Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff

The personal inevitably trumps the political, and the erotic trumps all: We will remember that Cleopatra slept with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony long after we have forgotten what she accomplished in doing so, that she sustained a vast, rich, densely populated empire in its troubled twilight, in the name of a proud and cultivated dynasty.

Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra is a dogged attempt at the resuscitation of one woman's reputation, sullied over two millennia by misogynists, xenophobes, and axe-grinders. It is perhaps a little late--I suspect that our modern aversion to outdated stereotypes of manipulative and unserious women has scrubbed off much of the tarnish--Cleopatra's reputation as the Great Seducer remains. Schiff doesn't deny Cleopatra's erotic appeal, but traces it to her eloquence, not her lasciviousness, and affirms her canny political acumen. After all, as Pharaoh and later Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra was in a precarious position on a Mediterranean shore being carved up by decades of Roman civil war, and her alliance with two of its most preeminent power holders--Julius Caesar and Mark Antony--ensured her survival for decades in a kingdom where monarchs frequently lasted months, or weeks.

The shortcomings of Schiff's project are many, but they are perhaps not her fault. The long stretches in which Cleopatra takes a backseat to the machinations between Antony and Octavian are probably necessary, both for our understanding and because of a spotty historical record. She is probably right when she argues that Cleopatra's record has been maligned, but when she has torpedoed the bias of ancient historians, she frequently finds herself lacking much material to go on. This is disguised in part by presenting the book as stridently non-academic--she quotes, many times, "one ancient historian," and buries the citation in the endnotes--but this is also it's greatest strength: it's fairly engrossing, and its narrative compelling.

One of the most appealing parts of the book for me was the fulsome descriptions of ancient Alexandria, the (I had not realized) foremost city of the world at the time. Rome was a rustic backwater, but Alexandria "remained a swirl of reds and yellows, a swelling kaleidoscope of music, chaos, and color. Altogether it was a mood-altering city of extreme sensuality and high intellectualism, the Paris of the ancient world: superior in its ways, splendid in its luxuries, the place to spend your fortune, write your poetry, find (or forget) a romance, restore your health, reinvent yourself, or regroup after having conquered vast swaths of Italy, Spain, and Greece over the course of a Herculean decade." Schiff makes much of Cleopatra's expense records, with their absurd numbers of suckling pigs and oysters and golden everythings, and it's easy to see why a man like Antony, with his imperial pretensions, would have such a difficult time returning to Rome, Cleopatra notwithstanding. For Schiff, Alexandria is an image of Cleopatra herself: seductive, exuberant, but also marked by intelligence, prosperity, and a vaunted heritage.

In the end, of course, Schiff cannot excuse the simple fact that Cleopatra's acumen came up short: whether you believe they were in love or not, Cleopatra backs the wrong horse in Antony. In fact, Schiff is nearly undone by her alluring portrait of Alexandria. Cleopatra and Antony's disastrous flight at Actium, a battle staged only to give them a chance to escape back to Egypt once at sea, makes Antony look like a man more desperate to return to luxury than to rule the world. Nor does her description of Antony as a "great brooding hulk" after Actium mitigate the traditional perspective that Cleopatra held undue sway over the once-powerful general.

The greatest part of the story, as it is in Shakespeare (soon to come), the end: Antony, having mangled his own suicide, dying in Cleopatra's arms; Cleopatra committing hers surreptitiously, and somewhat triumphantly, under the watchful eye of Octavian's guard. She cynically implodes the story of the asp, saying that "[a] woman known for her crisp decisions and meticulous planning would surely have hesitated to entrust her fate to a wild animal." But, she suggests, there is always the possibility that Octavian, remembering the sympathy unwittingly engendered toward Cleopatra's captured sister Arsinoe in Julius Caesar's triumph decades before, had her killed. "While her death reduced the glory a little," she writes, "it also eliminated a host of complications."

My Roman history is not quite as thorough as my Latin degree might suggest. But it seems to me that either Schiff is a popular biographer, not a historian, and thus odd to be the first person to voice this suspicion--or she's working from sources she fails to cite. Is that prejudiced? Maybe. But if reputations are going to be resuscitated, it ought to be by means more stringent than the histories that maligned them in the first place.

But that's pedantic. Cleopatra succeeds, in the end, by straddling the line between popular non-fiction and thorough historical assessment. She won the Pulitzer prize for her biography of Vera Nabokov, and it wouldn't surprise me to see this make the shortlist either.

1 comment:

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