If Hollywood epics have taught us anything about the ancient world, it’s that Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt was drop-dead gorgeous. The original femme fatale has only been played by sultry screen goddesses — Claudette Colbert, Vivian Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor. But just how beautiful was she? According to the ancient biographer Plutarch, men were hypnotized not by Cleopatra’s looks but by her wit and charm: Her beauty was “not of the incomparable kind that would astonish everyone who saw her,” he wrote, “but her conversation was irresistibly fascinating, and her character utterly mesmerizing.”  She certainly knew how to make a memorable entrance: To meet Mark Anthony on the modern-day coast of Turkey, she arrived in a luxurious gondola dressed as Aphrodite and reclining on a gold bed as naked slaves fanned her with feathers. (The ancients did not share our sense of privacy; the minions would have kept fanning while… More…

The spectacle of the fleshy FBI chief lurching around the corridors of New York’s Plaza Hotel in drag is now indelibly lodged in American popular folklore. The story is deeply satisfying since it suggests the powerful Hoover — who monitored, harassed and blackmailed thousands of Americans about their sex lives — was a rank and villainous hypocrite. Unfortunately, it is based entirely on the testimony of only one witness: Susan Rosenstiel, the former wife of a wealthy liquor distiller, who was quoted at length in the over-heated Official and Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover, a 1993 biography by muckraking Brit Anthony Summers and excerpted in Vanity Fair magazine.

For the record, Ms. Rosenstiel said that she and her husband went to a party with the gay McCarthy henchman Roy Cohn at the Plaza Hotel overlooking New York’s Central Park in 1958. There she met Hoover in a… More…

 

Power, as Henry Kissinger gloated, is the ultimate aphrodisiac. At his star’s highest point in 1810 — he was then aged 41 — the Emperor Napoleon was the master of continental Europe, with 44 million people under his control. Then, in a moment of candor, he confessed to an aide that he had done it all not for glory, patriotism, or ego, but for love: As the world’s most powerful man, he could sleep with any woman he desired.

In the Emperor’s bedroom, however, the reviews were mixed. Just as he indifferently bolted down his food, paid no attention to his clothes, and could be self-absorbed and distracted in conversation, Napoleon’s romantic style, admits one otherwise admiring biographer, was “anything but endearing.” A description by the author Stendahl, backed up by members of Napoleon’s staff, describes his “brutally… More…

 

When the Soviets finally released the autopsy report on Hitler’s corpse in 1968, it contained the startling datum that the Führer was one testicle short. The body found outside the Berlin bunker had been burned with gasoline and had to be identified by its dental records (Hitler had terrible teeth, with metal implants for false incisors). But according to the strikingly-named Russian examining Doctor Faust Shkaravaski, Hitler’s scrotum sack remained perfectly intact — “singed but preserved” — and very definitely minus a bollock. This news from the USSR was greeted with fascination in the West and has inspired a cottage industry of explanations from industrious Nazi historians:

Theory #1: The Führer was born that way.

The possibility that Hitler was born with monorchism — one testicle missing — provoked a flurry of studies on Hitler’s psychology, arguing that… More…

 

When the crowd asks Mary, “Are you a virgin?” she mutters in embarrassment, “None of your business,” and so they nudge one another knowingly: “She is.”  On the subject of Christians’ wishful thinking, Monty Python’s Life of Brian isn’t so far from the mark: There is no surviving testimony from the young Jewish woman Mary herself about the ultimate in-vitro fertilization — or anything else, for that matter.  Even her name is a matter of confusion: In some gospels she is called Mariám (a version of Miriam) more often than Maria.  The details of Mary’s miraculous pregnancy were actually added to the gospels of Matthew and Luke around 80 A.D., some decades after Mary’s death and based on oral traditions that had perhaps blended with fantasy.  In fact, the whole virginity business was not considered terribly important for… More…

Vegetarians have grown to relish — or at least tolerate — fake chicken, mock turkey, soy hot dogs, and flame-grilled tofu burgers. But the noble tradition of fake foods dates back to antiquity. Roman cooks loved to disguise the flavors of their dishes. The ancients relished food games at their banquets, and cooks took great pride in concealing flavors so that one type of meat might taste like another — or like nothing at all. One of the more peculiar recipes that survives from the first extant cookbook, dating to the fourth century A.D., is called, bluntly enough, Anchovy Casserole Without the Anchovies. The author, Apicius, proudly boasted, “No one at the table will know what he is eating.” Artists were employed at banquets to make realistic sculptures of lions out of chicken meat, bulls of fish flesh, camels of venison — anything to tickle the jaded diners.

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Dinner parties are often about power. A host can lord over his captive guests, so many have been the setting for cruel practical jokes.

Around 90 A.D., the twisted Emperor Domitian invited a crowd of aristocratic couples to a banquet at his palace on the Palatine Hill. When they arrived at the palace, the guests were ushered into a room that was decorated entirely in black — black marble, black paint, and black velvet drapes, lit only by flickering funeral lamps. Each guest’s place was marked with a gravestone engraved with his or her name, and instead of the customary soft couches, they reclined on rock-hard benches. The terrified guests assumed they were about to be murdered by the emperor — a… More…

America was booming in the Gilded Age, the era after the Civil War when robber barons hammered out vast empires and enormous fortunes were made overnight in New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia. At the same time out West, American chefs were refining their own contribution to international culture: Fast food.

Of course, they were drawing on a grand tradition: As with so much else, we can blame the ancient Romans for the original idea. As excavators have found in Pompeii, busy citizens would stand at stone counters called thermapolia and shovel down fried meat or rich stews ladeled out of in vats in the counter (an early form of steam table). Travelers even more pressed for time… More…

Our modern passion for marking anniversaries can be traced back to the ancient Etruscans, whose belief in the cosmic significance of historical cycles was absorbed by the Romans. According to their augurs, every 110 years — then the maximum possible length of a human life — formed a distinct historical epoch called a saeculum, represented by its own metal (the golden age was best, silver second best…) and ruled by its own astrological power. Overall, history went in 10-saeculum cycles from glory to decadence to disaster to renewal and back again, ad infinitum, echoing the eternal movements of the seasons themselves. The turning of each cycle was marked with a festival or religious rite. Naturally, this emphasis on dates and cycles provoked an artificial self-awareness at key transitional moments — the Roman millennium of 248 A.D. being one extreme case, and the New Year’s Eve party of 1999 A.D. being… More…

Berlin in the 1920s boasted a string of theme restaurants that rank as the forgotten precursors of Disneyland and Las Vegas. The most popular was the colossal Haus Vaterland (Fatherland House) on Potsdamer Platz, where customers entered beneath an electric sign that announced “Every Nation Under One Roof” to wander through a domed entertainment complex that took up a whole city block. Inside were 12 restaurants, each with live music and its own international gimmick — Turkish cafe, Western saloon, Hungarian peasant tavern, Spanish flamenco bar. Like a World’s Fair pavilion, it was a palace of high kitsch. The most popular venue was the Bavarian Wine Terrace, which gave an ersatz view over a giant fake painted Rhine, complete with a poetically ruined castle. Every hour, the lights dimmed, fake lightning flashed, thunder clapped, and sprinklers sent a light summer rain shower to refresh the happy crowd.

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