Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Winners Write History

Cleopatra: A Life
Stacy Schiff

Who was Cleopatra? Stacy Schiff’s biography attempts to paint as complete a portrait of the mysterious Egyptian queen as can be rendered.

Schiff does a wonderful job presenting the often-conflicting accounts of Cleopatra, and teasing out the probable truth. She candidly admits that there’s much we don’t know. Because of this, Cleopatra maintains her distance.  You never feel a close intimacy with her. Of course, she was the queen of Egypt, descended from Isis. How many people who knew her ever felt a close intimacy? Very few, I’m guessing.

Cleopatra has been immortalized as a wanton seductress, sleeping her way into history. Schiff points out the hypocrisy and double standards that are all too familiar even today:

In the ancient world too women schemed while men strategized; there was a great gulf, elemental and eternal, between the adventurer and the adventuress. There was one too between virility and promiscuity: Caesar left Cleopatra in Alexandria to sleep with the wife of the king of Mauretania. Antony arrived in Tarsus [where his and Cleopatra’s sexual relationship probably began – MJ] fresh from an affair with the queen of Cappadocia.” page 167

I often felt sad and frustrated while reading Cleopatra’s story. There’s one time especially, when Octavian has finally set Cleopatra and Mark Antony squarely within his sights. Cleopatra is forced to let Antony do the talking and try to combat Octavian’s rhetoric. Antony is unable to match Octavian. Schiff suggests that perhaps Cleopatra could have. That may have been true, in a one on one encounter. However, Cleopatra knew that no matter how brilliant her wit, how commanding her speeches, she could not win over the people of Rome. The highly patriarchal society in which they lived would not allow them to listen to a woman.

Schiff has more material when describing the other players in this story. She puts this to good use, as it makes it easier to understand Cleopatra when you understand the people she was interacting with. Her actions become understandable in context. She wanted to be the undisputed ruler of her Egyptian kingdom – answerable to no Roman overlord. What sovereign, especially in her time, would have wanted any different? Cleopatra had the nerve, the resources, and the connections to try for it, even if she was eventually defeated.

Quick aside: one of the lesser players in this tale was King Herod of Judea. Now, I know my Bible stories as well as the next person who went to Sunday school many moons ago (and has since, ahem, stopped) so this name seemed awfully familiar. I did some quick googling to find out if this was the same Herod who tried to eliminate the infant Jesus. Yup, same guy. It was really interesting to get some background into what made him tick.

Cleopatra’s fate was to be an epic loser in the eyes of history, where the victors tell the story. Octavian managed to control the narrative during her lifetime, and his version has stood the test of time. However, even having lost an Egyptian empire, Cleopatra has still managed to capture the attention of humanity two thousand years after her death.


K @ BaffledBooks said...

I always thought Cleopatra was a fascinating character, but I have never read any serious non-fiction about her life. The extent of my knowledge comes from that movie made in the 60's with Elizabeth Taylor and the HBO television series 'Rome'. I don't read a lot of non-fiction in general but I will check this one out.

MJ said...

@K @ BaffledBooks
I actually just watched the Elizabeth Taylor movie! It certainly influenced my decision to pick up this book.