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Stories To Tell Books BLOG

Creating a Vivid Portrait of Distant Ancestors

Biff Barnes

In my last couple of posts, we’ve looked at to problem a family historian faces when trying to write a book about relatives accessible only through written records. Today we’ll look at what can be done when dealing with more distant ancestors for whom written records may be less plentiful.

We’ll look to 2000 Pulitzer Prize winner Stacy Schiff’s recent book, Cleopatra: A Life, for some illustrations of how to create a lively but fact based portrait with only limited records from which to work.

In 44 B.C., following the death of Julius Caesar, her lover and the father of her child, Cleopatra returned to her Egyptian capital at Alexandria. Schiff begins her description of the moment with an admission. “For a woman who was to be celebrated for her masterly manipulation of Rome, Cleopatra’s story would be entrusted to that city’s historians; she effectively ceases to exist without a Roman in the room. None stood at hand that spring as she sailed toward the red-tiled roof-tops of Alexandria.”

With no actual chronicle of Cleopatra herself, Schiff uses a combination of the historical record of events in Egypt and some sound inferences to create a vivid account of the queen at that moment. She begins by speculating her state of mind. “…whether she grieved personally [for Caesar] of not, she had cause for apprehension. Not only was there no one to intervene on her behalf in Rome, but she had now inserted herself dangerously into the blood sport of that city’s politics.”

Next Schiff looks at the state of Egypt at the moment. “She returned to a kingdom that was prosperous and at peace…There are no extant records of protests concerning tax collections, no evidence of the kind of revolt that had greeted her father’s return. The temples flourished.” Schiff then speculates about how Cleopatra must have felt. “’Home is best,’ went the Greek adage, and so it must have felt to Cleopatra.”

To illustrate that feeling, Schiff returns to facts in the historical record to show that Cleopatra was indeed happy to be home. “She embarked on an ambitious building program,” says Schiff. “Under Cleopatra, Alexandria enjoyed a robust intellectual revival.” And Cleopatra’s people held her in even greater esteem than she had enjoyed earlier in her rein. As Schiff explains, “If Caesar had returned from Alexandria more royal than before, Cleopatra returned from Rome more godly. She vigorously embraced her role as Isis [the Egyptian goddess Cleopatra was supposed to embody] It did not hurt her that on the first day of 42[B.C.] Caesar was  - in a solemn religious ceremony – declared a god.”

A family historian using her own research into the records of the time and place in which distant ancestors lived can then make reasonable inferences about what they must have thought or felt creating a much more vivid account of those ancestors than is available in the genealogical record alone.