Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Book Review: Cleopatra: A Life

Title: Cleopatra: A Life
Author: Stacy Schiff
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication Year: 2010
Read: March 2017
Where It Came From:Library e-Audiobook
Genre: Non-fiction-biography
Rating: 4 Strands of Pearls

I can't think of the last time a non-fiction book made me cry. Well, I'm sure there are actually lots of tear-jerking and upsetting non-fiction books out there, so let me amend that: I can't think of the last time a non-fiction book about the ancient world, with principal characters more myth than human to modern eyes, made me cry. I first tried to read this book in 2013 (thanks, Goodreads, for allowing me to compulsively keep track of my reading habits!), but I just couldn't get into it. Earlier this month I felt inspired to try again, this time with the audio version, and that did the trick (thanks as always to Susan, who turned me on to the merits of nonfiction in audiobook form). It held my ("rapt" might be an appropriate word here) attention as I listened to it while getting ready in the mornings and on my commute for the last couple weeks. I started listening on International Women's Day, which while not specifically planned, turned out to be apt.

A few thoughts. This book laid open some gaping, heretofore unknown failures in my education. Number one, and one that fits into the category of gape-mouthed shock and mind-blowing world-shifting (ask me about Marie Antoinette and the "let them eat cake" thing or coconut milk vs. coconut water someday if you're interested in more from this same odd subgenre for me)--Cleopatra VII (who was actually VI, but that's not the shocker here), was not actually Egyptian! She, and her entire Ptolemaic dynasty, was of Macedonian Greek descent. They ruled over Egypt and its people, but they and their city of Alexandria were a product of Hellenistic culture (though certainly with some merging and mingling with culturally Egyptian things). Is this common knowledge?? I have spent my entire life (with the exception of a note I remember from a Royal Diaries book I read in junior high mentioning that Cleopatra could have possibly been blonde) under the impression that Cleopatra was ethnically and culturally Egyptian in the way that Ramses and Nefertiti and all those other pharaohs that fascinated me as a child were.

Number two, the more this book went on, the more I realized how little I actually knew of the Caesar/Cleopatra/Marc Antony story. Culturally, it's something probably most everyone is aware of in some way, but I didn't realize how amorphous a blob my understanding of it was, punctuated by random markers (often erroneous, I now know) like "asp" and "love triangle" and "rolled up in a carpet." My weird, literature- and pop culture-influenced understanding of the tale involved a screwed-up timeline, confused relationships, unclear motives, and gaping holes. This book helped straighten out, clarify, and fill in, but only to a certain extent. The broad strokes are there, details too, to an extent, but a great many details are still lost.

And that is in no way the fault of the book. As an adage we all know, used near to the point of cliché, history is written by the victors. And the victors in this case were Octavian, Rome, and a culture supremely uncomfortable with powerful women. The book discusses the fact that there are no contemporaneous accounts of Cleopatra, nothing that remains of her own voice, so we are left to piece together a picture of her based on the accounts of the men telling her story after the fact, and to examine their bias for hints as to how their version of events may be skewed. It’s hard for anyone to get a picture of Cleopatra as she actually was, as throughout history and the many versions of her story, it is easier for the writers (the patriarchy?) to attribute her success to beauty rather than intelligence, to feminine wiles rather than cleverness, to subterfuge rather than strategy, to reduce her power to exoticism and sex. As the author notes in the book, when men do it, it's called strategizing, but when women do it, it's called scheming. It's frustrating, like looking at her through the surface of a pond, able to make out the general shape, but with the details obscured by the shifting surface. In the end, we're left with a picture of Cleopatra as an imperfect, fallible human, but certainly an intelligent, driven, and strong woman, making a stand for her country, her people, and herself, in a masculine world.

I put off finishing this book for a day or two, because I was overcome with that feeling when you know the original story well enough (even considering my aforementioned flawed and incomplete knowledge of said original story) to know that the shit is about to irreparably hit the fan. In the end my tears weren't as much for the tragic end to the Antony/Cleopatra relationship (moving without being overly sentimental here), as they were for the underdogs who had lost, and the woman who had clashed with all Roman expectations of females, and tried to prevent the sun from setting on her land, people, and dynasty. I am left with a hunger for details and questions that can never be answered about these people and their time, and so for the ravages of passing centuries and of those who write the histories, I had some tears, too.

Add this one to the "required feminist reading" list.

*As ever, wherever our copies of the books we read come from, our reviews remain uninfluenced by the source of said copies, or by anyone else, for that matter.

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