected. That's what keeps me reading.

Of course the unexpected confirmation of things I thought I already knew is nice as well.

Everitt's biography of Augustus provided me with one of those, too, when in the course of talking about how Mark Antony and his men were bottled up in Actium harbor it mentions in passing how disease started spreading through the ranks because "the barely perceptible tides of the Mediterranean" weren't enough to dissipate all their garbage and waste.

Ha! If the frickin' Mediterranean Sea doesn't have much of a tide, certainly Lake Erie has even less of one - which is one of the things I was trying to convince my S.O. of this past June while we were vacationing in Vermilion.

Thank you, Mr. Everitt, for inadvertently offering this tiny bit of proof that I really *do* know what I'm talking about sometimes.

And thanks as well for sharing your take on the whole "Cleopatra killed herself with an asp" story. Like others, you dismiss it as probably a myth. What makes your dismissal so memorable and worthy of thanks, however, is your revelation that Egyptian asps tend to be some 8 feet long and thus rather difficult to smuggle into a closely watched chamber.

The picture you generated in my head of Elizabeth Taylor clutching an 8-foot-long snake to her breast in an attempt to kill herself in 20th Century Fox's cinematic version of the tale is worth MUCH more than what I paid for your book.

Thanks ahead of time for the other smile-inducing revelations that doubtlessly await my history-hungry eyes.


  1. I would like to say that a baby asp has a deadly bite and could be easily smuggled.

  2. While I think Obama's unearthing JFK to deface him would certainly be uncalled-for, should he feel such an inclination for denosifying Nixon, it'd be an entirely different story. Nixon's nose was just MADE for breaking off.

    Your tidal issues made me go google tides, and I was stunned to learn that the EARTH, that is, dry land is susceptible to the same forces as the water!

    Your last story made me *gasp*!

    Vive l'histoire! :-) C'est un double entendre.