1

2

 

1

7

 

1

0

 

 

 

B

O

O

K

S

 

H

I

S

T

O

R

Y

 

&

 

L

I

T

E

R

A

T

U

R

E

 

 

 

1

2

 

1

7

 

1

0

 

 

 

1

2

 

1

7

 

1

0

 

 

 

B

O

O

K

S

 

H

I

S

T

O

R

Y

 

&

 

L

I

T

E

R

A

T

U

R

E

 

 

 

1

2

 

1

7

 

1

0

 

 

 

B

O

O

K

S

 

H

I

S

T

O

R

Y

 

&

 

L

I

T

E

R

A

T

U

R

E

 

 

 

 

 

 

   


 
 
       
 

Rewriting History

 

...and putting on a tawny front!

 

 

 

Stacy Schiff’s ambitious Cleopatra sets out to set the record straight and in so doing gives us a scenic view of a memorable time in history with marvelous characters (Pompey, Cleopatra, Caesar, Mark Antony, Octavian) and fascinating places (Alexandria, Rome).  Octavian, who defeated Cleopatra, and his followers emphasized her seductiveness, this siren from the East.  Roman historians didn’t quite know what to do with this clever Egyptian woman (in fact the Ptolemies were Macedonian Greek in origin).  Clever women, Euripedes had warned hundreds of years earlier, were dangerous.”  Almost all we know about the Egyptian queen comes from Roman writers, including Plutarch (who became a Roman citizen), and most of it is not flattering.   Schiff notes that “Citing her sexual prowess was evidently less discomfiting than acknowledging her intellectual gifts.”  And nothing in Cleopatra's own words remain except possibly a decree signed with a single word: ginesthoi (‘Let it be done’).

 

Alexandria was the intellectual nexus of its time, with its great library: “Its patron saint was Aristotle, whose school and library stood as its model, and who had-not incidentally-taught both Alexander the Great and his childhood friend, Ptolemy 1.”  Cleopatra was given a classical Greek education, Homer her Bible, a particularly literary education with an emphasis on the art of rhetoric; she also knew her Herodotus and Thucydides, the sciences.  Plutarch on Cleopatra: 'For her actual beauty, it is said, was not in itself so remarkable that none could be compared with her, or that no one could see her without being struck by it, but the contact of her presence, if you lived with her, was irresistible; the attraction of her person, joining with the charm of her conversation, and the character that attended all she said or did, was something bewitching.'  She was brilliantly educated and beguiling; the Romans turned her into something demonic, capable of undermining a man.

 

Cleopatra before Caesar, 1866, Jean-Léon Gérôme,

oil on canvas,

 

Schiff tells us she was probably ‘honey-skinned,’ small and lithe, and “unsettled Rome on any number of counts: she was female and foreign...” and also “richer than any man in Rome.”  Her relationship with Caesar was of her own choosing, not something done at the bidding of a male relative. This was uncomfortable in a Rome where “...for the most part Roman women were for horse trading...”  Cicero exclaimed: 'I detest the queen.' And Schiff delightfully takes him on: "Intelligent women who had better libraries than he did offended him on three counts."  It was also that women reigned supreme in Egypt, whereas in Rome they were secondary.  Something to do with the cult of Isis perhaps. Cleopatra associated herself with the goddess (the great deity who was said to have invented both the Egyptian and the Greek alphabet, fused the two cultures, was earth mother but also goddess of the heavens and of war).  Shakespeare (Antony and Cleopatra): 'She in th’habiliments of the goddess Isis that day appeared...'   Plutarch: '...and gave audience to the people under the name of the New Isis.'

 


Cleopatra, 1533-34, Michelangelo, Uffizi Gallery, Florence

 

What we do know is that Cleopatra managed to captivate Caesar (a skilled conversationalist, the ruler of the Roman Empire, a man “who turned out a text on Latin while traveling from Gaul, a long poem en route to Spain.”) And then ensorcell Antony (the eloquent “war hero, the senior statesman," the triumvir).  Plutarch: '...she was to meet Antony in the time of life when women's beauty is most splendid, and their intellects are in full maturity.'

 

And if Schiff’s book attempts to remove all the accretions of myth, then there is always Shakespeare to recapture the magic, put on the ‘tawny front' again. 

 

The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold;

Purple the sails, and so perfumèd, that

The winds were lovesick with them; the oars were silver,

Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made

The water which they beat to follow faster,

As amorous of their strokes.     

 

Read: Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff

 

Read: Plutarch's Lives

 

Read: Antony and Cleopatra, William Shakespeare

 

Listen: Stacy Schiff on Charlie Rose, discussing the book

 

Read online: Cleopatra, the Lipstick Effect, and Shakespeare, eCognoscente archives

 

Tags:  literature  theatre  egypt  cleopatra language  history  books   love  politics  shakespeare

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Gustave Moreau's Cleopatra

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Share this article on facebook:   

Share:                    

 

Subscribe to eCognoscente   

   
       

     

ARCHIVES ART LITERATURE ARCHITECTURE FILM MUSIC DANCE PHOTOGRAPHY DESIGN FOOD THEATRE FASHION TRAVEL


Subscribe About Us Editorial Policy Privacy Policy Contact Us Unsubscribe Press Archives Search   ©2010 eCognoscente

Six Hundred West One Hundred Forty-Six Street, New York, NY 10031