Cleopatra and Pop Historiography

First off, a confession. I listen to NPR and I watch the Daily Show. I know- totally predictable grad student, right?

A few weeks ago a woman named Stacy Schiff was doing the rounds on these lofty-lefty shows to promote her new biography of Cleopatra called (unsurprisingly) Cleopatra: A Life. What’s most interesting about these interviews, however, is not her account of Cleopatra’s life, but the issues of historiography that Schiff brings into the public eye.

I’m not especially interested in Cleopatra, but what caught my attention in both these interviews was Sciff’s methodology. How did she piece together Cleopatra’s life from the scant evidence? This dilemma called to mind another famous ancient Greek bad girl: Aspasia, and, more specifically, Jarratt and Ong’s attempt to revive her. In her Daily Show interview, Schiff admitted the challenges facing her: the first accounts of Cleopatra are recorded 100 years after her death, and these views are no doubt biased. Schiff says that it was “Roman men writing history of a Greek woman,” and therefore, “knowing the agenda of who was writing was important.” Somehow, she had to craft “a narrative that is unbiased but real, while still reminding reader occasionally that what they’re getting is tainted.” Here, Schiff recognizes the impulse to create neat, tidy narratives, but she also points to the inherent and inescapable bias each historical account, even her own, has.

One especially interesting point that Schiff touched on in conversation with Rehm is that she did not rely on translation. She says:

Well, what I did, instead of reading someone else’s interpretation in translation was to have read everyone else’s interpretation and translation. I essentially took every translation we have of Plutarch, of Apian and of Dio, read them side by side and then I sat down with a fabulously talented classicist who was able to help me because of course the translations don’t necessarily mirror each other and all sorts of nuances fell out of the various translations, which I think even if you read in the original, you wouldn’t necessarily see.

Here, she calls attention to the rhetorical nature of translations as biased interpretations of language. No doubt her own rendering of the original text reflects her own biases, though, and perhaps she missed an opportunity here to reflect on her own work as nothing but another in a chain of interpretations.

However, Schiff reminds us that the work we do doesn’t always remain in the ivory tower of academia. Sometimes– perhaps often– historians have the ability to shape public opinion and lore. People are drawn to the past, and there are certain figures that seem to draw endless fascination throughout history. Cleopatra is no doubt one of these women. After all, how many biographies have been written about her? How many work of fiction are based on her life? Cleopatra is a woman who intrigues us so much that, 2000 years after her death, the umpteenth biography of her life parks itself on the New York Times Bestseller list for five weeks (and counting).

Schiff describes the scant evidence she had to work with, telling Rehm: “Cicero…left us a few lines, actually three or four lines out of which I somehow spun two chapters, but those were the few little bits of contemporary bits and pieces that we actually have.” What value is there in historical work like this, with so little evidence that a historian must rely on three lines for two whole chapters? The fact that we keep returning again and again to the same woman, the same evidence, hoping to see something new, might attest to our collective insanity. Or perhaps, like Aspasia, it’s not the facts so much as the story; the woman-turned-legend, the threatening yet fascinating figure of Cleopatra keeps us coming back for more simply because we’ll never figure her out.

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One Response to Cleopatra and Pop Historiography

  1. Jim Porter says:

    I was thinking about historiography a few weeks ago in the context of the discussion (fight) about the Thanksgiving narrative — i.e., how some commentators like Rush Limbaugh are using the Thanksgiving/Pilgrim narrative as a founding story about how socialism fails and capitalism (free enterprise) succeeds. And then there’s the historical fight about the Confederacy (and the Confederate flag) and what that ultimately meant (e.g., Was it fundamentally about slavery or states rights? Should Southern states “celebrate” it or apologize for it and make reparations?). So yes, these abstruse academic arguments about history can have ongoing significance. History matters to the present.

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