I’m largely ignorant of world history. I’m embarrassed by this. Now that is out of the way, I can say that one of the reasons I liked “Cleopatra” so much is because it was such an unfamiliar story for me. (Me: “I didn’t realize that she slept with both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.” Becky: “Um, did you go to school?”) Bits came back to me after a while, but mostly through English classes (Shakespeare) and less through World History (LaRocca) classes. I guess the Jesuit theory of education hadn’t fully taken hold when we covered Cleopatra.
One more thing before I ruminate here on Cleopatra. I’ve decided that I have more than a little crush on the author, Stacy Schiff. First, her performance on “The Daily Show” was badass, and second, her New York Times article–on how Cleopatra’s political leadership has value even today–was really terrific. Her turns of phrases and subtle humor prove her to be a master of the craft of writing. And yes, that kind of stuff turns me on. I’m not usually one to stalk for autographs, but if Schiff shows up at the Cincinnati Museum Center for the Cleopatra exhibit, I might go all Bieber-fan on her.
What did I learn most from “Cleopatra”? Her political skills were awesome at even an early age. The maxim that history is written by the victors (hat tip, Barney) is critical to the story and wisely often reiterated by the author. The discussion of the artifacts makes me very excited to see the Museum Center exhibit. And the description of the ancient cities of Alexandria and Rome are fascinating for someone who is a bit of an urbanist.
More than anything though, this: In Schiff’s “Cleopatra” we meet a bold and audacious (bodacious, indeed) queen who ruled for more than two decades just before the birth of Christ. She was savvy, often popular, wealthy, stunning in beauty and style, and very, very powerful. And yet immediately after her death, all of today’s familiar stereotypes about a strong, female leader are ascribed to her by the men who succeeded her in rule and who chronicled her for history. Two-thousand years later and we are still reading from the same playbook, implying that too often women leaders rely on their sex appeal and beauty, crave unchecked power, and manipulate others (especially men) for personal advancement.
Recall the stories of Hillary tearing up in New Hampshire in the primary and how it was callously dismissed as a strong, woman leader using emotion to manipulate. Look at the stories about Sarah Palin’s sex appeal and its effect on GOP voters. Or the cold-heartedness of so many international female heads-of-state! Goodness, name your prominent female CEO (won’t take long, there aren’t many) and check the often terrible and sexist gossip that exists about their leadership style. We are not much further in 2011 than the world was in 42 B.C.
Is Cleopatra responsible for this legacy? Is she still the one that we subconsciously think of when we scrutinize modern female leaders? Or was it a conspiracy by her detractors (who became her biographers) to poison the memory of someone with such ability? Schiff leaves us with more questions than answers. But it is undeniable that the same stereotypes still exist.
In the U.S., when we think of leaders, we often think of Presidents and CEOs, both which are professions dominated by men. We don’t have many examples that rush to mind and so we rely on inaccurate and outdated stereotypes when we do see female leaders. We shouldn’t. We should remember that Cleopatra was 2,000 years ago and that there is not one style of a female leader. We should be so lucky to encounter multiple varieties of feminine leadership in society (just as there exists a variety of male leadership styles). Americans are still guilty of taking women leaders and caricaturing them and men still often write the history. And because of that, we are missing out on what could be amazing and inspirational leaders.
From reviews and interviews, we know that Schiff intended to restore Cleopatra to what might be a more accurate portrayal of her. She is careful to remind us the perspective of her sources and she is honest when the historical record is incomplete. I’m not an expert, but it seems as if she was successful in her aim. But at the end of the day, “Cleopatra” is just a damn fascinating biography about a damn fascinating woman.
Oh, and Ms. Schiff, let me know if you want to have dinner sometime.