How Popular Culture Shapes and Restricts Public Memory

This year marks the centennial of the First World War: an epic, transformative global conflict that lasted just over four years and claimed the lives of seventeen million soldiers and civilians. Today, there are no living survivors of the Great War; we must rely solely on collective memory to understand what happened amid the blood and the mud, the writing and the waiting, one hundred years ago.

There is, of course, an inherent problem with this. The British remember the war in a particular way; as, indeed, every country involved does. For us, the war was futile, horrific, catastrophic – a war of ‘lions led by donkeys’ – that stripped our country of its bravest and brightest. Interestingly, this was not the common belief in the immediate aftermath of the war; this idea only really gained traction during the economic slump of the 1920s. But despite this fact, and even in the face of a recent boom in scholarship around the First World War, there has been little impact on popular remembrance. The war is still understood in Britain as the ‘bad war’ – especially in contrast to its successor – and this over-arching narrative is emphasised and promulgated by popular culture.

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Why Was Murder Preferrable to Marriage in the Case of Cleopatra?

It is the year 308 BC; fifteen years after the death of Alexander the Great. During this time, his empire has been unofficially divided between his closest companions: Ptolemy, a Macedonian general and one of Alexander’s oldest friends, has control of Egypt; the one-eyed general Antigonus has Asia Minor and Syria, and Cassander – son of the late great general Antipater – has forcefully taken over as regent of Macedonia and the Greek city states. This arrangement, however, is far from secure and intermittent, bloody war rages throughout Alexander’s lands.

In Sardis, the capital city of Lydia (situated in modern-day Turkey), Cleopatra of Macedon plots her escape. She has been living as a guest-prisoner with Antigonus for more than ten years. She is a princess – the full sister of Alexander the Great. By now she is about fifty years old. Most of her family is dead – mother, father, brother and half-siblings all having met untimely deaths. Somehow, word has reached her that Ptolemy, ruler of Egypt and a childhood friend of her brother’s, has asked for her hand in marriage. Despite having rejected the proposals of many of Alexander’s other generals, she accepts. This is where we find her, attempting to make her way south to Egypt.

She never makes it. Antigonus’s men find her and she is brought back to Sardis, imprisoned and killed. The question is, why?

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