"potent female sexuality", Ancient Egypt, biography, Birdbox is about Birds in Boxes...I'm sure it is, Cicero, Cleopatra, Cleopatra VII, Cleopatra's sexuality, Cleopatra: A Life, Dio, Educated Women, Education, Egypt, Female Sexuality, Feminism, Greek, Historical Discourse, history, Julius Caesar, Library of Alexandria, Mark Antony, Octavian Caesar, Pharaoh, Plutarch, Ptolemy, Second Triumvirate, Sexual identity, Sexual politics, Sexual Rhetoric, Sexuality, Stacey Schiff, Women in History
She was conspicuously absent which is especially insulting when you consider I had the time and space to find worksheets and National Geographic articles about Ahmenhotep and his weird Sun cult. I mean I respect Sun worshippers more than any of the established religions in this world, but even I have to admit that Ahmenhotep was a weird dude, and kinda of a prick when you consider the fact he just threw out gods like Thoth, Bast, Isis, Set, and Ptah in favor of this weird sun-disc with hands. Ptah was a god of craftsmen and a cool dude who always brought over beer and Doritos whenever we played Smash Bros at Chuck’s place.
You don’t just throw that dude out with the broken toaster. You ass.
As I’ve started digging back into history and ingesting as many history-centered YouTube channels I can get my hands on, I’ve been spending more and more time reading actual history. This has translated into the start of something that I hope becomes an eventual podcast or YouTube channel, but for the time being I’m just enjoying reading actual history and learning more and more about people and events that I thought I had a clear conception about. This development actually makes a fair amount of sense to my friends and family given the fact that I’ve always appreciated history as a discourse, an institution, a practice, and as a means of nerding-the-fuck-out. The most obvious example of this of course was the “Egypt-Folder.”
Sometime during sixth-grade ancient Egypt entered my life and totally consumed me. I think it had a lot to do with the release of a PC game entitled Pharaoh. It was an isometric city-building game that, as opposed to Sim-City or ROME, was actually quite enjoyable to play. Whether it was building hunting lodges, chickpea farms, potter studios, or setting up bazaars in just the right place so as not to reduce adjacent property values, I spent hours just building cities in ancient Egypt trying to appease the gods. In hindsight the game probably wasn’t that great, but I will defend the time I spent on it because it lead me to books and materials about Ancient Egypt. It didn’t matter what it was actually about, as long as it had something to do with the myths, culture, history, or art of ancient Egypt I wanted it. So much so that I eventually collected all the worksheets, magazine articles, and occasional sticker-books about the subject I could find and access into a blue three-ring binder that I carried everywhere.
This is all just a way of saying that ancient Egypt was my jam.
Yet despite my devotion to Egyptian history, Cleopatra remained conspicuously absent. I don’t have an explanation for this really, the woman just never had much appeal to me for some reason. And what I did learn from teachers and writers was not particularly flattering either. Cleopatra was, according to most history I was taught, a slut who brought about the end of the Roman republic and the downfall of men like Mark Antony and Julius Caesar. Rather than an interesting character, Cleopatra was more of an idea or force who was largely responsible for the end of Egypt as an autonomous country. And, I suspect, this was the perception many readers were also raised on should they have received any education about ancient Egypt.
Fortunately my aforementioned obsession with Overly Sarcastic Productions changed all of this as Blue made an entire video about Cleopatra which lead to me Stacey Schiff’s biography Cleopatra: A Life.
Cleopatra is a monumental effort and not simply because Schiff places herself between men such as Plutarch, Dio, Livy, and Octavian Caesar. Schiff’s biography is more than just an effort to clear the charges against Cleopatra of being a seducer and destroyer of “great men,” rather it’s an effort to point out to her reader of the bias of the men who’ve written Cleopatra VII’s history. Bias is something that is inescapable, and any reader of history has to recognize the fact that the person writing it will always be plagued by some personal, political, and philosophical bias. Looking then at Cleopatra, Schiff is attempting to demonstrate the fact that the only records that come to us about the life of Cleopatra VII were all written by men, and Roman men at that, and Roman men who had something to gain by portraying her as a seducer and harlot. The implications for her ability as a ruler were then entirely forgotten, and her capacity as an intellectual are also completely lost to the reader because who cares about her abilities in language, diplomacy, poetry, and philosophy when it’s far more important to know which roman general was banging her on a regular basis?
I’m sorry, do I sound salty? Because that’s what this book does, it makes you salty, which is not a bad thing.
Schiff addresses the issue with our sources for Cleopatra in the first chapter of her book, aptly titled “That Egyptian Woman”:
History is written not only by posterity, but for posterity as well. Our most comprehensive sources never met Cleopatra. Plutarch was born seventy-six years after she died. […]. Appian wrote at a remove of more than a century; Dio of well over two. Cleopatra’s story differs from most women’s stories in that the men who shaped it—for their own reasons—enlarged rather than erased her role. Her relationship with Mark Antony was the longest of her life, but her relationship with his rival, Augustus, was the most enduring. He would defeat Antony and Cleopatra. To Rome, to enhance the glory, he delivered up the tabloid version of an Egyptian queen, insatiable, treacherous, bloodthirsty, power-crazed. He magnified Cleopatra to hyperbolic proportions so as to do the same with his victory—and so as to smuggle his real enemy, his former brother-in-law, out of the picture. The end result is a nineteenth-century British life of Napoleon or a twentieth century history of America, were it to have been written by Chairman Mao. (6)
Schiff then provides a beautiful summation of our current historical knowledge on the next page:
Affairs of the state have fallen away, leaving us with affairs of the heart. A commanding woman versed in politics, diplomacy, and governance; fluent in nine languages, silver-tongued and charismatic, Cleopatra nonetheless seems the joint creations of Roman propagandists and Hollywood directors. She is left to put a vintage label on something we have always known existed: potent female sexuality. (7).
The topic of “potent female sexuality” is its own essay, though I note with great shame that it’s something I should have already dedicated a seven-part essay series to at this point. I do have a reputation to maintain after all. But after reading this quote I hope my reader has the same reaction that I did, which was a combination of shock, intrigue, and then outright anger. Cleopatra VII is a woman who has had her story written solely by men who had something to gain by discrediting her, and while I don’t want to suggest the woman was the working definition of virtue, it does speak a greater trend in human history where a woman’s sexuality is often used against her to write someone else’s story.
Perhaps the finest example of this was Octavian Caesar, the adopted-adopted-nephew of Julius Caesar, Cleopatra’s first famous lover. Octavian quickly established himself as the leader of the Republic following Julius’s assassination by members of the Roman senate, and in no short time he established, along with Mark Antony, the Second Triumvirate which sought to hunt down and destroy the assassin’s of his uncle. This was all partly for show, and Octavian’s wiles in establishing powers will be the stuff of later essays and podcasts (I hope), but for the time being Octavian is important because no figure appears in such contrast to Cleopatra in Schiff’s wonderful biography than Octavian. Throughout his efforts to acquire power Cleopatra was a constant source of useful distraction largely because of her sheer personality and reputation in the minds of the roman political establishment as well as the common people. It was not enough that Cleopatra was a woman, nor was she just an Eastern woman, she was a woman that posed a real philosophical threat to Rome.
Octavian seems to have been the one who decided that Cleopatra plotted to make Rome a province of Egypt, an idea very unlikely to have crossed her quick mind. He had on his side the familiar type, the scheming, spendthrift wife, for whom no diamond is large enough, no house spacious enough. As Eutropius put it centuries later, Antony began a war at the urging of the queen of Egypt, who “longed with womanly desire to reign in the city as well.” Already it was acknowledged “that the greatest wars have taken place on account of women.” Whole families had been ruined on their account. And already—the fault as ever of the sultry, sinuous, overtly subversive East—Egyptian women had caused their share of trouble. They were snowed with insatiable ardor and phenomenal sexual energy, One husband was not enough for them. They attracted and ruined men. Octavian only corralled the evidence. (257).
Cleopatra appears often in Schiff’s biography from an increasingly Western and Roman perspective and this at times made the book somewhat frustrating. As I noted before, Schiff is trying to show her reader how our perspective of Cleopatra VII was largely created by Romans and therefore it’s going to be incredibly biased. It just became frustrating as a reader that so much time was spent with aforementioned romans. Whether it was passage after passage of Julius Caesar’s ambitions, Mark Antony’s attempted and failed military conquests in the East, or Octavian’s endless schemings and manipulations, a fair amount of the biography is actually about the men who determined Cleopatra’s future.
Now this could be, in and of itself, a revealing method. Since our knowledge of Cleopatra VII largely comes from Roman voices, focusing on these roman men as a way of revealing Cleopatra does work. Julius Caesar appears to the reader less a brilliant military master as a sort of bumbling and often simply lucky man who was saved thanks to the graces of an intelligent and politically savvy Cleopatra. Mark Antony is revealed, less a military genius, as a sort of bumbling baboon who managed to acquire a significant position because of Cleopatra’s personal political gains as well as her fortune. And as for Octavian he appears less a grand and epic leader of the roman populace, as a scheming jerk who only attained the power he did because he had the benefit of a perfect scapegoat in the form of a well establish foreign monarch. These three men were all intertwined with Cleopatra VII, and it’s because of her associations and connections to them that we begin to observe, not a crafty seducer of “great men,” but in fact a great woman brought down by three selfish and ambitious clowns.
I think it’s safe to say that Schiff is trying to show that Cleopatra VII shines for the woman she actually was when you take a step back and really observe the true character and achievements of these men when set in contrast to Cleopatra herself.
And Schiff’s book is not simply an endless encomium and defense, she does perform a great amount of actual historical analysis revealing Cleopatra VII as not just the arm candy of great men, but as an effective ruler. In one such passage she notes Cleopatra’s approach to the economics of her country:
In economic affairs she took a determined hand, immediately devaluing the currency by a third. She issued no new gold coins and debased the silver, as her father had done shortly before his death. For the most part hers was a bronze age. She instituted large-scale production in that metal, which had been halted for some time. And she ushered in a great innovation: Cleopatra introduced coins of different denominations to Egypt. For the first time the markings determined the value of a coin. Regardless of its weight, it was to be accepted at face value, a great profit to her. (103).
Creating a central standardized currency created a dramatic upsurge of wealth which helped Cleopatra tremendously during her reign as Pharaoh, and this decision is presented as an informed choice brought about by the fundamental strength of Cleopatra’s personality: her intellect.
Schiff repeatedly reminds her reader that Cleopatra VII was a woman above everything else, educated, and that was in part because of her upbringing. Schiff observes early in the text how Cleopatra was taught:
And from an early age she enjoyed the best education available in the Hellenistic world, at the hands of the most gifted scholars, in what was incontestably the greatest center of learning in existence: The library of Alexandria and its attached museum were literally in her backyard. The most prestigious of its scholars were her tutors, its men of science her doctors. She did not have to venture far for a prescription, a eulogy, a mechanical toy, a map. (29-30).
And Schiff continues this passage observing just a few such exercises she might have had to practice:
When Cleopatra graduated to syllables it was to a body of abstruse, unpronounceable words, the equally esoteric; the theory appears to have been that the student who could decode these could decode anything. Maxims and verse came next, based on fables and myths. A student might be called upon to render a tale of Aesop’s in his own words, in simplest form, a second time with grandiloquence. More complex impersonations came later. She might write as Achilles, on the verge of being killed, or be called upon to restate a plot of Euripides. The lessons were neither easy nor meant to be. Learning was a serious business, involving endless drills, infinite rules, long hours. (30).
Though perhaps most important of all, Schiff notes that CLeopatra’s education has one unique aspect that was unlike any of her former predecessors:
While Egyptian speakers learned Greek, it was rare that anyone ventured in the opposite direction. To the punishing study of Egyptian however, Cleopatra applied herself. She was allegedly the first and only Ptolemy to bother to learn the language of the 7 million people over whom she ruled. (35).
This last quote is worth emphasizing the most because, as is often forgotten it seems, Cleopatra was not actually Egyptian, she was Greek. After Alexander the Great died, his generals broke his empire up into three pieces, his general Ptolemy taking the region that included Egypt where he established his base of operations and began a dynasty largely defined by endless incest. The Ptolemaic dynasty was Greek in nature, but Cleopatra performed an incredible personal and political task by breaking from the tradition of her family and learning the language of the people she was ruling over.
I recognize that I hit my reader with three long quotes back-to-back-to-back in a short amount of time, but that’s only because I wanted to convey how much Schiff’s book effected me and my perception of Cleopatra. By the end of Cleopatra: A Life the woman had become more than the soap-opera queen she had always been taught to me. Instead the figure that emerged in this book was a charismatic, politically savy, and high educated woman of authority and power and I find that inspiring. It might just be because I work for, and alongside, and a group of amazing women who are revolutionizing the public library I work for, but strong women are valuable in our society because they bring insight and new ideas for bettering our society. And so Schiff argues in this book that the lasting image of Cleopatra should not be one solely defined by who she slept with.
Cleopatra: A Life is about revision, but it’s also a book about discovery. By the end of this book the reader should hopefully have discovered the figure of Cleopatra VII beneath the mountains of scathing and scandalous documents which have attempted to hide her virtues and strengths in favor of painting her with a salacious sexual history that inspires endless steamy paperback novels and really uncomfortable history lectures in high school. Cleopatra’s achievements were her own, but because she, if I can quote Blue from Overly Sarcastic Productions, “had boobs and did the sex sometimes” became so connected with the affairs of Rome, and the “great men” who were shaping that empire for their own ambitions she was ultimately reduced the figure of the Jezebel who “ruined everything.”
In this way I think Schiff’s book is a defense of Cleopatra, and, in effect, women throughout history who have been screwed by men’s fear of female sexuality. Cleopatra did employ her sexuality for political purposes, but Schiff observes that even these choices were for the posterity of her kingdom rather than for personal ambition. So even in the face of the cartoon-slut that Cleopatra can sometimes be there is an element of inspiration. The reader who finishes Schiff’s biography will find a developed and interesting human being defined principally by her intelligence and charm rather than simply who was regularly visiting her vagina.
There is so much in Schiff’s book worth exploring but I’ve already written enough here, so much so my reader is probably hoping I’ll finish soon so that they can go watch Birdbox (I know what people like…sometimes), so I’ll end with a thought and hope my reader recognizes the importance of this work.
The tradition of men writing histories and rhetorics about the downfall of great men and societies because of one beautiful seductress is a corrupt narrative and one that has been allowed over and over again. It’s an incredible woman who’s willing to stand between the overwhelming tides of records and stand to defend the qualities of another Great woman who’s qualities were, like so many temples of the ancient world, lost to the harsh and unforgiving sands that wear the resolve of posterity.
It’s also a point to remember that Cleopatra was willing and able to learn nine different languages, and I can’t even get off my ass to spend 10 minutes a day on that damn Duolingo app I downloaded to my iPad. Such is the measure of a brilliant mind, and an impressive woman.
All quotes cited from Cleopatra: A Life were quoted from the paperback Back Bay Books edition.
I’ve provided links within the essay but I’ll post them here as well. Here are the two videos I discussed before, both Blue’s review of Cleopatra:
As well as the Genealogy of the Ptolemaic Dynasty:
While watching Blue’s review of Cleopatra, near the end he mentioned an archeologist who is currently digging for the tomb of Cleopatra. In the description of the video he provides a link and so I thought I would also share it here since, let’s be real, discovering the tomb and body of Cleopatra would be like the coolest thing ever. Feel free to nerd-out, care of National Geographic. Enjoy:
I’m also providing a few links to other reviews about Schiff’s biography. I’m sure you respect. appreciate, and trust my learned (pronounced “learnd” according to Homer Simpson) opinion, but it’s always good to get as many different opinions as possible. Hope you enjoy:
In case the reader was curious, I included the “California Girls” Katy Perry image at the start of this essay instead of the one where’s she’s decked out like an Ancient Egyptian because Katy Perry ain’t Egyptian. She’s a sweet white girl from the Midwest so I thought that if I absolutely had to include her I should do one that’s actually flattering and way less racist.
For example I have that image of her wearing red velvet and I didn’t use that…that…
I’m just gonna hand in my Feminism gun and badge because clearly I have no self control. But at least I don’t have to worry about Plutarch writing mean histories about me being a slut at least. Could you imagine how awful that would be?
I’ve actually recorded a podcast for Schiff’s book. You can follow the link below to my SoundCloud channel, or you can go to the Jammer’s Podcasts link at the top of the page.