Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Cleopatra as the Great Bureaucrat

Reading Cleopatra, one of the Times' 10 best books of the year.  Parenthetically I note the readers' reviews at Amazon average between 3 and 4; a rather surprising result which is explained by the fact many reviewers expected to find a biography full of sex, even a book of historical fiction.  Instead, they find a book which tries not to go too far beyond the available sources, which are few and untimely. (Consider trying to describe the Constitution from a book by Charles Beard and one by Glenn Beck.)

Because of the scarcity of sources, the author weaves in lots of detail about Egyptian society and Roman society, which strongly appeals to me. What surprised was the extensive bureaucracy the Egyptian state possessed, even down to tracking the amount of seed provided to a farmer and requiring the return of that amount after harvest, in addition to taking 50 percent of the crop. And Cleopatra served as chief bureaucrat, likely being a more hands-on administrator than such heads of state as Henry VIII and Khrushchev.

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