Anyone else experiencing a touch of the winter blues? I miss going outside without putting on five layers of outerwear first. I miss open windows and fresh air. In winter I am sleepy more often than not, and it takes a lot to convince myself to do anything that isn't work or other impossible-to-avoid responsibilities. I eat too much. Generally winter blues. Nothing serious, I am just taking a moment to be a downer and also trying to get it out of my system.
All this is to say that I am still only halfway through Cleopatra. I am actually loving it, but I am usually a much faster reader than this, even with nonfiction. I am getting antsy to finish it, not only because I want to see what happens, but also because I miss fiction. (I particularly miss YA, which I blame on the many talented YA authors I follow on twitter, and how fun their lives seem.)
I used to love history in high school, but for whatever reason, I never could get into ancient history as much as more recent events. And then in university my interest waned, due partly to a horrible history professor (I don't like to disparage professors, but some of them are terrible, and this one really, really was) and partly to general university-era upheaval that turned me briefly into a less nerdy (and less interesting) person, one much less likely to spend time learning things outside of classroom hours. Anyway, prior to starting Cleopatra, I could remember snippets of Egyptian history but nothing truly useful. My knowledge of Cleopatra was basically composed of our collective pop culture history (Elizabeth Taylor! Seduction!) combined with a dim recollection of the boating-down-the-Nile scene from Antony and Cleopatra (also arguably pop-culture history). So I was both interested and a little worried about this book. What if the history went over my head? I didn't want the book to talk down to me or anything, but I also didn't want to be lost the whole time.
I had nothing to worry about. So far (again, only halfway through), Schiff has been a wonderful storyteller, balancing history with drama with a present-day caution. The caution is because we actually know very little indisputable fact about Cleopatra. Papyrus was not a terribly sturdy medium, and so almost all accounts of her were written after her death, by people who never knew her and were either poets, writing with an eye to drama, or historians with a decided bias for or against (more often against). And so the beautiful seductress Cleopatra was born, in order to explain away a woman's unprecedented success in politics. Schiff sorts through the different accounts and gives a reasonable and engrossing account of what we can assume was her life.
This book is interesting both for how it debunks a lot of popular myths about Cleopatra (obviously the biggest being that she slept her way to the top; though it is clear she had sex with Caesar and Antony because she bore their children, her other conquests appear to be solely political) and for how it makes history fun! (OK, I'm really sorry for that, but it DOES!) I've been a slow reader because I am reading it pretty much exclusively on my commute, but I am excited to see how the rest of her life turns out. I'm betting on dramatic and tragic! Also luxurious.
You would think that since we've made Cleopatra into a beautiful, glamorous and sexy woman in pop culture, the real thing couldn't possibly be better, but she really is. I'm not surprised; a powerful woman is always interesting, and Cleopatra was the most powerful woman of her time.
[Images: Scholars' representation of Cleopatra, c/o Image Foundry Studios, Ltd., Liz Taylor in the 20th Century Fox production of Cleopatra, and Cleopatra from MTV's Clone High, respectively.)