Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Nonfiction November: Readalong Discussion for Cleopatra: A Life by Stacey Schiff

Today is Readalong Day for Nonfiction November! Becca at I'm Lost in Books is hosting the readalong discussion today of Stacey Schiff's 2010 book Cleopatra: A Life. This morning she posted a terrific conversation about the book with Katie from Doing Dewey. You can see that discussion post right here. Becca and Katie, I loved reading your conversation! It felt like listening to two friends at a book club meeting.

Ok, Becca and Katie posted a few discussion questions about Cleopatra . . . I'm going to answer a few of these with my thoughts about the book.

What did you think of the book overall?

Overall, I enjoyed reading it. Truthfully, I usually steer away from biographies, so reading this book was a little out of the box for me.

And I liked it, for the most part. But I did think, as Becca said, that it was very dense. At times I felt overloaded with information--and not always information about Cleopatra herself. Schiff includes a great deal about Roman politics here. And I realize, it's critical to understand Egypt's precarious position with respect to Rome in order to fully understand the central issues of Cleopatra's life. But . . . well, sometimes I felt that Schiff included too much information about events, people, politics, etc, that didn't really shed much light on Cleopatra herself.

And that kind of leads me to the issue of sources . . . there is so LITTLE known about Cleopatra herself, and pretty much NONE of it comes from Cleopatra herself or her close contemporaries. Schiff--or anyone writing about Cleopatra--is stuck with a few Roman sources written much after her death. It just made me wonder if there was really enough material about Cleopatra herself for Schiff to craft a full and convincing biography. That's why, I think, the book seemed often to me to be less a biography than a political history of Egypt's fall to Rome.

Cleopatra, despite her many achievements, is mainly remembered as a manipulative seductress while Caesar is remembered historically as a strategic ruler. What do you think about this distinction?

Well, that I'm not surprised. Men throughout history have been afraid of powerful women, and have painted them as manipulative and overly sexual. Schiff makes clear that Cleopatra was no more "wicked" than any of the male rulers from her time period. Sure, she had her siblings murdered, but apparently that was normal for the monarchs of her dynasty!

And of course it's ridiculous that Cleopatra is seen as the seductress, when, Schiff argues, she was likely a virgin when she first met Julius Caesar. Caesar was a fully grown man with a well-known reputation as a ladies' man, and yet the young virgin is the seductress? Cleopatra is blamed for driving Marc Antony crazy with her sexual wiles, as well, as if Antony (a handsome guy who'd long been considered a playboy in Rome) couldn't defend himself against her. Antony and Cleopatra had a relationship of over a decade and had three children together; they weren't officially wed, that we know of, but that sounds more like a marriage than a wanton seduction to me.

So it's odd that Cleopatra would be known throughout history as the manipulative seductress . . . but unfortunately not surprising, given that her history was written by Roman men. As Schiff demonstrates, it suited the purposes of Octavian Caesar to encourage a tabloid version of Cleopatra after her death, to depict her as "insatiable, treacherous, bloodthirsty, power-crazed." This enhanced Octavian's glory in defeating her and his brother-in-law Marc Antony, and ensured that their reputations were completely besmirched so that no one would challenge him in their name. This propaganda version of Cleopatra as evil and sexually promiscuous became the storyline that was passed down through the centuries. History, as they say, is written by the victors.

Were you surprised by anything in the book? Anything you didn't know that jumped out at you?

I had not realized that women had so many rights in ancient Egypt. Egyptian women had far more rights than Roman women, in fact. Egyptian women could own property and control their own marriages and divorces. Schiff writes, "Romans marveled that in Egypt female children were not left to die; a Roman was obligated to raise only his first-born daughter." Yikes! At the end of the book, Schiff argues that Roman fascination with Cleopatra caused a golden age for women in Rome. After Cleopatra's death, Schiff says, well-born Roman women--mainly the wives and sisters of Roman leaders--enjoyed a new role in public life that they had not before. I can't really assess whether this is true or not, as Schiff doesn't provide a lot of detail on this point, but I do think it is interesting and worth reading more about.

I've enjoyed participating in this readalong and in Nonfiction November all month long! I look forward to reading other perspectives on Cleopatra.

Thanks so much to Becca and Katie for hosting the discussion!


  1. I think you have really hit on the issue, we just don't have enough sources. We want so badly to fill in the gaps in her story but we just can't so it leads to filling it in with speculation or facts about the country instead of the person.

    1. Right! It's a shame . . . Cleopatra is certainly a fascinating topic. How disappointing that all those potential sources were lost in the fire of the Alexandria library! Unfortunately, I guess, a biographer doesn't have much to work with.

  2. I agree there was not enough material for a true biography here -- a more general look at gender roles in the era, with Cleopatra as an example, could have led to a more balanced approach. I would like to know more about some of the points like the one you cite at the end -- that sounds more compelling to me than speculations about Cleopatra's hair color. Still, it was an interesting read and a great readalong discussion! Hooray for Nonfiction November!

    1. Oh yeah . . . a book considering gender roles in Egypt, using Cleopatra as a key example--that would have been absolutely fascinating. Definitely a book I'd want to read! And then the lack of sources wouldn't have seemed quite so problematic.

      Well, I agree--an interesting read and a good choice for the readalong! I meant to read this book when it was first released, but never picked it up, so this gave me a good excuse. A new book about Hatshepsut was released this year--The Woman Who Would Be King by Kara Cooney. I'd love to hear opinions on that from anyone who read it!

  3. I think Jess is right - you really hit the issue on the head. So much of it was about Roman vs. Egyptian politics and not much about Cleopatra herself. She was trying to hard to point out other people's subjections being interjected into their bios of Cleopatra, that she didn't stop for a minute and think to herself there just isn't enough info on Cleopatra to write a book about. You are right that the places where I felt it was long and drawn out were the places where she didn't mention Cleopatra or Caesar or M.A. at all.

    1. Right--but when there was actually info about Cleopatra herself, I was very intrigued! The sections that focused on her involvement with the Isis cult, for example, and how Egyptians viewed her, were fascinating. I would have loved a book that focused more on Egyptian life and gender roles, as Lory suggested, with Cleopatra as a focus.

      Anyway, it was nice to read about the ancient world--I haven't done that in a long, long time! So thank you again for hosting the readalong, Becca!!