Tuesday, February 21, 2017

February Book Review: Cleopatra: A Life

I'd meant to read Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra since it came out and finally picked it up last week, when I thought some ancient history might give me a nice mental break from current events. Except it did not do that at all! Because in Cleopatra's world, the men who were actually dealing with her and those who were writing the histories both had a huge problem with smart, capable women being in power. Sound familiar? So they explained away her accomplishments and coded them very differently - if Caesar was strategic, Cleopatra was manipulative. And a lot of that reputation for seduction and perhaps sorcery? That came from her getting men to do what she wanted by outthinking them, but that couldn't possibly be the official story.

So, yeah, this only intensified my feminist rage. But it was worth it, because it's a fascinating read. I knew the basics of Cleopatra's story, of course, but I didn't know a lot of the details, and in most cases Schiff effectively provided enough historical context to make sense of Cleopatra's story while still keeping the book her story, rather than that of Caesar and Antony and the rest of the men around her. It did make me wish at times that I knew more about the Roman and Judean history of the time, to better understand the politics and battles, but that's my problem rather than the book's: I wouldn't have wanted Schiff to devote much more space to that. I did love the focus Schiff placed on illustrating how different writers - both Roman and later, including Shakespeare - portrayed Cleopatra in different ways because of their own biases and motivations.

A common problem with popular history books - and with books about historical women in particular - is that the actual historical record can be way too thin to put together a narrative. Some writers hypothesize too much without making clear what is conjecture, and on the other end of the spectrum some resort to transcribing extant shopping lists and other trivia without useful synthesizing them into the narrative. (And nothing makes me yell at a book more quickly than a claim of how an historical figure felt at a given moment. If there's no diary or letter to back that up, how do you know?) I thought Schiff did a really good job of threading the needle here: she produces a compelling narrative while making it incredibly clear when her sources conflict or may not be trustworthy, and when she's theorizing based on similar situations and norms of the time and culture.

This isn't a perfect book - the narrative format made things a bit unnecessarily confusing at times, throwing us into the middle of things and then backing up to provide the necessary information to make sense of them. And it really could have used a genealogical chart or twelve. But it was definitely worth reading, and I'd highly recommend it to anyone who wants to branch out a bit and get mad about historical political situations along with the current one.

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