Thursday, January 20, 2011
Book Review: Cleopatra
I was drawn to Stacy Schiff's new biography of Cleopatra not only because I saw her (the author, that is) on Jon Stewart's show, but also because I've devoted considerable study to another Greek-speaking ancient Egyptian babe, Hypatia of Alexandria. (As with most women, ancient here is a highly relative term, unless you're blood relative and you know for sure. Hypatia was almost 500 years younger than Cleo - being a young adult in 415 A.D. versus 45 B.C. - but I calculate about 1,363 years older than me, and I leave it to the brighter boychiks to do that math.)
About the book I would say it's an engaging account and a worthy contribution to the topic. Schiff admitted (on camera to Jon, as I can attest) that not much is known about this last of the pharaohs. As a result, this book is mostly conjecture - scholarly and informed conjecture - but speculation nonetheless. Imagine you are reading a rather well-written history text, clicking along about tenth-grade reading level, and every sentence begins (or could begin) with "She would have..." or "It is likely that..." That is, Schiff argues mostly from circumstantial evidence and logic.
Her opinions are therefore not necesarily more factual than anyone else's, except when a bona fide scholar expresses an opinion, we tend to give it more weight than amateur conjectures like mine. Especially when a lot of people these days who are struggling to read at tenth grade level could not identify Cleopatra's role in history unless they recall seeing the oft-derided Fox epic on Turner. Schiff points out that we don't even know what Cleo looked like, except for some profiles on ancient coins. The author astutely points out that those likenesses would have been subject to royal approval, and therefore are probably pretty good. Unfortunately for the sake of Cleo's reputation, they are not all that pretty.
To paraphrase Schiff's conclusion, "She would have had a helluva mind." Plus, of course, political power, the world's largest personal fortune (far surpassing anything in Rome), and -- let's take a wild guess -- a helluva body and some hard-earned skills.
Schiff's arguments point out the varying political biases of historians such as Herodotus, Dio, and Josephus. After all, that's most of the written evidence we have. From a scholarly standpoint, hers is a significant contribution simply because of that dose of objectivity.
But life is not all that logical at times, and although Schiff takes emotions and even passions into account, arguing what Hitchcock called the "plausibles" could easily get things wrong. Life doesn't always make perfect sense. Read our recent history, about which we have more information than anyone could digest, and then ask yourself how you'd explain its seeming lack of logical progression to some (hopefully benign) intelligent space alien.
With all its focus on the pharaoh, this book called Cleopatra is mostly about Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, and Schiff seems genuinely in awe of both. Perhaps rightly so, but you wonder which of the three she'd rather have dinner with.
My favorite parts of Cleopatra are Schiff's descriptions of the royal barges (imagine something almost the size of a Royal Caribbean being paddled around by a thousand slaves, enclosing a theater, a gym, a banquet hall, plus the royal suite and staff quarters). Then there are the luxurious decorations and feast days in the city of Alexandria. Romans - yes, the Romans - thought the Alexandrians celebrated to excess!
And my favorite of her many observations: Since Cleopatra was descended from Macedonian Greeks (generals in Alexander the Great's army), she was "about as Egyptian as Elizabeth Taylor."
This was the first book I read on Kindle. Get two Kindles. One for yourself and one for your wife or girlfriend. Because if you don't she will borrow it and you will never see it again! If you live under the same roof, maybe only one needs to have 3G. Make it yours!