Saturday, July 13, 2013

Her infinite variety

You've seen that bumper sticker: "Well-behaved women seldom make history?" It seems tailor-made for Cleopatra VII of Egypt (although it wasn't). Cleopatra made a lot of history, but in Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra: A Life, she makes the argument that much of that history was made up by men. By men who didn't like her very much. By men who needed to recreate her as a seductress and a power-hungry harridan because they needed to justify their destruction of her and their occupation of her country. In another famous quotation (whose authorship is somewhat in doubt): "History is written by the victors." Ultimately, Cleopatra was a loser.

Schiff tries to peel away the hype from Octavius (Augustus) Caesar's Roman Empire and find out who Cleopatra really was. Her source material is negligible (mostly written by those guys like Cicero who needed to demonize her), but Schiff does a fine historian's job of portraying the world around Cleopatra  and then extrapolating what Cleopatra may have been like. Raised to be a queen (as a Ptolemy, she could claim a direct line from Alexander the Great), she skillfully played politics as she attempted to ally with the powerful Romans in a way that would protect Egypt, whose wealth and natural resources Rome had its eye on. Rome was in an uproar at the time as first Pompey, then Julius Caesar, then Mark Antony and finally Augustus jockeyed for power. And if she had to sleep with one or two of them (which she did), according to Schiff this didn't make her promiscuous, just politically savvy. And maybe she was in love. Of course, ultimately she didn't stand a chance against the Roman Empire, but it's not because she was a woman.

(If you occasionally do, like me, get your history from fiction and film, the mini-series Rome -- once you overlook the boobs and the bull's blood -- does give an entertaining overview of this period. The marvelous I, Claudius then picks up the story after Augustus consolidates his power.)

I enjoyed this bit of history (about which I knew next to nothing), but occasionally it felt like Schiff was really stretching her role as biographer into post-feminist speculation rather than sticking to the facts available to her. But I appreciated learning that Cleopatra was a prodigious politician whose first loyalty was to her country, and that her motives and actions were impugned in a way that belittled her and made her just one thing: a woman of devious sexuality, i.e. not a Roman woman. I want to see Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra again armed now with Schiff's jaundiced eye. (Post title is part of Shakespeare's description of her [Act II, Scene II, Line 237 in the Pelican Shakespeare].)

The audiobook is read by Robin Miles, who doesn't sensationalize the biography with character portrayals or drama. She reads it clearly and matter-of-factly, yet I also got a sense of quiet desperation as Cleopatra approached her inevitable doom. This being a work of nonfiction, there are footnotes; these are incorporated into the text at the appropriate spot (not piled on at the end), and Miles goes back and forth from narrative to footnote to narrative with ease and confidence.

Also available to download from the book on CD was an informative short PDF full of well-captioned images, offering visuals of Alexandria -- perhaps the most cosmopolitan of the cities of the period -- as well as contemporary depictions of the major players.  In this case, a posthumous bust of Caesar at 56 looks more attractive than the pugnacious Mark Antony, but a wiry Octavius trumps them both. The images of Cleopatra are fascinating, though, as she is not a conventional beauty. There must have been something else there.  And why did the book's publishers put that sappy photograph on the cover when they could have used the real thing? Would we not open the book if the subject isn't depicted with her va-va-va-voom?

[One of the images from the audiobook's bonus material is this 80-drachma coin minted during Cleopatra's lifetime. It lives at the Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow and was retrieved from the museum's website.]

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
Narrated by Robin Miles
Hachette Audio, 2010.  14:16

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