Archive for the ‘Stacy Schiff’ Category

Remember when I used to post several reviews a week?  Ah, for those distant halcyon days.  Well, not so halcyon actually.  It was the middle of winter and I was miserable so all I did was sit inside and read and, after I started blogging, write about those books.  This fall and winter by contrast have been eventful, more than a little stressful, and incredibly productive for me personally, if not for this blog.  I have been reading the whole time, though not always at my normal rate, but the focus has really been on getting my life sorted out.  But now it’s (mostly) sorted.  I’m home and I’m ridiculously happy.  I’m giddy in a way I haven’t been in at least six years, since I last lived in Vancouver.  I look and behave so differently from the Claire of only a few weeks ago and all the changes are for the better.  I have been described as ‘bubbly’ – absolutely not a word that could have been applied to me before.  I’m just so ridiculously happy that it feels like joy is seeping out of every pore.  I’m sure I’m incredibly annoying to be around but life is blissfully good.  And so now, finally, I shall turn my energies to reviewing the many, many books I’ve neglected to tell you all about this year.  Let’s see how many I can review before 2010 ends!

I read Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff at the end of November and adored it.  It’s absolutely what you would term a popular biography, something with widespread appeal rather than academic focus and this suited me perfectly.  My knowledge of the ancient world is essentially nonexistent and though I may have grown up with a best friend who was obsessed with ancient Egypt it was an enthusiasm I never shared; a society so fond of cats did not sit well with me and could only be viewed with suspicion.  But my beloved all-girls school instilled me with a passion for strong female leaders and I’ve always been bothered by the portrayal of Cleopatra as a sexpot rather than a strong ruler in her own right, independent of the Roman men with whom she was so closely associated.

Schiff is very upfront about the shortage of unbiased information of the infamous queen.  History was written by the victors even then and, to the detriment of Cleopatra’s legacy, the victors were the fiercely misogynistic Romans whose versions of events and whose branding of the Egyptian queen as a great seductress ironically determined her iconic status through the ages.  She was the richest person in the world, a skillful politician, a superbly educated amateur scientist, and the mother of children sired by the two most famous Romans of the day: Caesar and Mark Antony.  Yet all most people remember is Elizabeth Taylor with too much eyeliner: 

Can anything good be said of a woman who slept with the two most powerful men of her time?  Possibly, but not in an age when Rome controlled the narrative.  Cleopatra stood at one of the most dangerous intersections in history: that of women and power.  Clever women, Euripides had warned hundreds of years earlier, were dangerous…We do not know if Cleopatra loved either Antony or Caesar, but we do know that she got each to do her bidding.  From the Roman point of view she ‘enslaved’ them both.  Already it was a zero-sum game: a woman’s authority spelled a man’s deception. (p. 4)

It has always been preferable to attribute a woman’s success to her beauty rather than to her brains, to reduce her to the sum of her sex life.  Against a powerful enchantress there is no contest.  Against a woman who ensnares a man in the coils of her serpentine intelligence – in her ropes of pearls – there should, at least, be some kind of antidote.  Cleopatra unsettles more as sage than a seductress; it is less threatening to believe her fatally attractive than fatally intelligent. (p. 298)

Mark Antony is rather emasculated by this biography, portrayed as eternally juvenile, preferring athletics and ribald jokes to the political and military machinations that would determine his fate.  His poorly executed and painfully prolonged suicide is in sharp contrast to Cleopatra’s elegant control of her own death (most likely by a prepared poison, not snake bite).  As Schiff notes, it was only in death that Cleopatra was able to earn the respect of her Roman foes: 

Cleopatra’s was an honourable death, a dignified death, an exemplary death.  She had presided over it herself, proud and unbroken to the end.  By the Roman definition she had at least done something right: finally it was to her credit that she had defied the expectations of her sex. (p. 289) 

Schiff paints a fascinating portrait not only of Cleopatra but of her time and her contemporaries, of the politics that shaped her world and her destiny.  I was particularly interested by the disparity between the rights of Egyptian and Roman women, notably the lack thereof for the latter group, regardless of social class.  Divorce seems to have been hugely popular among upper-class Romans, trading one wife in when a more politically advantageous match could be had.  Egyptian women, by contrast, could own and run businesses on their own (not to mention rule the nation).   They were not equal with men but they certainly came closer to equality than any of their foreign sisters. 

All in all, I was very impressed by this book.  There was a lot of new information to take in but Schiff’s skill as a writer (she won the Pulitzer Prize for her biography of Vera Nabokov) makes the entire experience engaging and exciting.  Highly recommended, particularly for history buffs and readers interested in strong female leaders.

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