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22 April 2011

Hooked on Classics Yet Again: The Face of Cleopatra


Quick: what did Cleopatra look like?

And if the beautiful face that comes most readily to mind is Elizabeth Taylor's from the lumbering 1963 movie extravaganza -- well, until recently it did for me too, and probably would have done so even before Taylor's lamented death last month.

With, I'll sheepishly confess, Nefretiri's even more beautiful one a close second in my muddled imagination of the ancient world -- at least until a quick trip to Wikipedia informed me of the little matter of 1300 years intervening between the reigns of the two Egyptian queens.

But even taking into account my historical imagination shamelessly in the thrall of pop history and history according to the movies, it turns out to be pretty understandable that I couldn't call an image to mind of a woman whose name has become a byword for fatal female attraction.

Because the images we have of Cleopatra -- from an age when public representation of rulers was ubiquitous -- are a paltry few, most reliably existing on coins like this one from 36 BC, minted, as Cleopatra's recent biographer, Stacy Schiff, tells us, to announce Antony and Cleopatra's political alliance.

Not that there weren't sculptures aplenty all over Egypt during Cleopatra's lifetime (and one in Rome, too: Julius Caesar had it done all in gold, in the temple of Venus that he built) but they haven't survived. For the simple reason that in the years after Antony and Cleopatra's defeat and suicide, as Rome went from Republic to Empire under Octavian (who renamed himself Augustus) her statues were systematically torn down and replaced by those of the conquering Roman emperor. Even as the ancient kingdom of Egypt lost the autonomy under Rome that Cleopatra had worked all her adult life to maintain -- and as, under Augustus, Rome created its own great literature, and a public mythology that outlasted Rome itself by some millenia, with Cleopatra's story transformed into history's great negative lessons about what happens when a woman gets too much power.

And if all this leaves little memory of the canny and self-possessed -- if notably unbeautiful -- woman on the coin, with her white diadem of office, a fortune in pearls around her neck and woven through her elaborate hairdo, and her knowing smile, Schiff's recent biography has achieved the job of historical reclamation to spectacular effect. The cover of which book -- at least in its current hardback edition -- manages to have it a number of provocative ways, subtly recalling the image on the coin in its aspect and its handling of the diadem, hair, and pearls, hinting at the fabled beauty we've come to assume even as it rotates the face away from us, turning it backward into shadow.

Particularly artful, that turn into shadow, given how little direct information we have about the woman, Cleopatra VII, who ruled Egypt for twenty-two years -- and how much of what we do "know" comes from a Roman political PR machine staffed by the likes of Virgil, Horace, and Plutarch (who was the main source for Shakespeare).

A family values kind of guy (for his citizenry if not for himself), Augustus clad his empire in a strict ideology of masculinist rectitude. How better to do this than to portray the richest person in the Mediterranean, who spoke nine languages -- a charismatic, profoundly well-educated woman who, in Schiff's words, "knew how to build a fleet, suppress an insurrections, control a currency, alleviate a famine"-- as a sexual wanton who ruled by nefarious wiles? Particularly because that same woman did, after all, sleep with two of the most powerful men of her time, have children with them, and at important junctures, cause both Julius Caesar and Marc Antony to do her bidding.

Cleopatra, as Schiff says, "stood at one of the most dangerous intersections in history, that of women and power." Not to speak, I have to add, of love and sexuality. And while the story we've inherited is sure to dazzle by dint of these sure-fire elements, the actual record is woefully short on specifics. Schiff reminds us that "there is no universal agreement on most of the basic details of her life, no consensus on who her mother was, how long Cleopatra lived in Rome, how often she was pregnant, whether she and Antony married, what transpired at the battle that sealed her fate, [even] how she died."

How then to try to tell the story in its own terms and not those that have shaped our own troubled imaginations of men and women, power and sexuality? Schiff says that she has "not attempted to fill in the blanks." "Mostly," she continues, "I have restored context." Which is an impressively modest way to describe the job she's done of absorbing and marshaling a massive array of historical evidence into a three-hundred page read of... can I say "breathtaking"... liveliness and clarity of style?

"How strange --" my husband said, picking up my copy and reading a page or two, "a biography written in the conditional tense." I hadn't realized it, but he was right. With so much of the record gone forever, one must speculate, make one's best judgments, be imaginative and yet precise in the same paragraph, and not yield an inch of ground when the evidence will allow it.

As in Schiff's impeccably controlled examination of Cleopatra's voyage to Rome. Beginning what's not known ("Whether she traveled for reasons of state or affairs of the heart -- or to introduce Caesar to the infant son he had not yet met -- is unclear") the biographer makes her way to firmer ground and states her case in a meticulous blaze of verbal confidence:

Two things are abundantly clear. She could not have left Egypt were she not firmly in control of the country. And she would not have dared to set foot in Rome had Julius Caesar not wanted her there.
A triumph of the conditional, and an inspiration for any journeyperson writer.

I can't recommend this book highly enough, and I'm curious what works of history (particularly in their writing) have thrilled and inspired you in similar ways.

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10 Comments:

Blogger Isobel Carr said...

I really love the cover for this book. Every time I see it I smile at the coy play on the coin. Giving us the dressing, but not the face, as that element disapoints (it also serves to make you wonder just what she's looking at).

I'm not sure it counts as a work of history, but I'm in love with the writing in the Sebastain St. Cyr mysteries. Harris has a lovely turn of phrase.

10:12 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Cool that you noticed the play on the coin as well, Isabel. And I don't know the St. Cyr mysteries. Say more.

10:39 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

They're murder mysteries set in Regency England. Fabulous. Same vein as Tracy/Teresa's books and Conwell's Gallows Thief. I'm in the middle of book three now (I think there are six out). St. Cyr is an ex-soldier whose brothers have all died, leaving him as the heir to their father, the earl. In the first book, he's framed for murder, and after that he's just sort of the "go-to" guy when murder and the ton mix. I have some small historical niggles with the books (her vision of the runners seems more Victoiran than Regency), but overall I really enjoy them.

11:28 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

What a great post, Pam, the book sounds fascinating. I loved Adam Zamoyski's "Rites of Peace" when I was researching the Congress of Vienna for Vienna Waltz. Beautiful writing about a fascinating subject.

1:37 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks for the kind words, Tracy, and to you and Isobel for the recommendations. As for Regency-set mysteries, I'm a huge admirer of the late Kate Ross.

4:17 PM  
Blogger Leslie Carroll said...

Terrfic Post, Pam. I, too, am intrigued by the cover of the book, which, just like the woman it depicts, seductively draws you in on her terms and reveals only what she wants you to see. It's a smart way of capturing the spirit of the book and the heroine without proving a 21st c. art dept's version (e.g. a cover model who will never be every reader's idea of what Cleopatra looked like anyway).

Schiff's bio has been in my mental TBR pile ever since it was published. I've read a number of strong reviews, but a recommendation from a source I know and trust (that would be you) clinches the deal.

5:18 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Thanks for the expression of trust, Leslie. And the truth is that I partly checked out the book to see what all the reviewers were shouting about. And was gobsmacked by what an extraordinary piece of work it is by a really impressive writer.

11:20 PM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

Just finished the third St. Cyr book and the shine is starting to wear off . . . the personal story arc that goes across the series just relied on an engagement announcement in the newspaper to get a whole bunch of important stuff done. Sadly, as all us Beau Monders know, engagement announcements are a Victorian era anachronism that many authors fall for due to Heyer using them. *pouts*

8:01 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Hmmm, I wonder, if I really loved a series, whether an anachronism like that would throw so readily...

8:07 AM  
Blogger Isobel Carr said...

Oh, I bought the next book, but there have been lots of little anachronisms along the way that have been slowly building up, and this one, seeing as it was necessary to the PLOT, was very hard to swallow . . .

10:45 AM  

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