Salad days.

It’s been quite a while–for some reason, a bunch of books didn’t lead to blog entries, plus I was out of the country for a bit.  I’ll try to catch up with a few short pieces.


I started a couple of biographies of Cleopatra, by Stacy Schiff and Diana Preston. The Schiff book got admiring reviews, made year-end lists, etc., but I found her unappealing. Schiff sets out to debunk the caricature of Cleopatra that we have inherited, the wily seductress and wicked Oriental voluptuary who corrupted manly virtue wherever she found it.  Instead, Schiff portrays her as an educated, ambitious high-roller in the 1st-Century game of thrones, and surely that is what she was–for example, she was the one ruler in her dynasty who learned the indigenous languages of Egypt and its neighbors, so that she did not have to rely on Greek interpreters all the time, an achievement which undoubtedly helped her win favor and avoid deception.

It should be said that the romantic stories are not all fantasy; she really did have herself smuggled into the palace in a carpetbag so that she could see Julius Caesar and make her case against her brother (the two were at war, a pretty common thing in that family).  Schiff says that C was _not_ naked, as the stories claim, though she doesn’t tell us how she knows…in any case, Cleo must have done more that give Caesar a compelling PowerPoint presentation, to judge from the subsequent birth of Little Caesar (Caesarion).

The problem for the biographer is that Roman propaganda forms the bulk of our evidence.  We have coins showing her with a big nose, we have administrative documentation, but we don’t have anything she wrote or, so far as I know, any impartial or friendly eyewitness accounts.  So we’re left with material about the world she lived in (from archaeology, literature, etc.) and our own ideas about what is plausible (say, that one of the most powerful politicians in the ancient world is probably not just a pleasure-loving sex kitten). 

I share most of Schiff’s assumptions about what is plausible, though I am unhappy with her tendency to present probable guesses as facts.  Perhaps this comes from being mainly a journalist rather than a real historian, and certainly I would rather have a description of Cleopatra’s world written by someone who had devoted her life to understanding that very alien culture.  As I read Schiff’s book, I found myself losing faith in her, as she offered what seems to me a wrong derivation of Cleopatra’s name, says “epithet” when she means “epitaph,” or informs us that Cleo knew the earth revolved around the sun. 

In this last instance, Schiff is trying to stress that Alexandria was a center of learning and that Cleopatra had contact with the scholars of its famous library, both true things.  She also must have read somewhere that Aristarchos theorized that the earth moved around the sun (this makes for a simpler model of the solar system).  The problem is that Aristarchos lived 200 years before Cleopatra was born, and his idea did not catch on (in fact, that geocentric Ptolemaic model was developed later at Alexandria).  So, unless Schiff has discovered Cleo’s astronomy homework, there is no recent to think she was an ancient Copernican.

So I ended up punting the Schiff book pretty quick.  I lasted longer with Diana Preston, who is a bit trashy and credulous but has lots of interesting stuff (did you know that Antony’s wife’s soldiers scrawled “Octavius has a limp dick” on their slingshots?), and her tone isn’t as bossy and conceited as Schiff’s.

[A side note about the astronomy thing: one reason people didn’t believe that the Earth revolved around the sun is that in that case the stars should wobble every six months, as the Earth moves from one end of its orbit to the other, just as objects seem to move when you close first one eye and then the other.  In fact the stars do wobble due to parallax, but the wobble is very slight because they are very, very far away, and I don’t think the wobble was visible with ancient technology.  So Aristarchos also had to argue that the stars were a lot farther away than anyone believed…you can see why his theory took 1500 years to catch on.  Besides being right about the Solar System, A. knew the Earth was round and accurately measured its circumference; a very smart guy.]

[Another side note, the title comes from Shakespeare’s Cleo, who looks back on her “salad days, When I was green in judgment, cold in blood.”  In case you were wondering where that phrase came from.]

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