Saturday, December 24, 2011

Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff

"It has always been preferable to attribute a woman's success to her beauty rather to her brains, to reduce her to the sum of her sex life"

By Gamal Nkrumah

Stacy Schiff

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize

Alexandria lets you indulge in its collective allegories and epics. From one particular historical point of view the legends are intact. From another no less academic viewpoint everything is unraveling -- from Rome to Tarsus, and Saint Mark could be turning in his grave. A heroic queen can become a coward and a saucy but stern blue-blood, a seductress. The story of the city lingers long at this historical juncture as the author takes up the narration, and in her version of Alexandria, Cleopatra's first encounter with Ceasar isn't so seamless. She isn't even one of his fans. As for Mark Anthony, he is an object of devotion, even prodigious desire.

There is sometimes a 'message in a bottle' allure about political personalities that elude their proper place in history. Cleopatra was born in 69 BC, the second of three daughters was the celebrated and legendary last queen of Egypt. She is remembered to this day as an illustrious temptress of mighty Roman men of war. Cleopatra VII's sisters -- the elder Berenice and the younger Arsinoe -- were two such no less wily women who somehow eluded their proper place in history. Why this is so is left, I suppose, to the reader's conjecture. However, questions of historical relevance must be addressed.

As a pretender to the Ptolomaic throne in the absence of her father in Rome, the elder sister was executed upon Auletes' triumphal return. His fame as a fabulously wealthy Ptolomy did not however ensure a proper place for him in history. He was after all, Auletes the Piper. He was "the pharaoh who piped his way while Egypt collapsed."

Yet it was his dutiful daughter who presided over the Ptolemaic dynasty's ruin. A feat that ironically assured that she acquired a proper place in history. Cleopatra VII ingratiated herself with her father, playing the devoted daughter and winning his affections. She was the apple of Auletes' eye.

Her heart-wrenching suicide with the asp, notwithstanding, she alone among his offspring maximised her symbolic appeal. Her younger sister Arsinoe IV, however, was assassinated at her sinister sister's bequest on the majestic marble floors of a famous temple in Ephesus. It is worth remembering that Arsinoe was no less deleterious than her more distinguished sister was.

Wealth, breeding, education and leisure turned the privileged Ptolomaic sisters into reluctant monsters. Cleopatra VII married and murdered her two brothers.

The three sisters had far more in common than accounts written without the benefit of hindsight suggest. The three sisters were seasoned politicians, ruthless assassins and diehard risk takers and gamblers. They all met appalling, albeit dubiously dignified ends. Cleopatra VII, though, was the only one of her sisters to be obliged to find ways of negotiating life with the Romans, and this guaranteed her immortality.

Her sisters sunk into oblivion. Perhaps they were prettier? We do not know. On the basis of works past and present published about the three sisters, hardly anyone outside the field of Egyptology would have heard of Cleopatra VII's sisters.

"The Ptolemies did future historians no favours in terms of nomenclature; all the royal women were Arsinoes, Berenices or Cleopatras. They are more easily identified by their grisly misdeeds than by their names," the author glumly points out.

Moreover, faux populism magnificently staged by moneyed monarchs was the order of the day. "Cleopatra's great-grandmother fought one civil war against her parents, a second against her children."

Cleopatra literally means in Greek "Glory of Her Fatherland". However, she was as the author so poignantly pointed out "neither Egyptian, nor historically speaking a pharaoh, nor necessarily related to Alexander the Great, nor even fully a Ptolemy." She was the very embodiment of the notion of the tragique solaire of Camus in the first lines of his celebrated L'étranger.

The Ptolomaic empress was preoccupied with expanding her imperial power and so had shrilly sung Rome's praises. Cleopatra was uncertain, though, as to whether she did or did not need their company.

The pages of this seminal work turn easily, although each reference used is given. The Cleopatra of Shakespeare, Elisabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and the boisterously entertaining British Carry on Cleo contingent was something of a femme fatale. Disappointingly perhaps, historical evidence suggests that she was more of a belle laide. Florence Nightingale referred to her as 'that disgusting Cleopatra.'

"Offering her the movie role, Cecil DeMille is said to have asked Claudette Colbert, 'How would you like to be the wickedest woman in history?' Cleopatra stars even in a 1928 book called Sinners Down the Centuries. In the match between the lady and the legend there is no contest."

Cleopatra: A Life points out in a myriad of entertaining ways, this love-hate relationship between East and West, the southern shores of the Mediterranean and its northern rim that stretches back through the millennia. Cleopatra's suicide was a defining moment, ironically an inglorious episode on both sides. There was nothing that Cleopatra's Egypt needed other than protection. But there was plenty that the Romans coveted in Egypt. The exotic country was a trophy that greatly benefited the Roman exchequer and the legionnaires who grafted on it.

Disconcertingly, Cleopatra came to the crumbling Ptolemaic throne when Egypt was long past its prime. Yet Egypt had, like its queen, irresistible charms.

So she was not Egyptian? Indeed, to decipher the essence of being Egyptian entails unraveling the very identity of Cleopatra VII. Given the time scale of Egyptian history, Cleopatra is closer chronologically if not culturally to contemporary Egyptians than to the kings and queens of the period of Pharaonic pyramids.

Never before had a Ptolemaic woman held such a powerful position in Egypt, not since the male-dominated days of Alexander the Great. However, as the author so poignantly points out, her power was ephemeral. "Her very wealth -- the same wealth that had fed Rome during the triumphs -- impugned her morals." She blazed a path that none of her progeny was to pursue.

Cleopatra was prized as a potent Niloticfemale watershed. Her incestuous familial background did not hinder her ambitious plans for the realm she reigned over. She elegantly side-stepped the bickering between her brothers and sisters, buttressed by a widespread reputation for competence and her considerable charm. With Egypt teetering on the edge of turmoil, she was closely watched by her Roman tormentors. Her Roman men of admirable exploits met horrendous ends. She held real power but she could not make a difference to Egypt's fate. She continued her rise unabated ridding herself of her rival siblings. She rose quickly though the Ptolemaic ranks, impressing everyone -- Egyptian and Roman -- with her dogged determination.

Cleopatra herself lamented this pattern, juggling princely children -- at least one of them, Caesarion Ptolemy XV, was deified -- and a royal career. At least she was not forced as her father and some of her less illustrious ancestors were, to slaughter her own offspring. However, in her late teens, a formative event occurred that was to change the course of her life. She met Julius Caesar. After her last man of distinguished valour, Mark Anthony, was butchered in battle, she breathed her last.

Her father, Auletes, the Piper, after the oboe- like instrument he was fond of playing, got rid of his rebellious elder daughter, Berenice. The ugly experience taught her not to hold her breath.

Cleopatra had a hand in the slaying of her own younger sister Arsinoe. In that role, as murderess, she swiftly won numerous plaudits across the Mediterranean world.

The glamorous seductress displayed a determined willingness to be a little bolder than most of the women of her day. "News that the enterprising Queen of Egypt had borne a son named Alexander -- whose father was Mark Anthony and whose half-brother was a child of Caesar -- constituted a banner headline in 39 BC."

As a Macedonian dynast she continued to promote the wider cause of Egypt even as she flirted with Rome. She exhibited an authoritative air of superiority, even when dealing with her Roman protectors. Presumably she was always attentive to how she looked. "Perfumes and unguents were Alexandrian specialties, attendants sprinkled cinnamon and cardamom and balsam perfumes on banqueters' crowns as musicians played or storytellers performed. Fragrance rippled not only from the table but from jewelry, perfumed lamps, soles of shoes; the heavy scents of the oils inevitably flavoured the dinner."

Cleopatra realised that the days when she could, as queen of Egypt dominate the agenda of the Mediterranean were long gone. The Romans were here to stay. The East was over, and the West was in the ascendant. Yet the East was no write-off.

"Tables glinted with silver basins, pitchers, hundreds of candelabra. Blown glass was a Hellenistic invention on which Alexandria had worked its usual magic, gilding already elaborate lily; the city's glassblowers threaded gold into their work. On the table polychromatic vessels joined silver platters, woven ivory breadbaskets, jewel-encrusted tumblers."

"That tableware showcased both Cleopatra's adaptability and her competitive instinct. When Alexandrian luxury began to make itself felt in the Roman world, Cleopatra renamed her ostentatious tableware. Her elaborate gold and silver place settings became her 'ordinary ware'".

Cleopatra, like her father before her, knew that ruling Egypt was no easy task. Egyptians were a religious and a rebellious lot. "Auletes knew only too well what Caesar was discovering first hand: the Alexandrian populace constituted a force unto itself. The best thing you could say of that people was that they were sharp-witted. Their humour was quick and biting. They were mad for drama, as the city's four hundred theatres suggested. They were no less sharp-elbowed. The genius for entertainment extended to a taste for intrigue, a propensity to riot."

Stacy Schiff's seminal study of Cleopatra coincides with the publication of two other works on the fabled Egyptian queen. Anthony and Cleopatra by Adrian Goldsworthy, Weidenfeld and Nicholson and Cleopatra: A Biography by Duane Roller, Oxford University Press, are two other works that illuminate further the life and times of Cleopatra. Yet Schiff's treatise is, in my opinion, the most articulate reference work of the three. The main problem with Cleopatra is that too few people understand the context in which she reigned and hence misunderstood who she really was and what she stood for.

"Cleopatra was detested by the Alexandrian Greeks and loved by native Egyptians," Schiff explains. "Their feelings about Romans were equally clear: When Cleopatra was nine or ten, a visiting official had accidentally killed a cat, an animal held sacred in Egypt. A furious mob assembled with whom Auletes' representative attempted to reason. He could not save the visitor from the bloodthirsty crowd,"

"Behind every great fortune, it has been noted, is a crime; the Ptolemies were fabulously rich. They were descended not from the Egyptian pharaohs whose place they assumed but from the scrappy, hard-living Macedonians... who produced Alexander the Great." Cleopatra, like her ancestors, embarked on an inclusion drive that was supposed to transform her into a native Egyptian goddess.

After a protracted struggle, the ancestor of the Ptolemies transformed Egypt into a steadying force for the Mediterranean world. Cleopatra was the last of the adventurous line, when she lost the battle to keep Egypt as a family heirloom to Caesar's own adopted son Octavian, or Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus. His assertions of an austere lifestyle contrasted sharply with her ostentatious living.

By any measure you, the reader, might chose, Egypt prospered since Cleopatra was crowned the country's queen. She manipulated her blue blood pedigree to perfection. "The legitimacy of the Ptolomaic dynasty would rest on this tenuous connection to the most storied figure in the ancient world, the one against whom all aspirants measured themselves, in whose mantle Pompey had wrapped himself, whose feats were said to reduce Caesar to tears of inadequacy."

For all that, who were her acclaimed ancestors? "Within months of Alexander's death, Ptolemy -- the most enterprising of his generals, ... a childhood intimate ... had laid claim to Egypt. In an early gift for stagecraft, Ptolemy kidnapped Alexander's body. It had been headed for Macedonia. Would it not be far more useful, reasoned young Ptolomy, intercepting the funeral cortege, in Egypt, ultimately in Alexandria, a city the great man himself had founded only decades earlier?" Indeed, as Schiff so clearly illustrates, all that mattered was Cleopatra's affiliation to the great Macedonian warlord who vanquished the ancient world. "The cult [of Alexander the Great] was universal. Alexander played as active a role in the Ptolomaic imagination as in the Roman one."

Sibling rivalry was an ever-present threat. "Cleopatra and the brother from whom she was running for her life were the Theoi Neoi Philadelphoi, or New Siblin-Loving Gods." Unlike her sisters, she was committed to family life and was faithful to her father. She learnt a great deal from his personal experiences. "She had a chance to embrace the wisdom of her father, who on arrival in Egypt had made a point of paying tribute to the native gods, in small villages and at cult centres. To do so was to secure the devotion of the Egyptian population."

The Egyptians happily obliged. "They revered their pharaoh as thoroughly as the unruly Alexandrians tested him," Schiff notes. "Cleopatra needed the support and the manpower, of the indigenous population," she stresses. "The Romans looked wearily upon the endless procession of applicants, abused or not. They received their petitions and made few decisions. At one point the Senate went so far as to outlaw the hearing of their appeals," . "There was no reason to adopt a consistent foreign policy. As for the bewildering question of Egypt, some felt that that country would be best transformed into a housing project for Rome's poor."

Cleopatra appears to be a very left-brain driven queen. She was smart. "Alexandria had its fair share of female mathematicians, doctors, painters, and poets," the author critically observes. "This did not mean such women were above suspicion. As always, an educated woman was a dangerous woman. But she was less a source of discomfort in Egypt," she adds analytically.

"For a staggering sum of money, Cleopatra's father had secured the official designation 'friend and ally of the Roman people," the author admits, thus like his daughter he married the extreme left with the extreme right of the brain.

"An aesthete and a patron of the arts under whom Alexandria enjoyed the beginnings of an intellectual revival, Auletes saw to it that his daughter received a first-rate education," the author notes. "While girls were by no means universally educated, they headed off to schools, entered poetry competitions, became scholars. More than a few well-born first century daughters -- including those not groomed for thrones -- went far enough in their studies, if not all the way to vigorous training," she remarks.

Indeed, hieroglyphics actually meant boasting made permanent. "Cleopatra could single- handedly feed Rome. The reverse was also true; she could starve that city if she cared to." Cleopatra could control Egypt, but did she have the political acumen to handle Rome? She fell for Caesar, or rather he was infatuated with her. "A stable Egypt was as critical to his plans as to Cleopatra's. Nearly alone in the Mediterranean, Egypt provided more grain than it consumed."

Puncturing the myth, the moral of Cleopatra's story is that she could point to unsuccessful phases of her career as queen of Egypt, especially when she was out of the country. "She lived these months in Latin; whatever her proficiency in that language, she discovered that certain concepts do not translate. Even the sense of humour was different., broad and salty in Rome where it was ironic and allusive in Alexandria. Literal-minded, the Romans took themselves seriously. Alexandrian irreverence and exuberance were in scant supply."

For all that, "Cleopatra came of age in a country that entertained a singular definition of women's roles."

Egyptian women were unique among the women of ancient peoples in that they retained the power of a matrilineal society. She refused, however, to succumb to a very right-brain driven creativity, metamorphosing into a queen whose reputation is rich in anecdote, much of it deriving from her erotically appealing repartees. "We have ample testimony to her sense of humour; Cleopatra was a wit and a prankster."

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