My college major offered two different options for the Greek & Roman mythology credit: Introduction or Advanced. Although I heard great things about the advanced class, I signed up for the introduction because my mythological knowledge was seriously lacking. Imagine my frustration when the professor stood up on the first day of class and said, “We all know the stories, so we’re not going to talk about those.” I for one did not know the stories and spent the semester doing double readings to try and keep up. The first time I tried to read Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff felt just as discouraging as that.
I love hearing stories of fascinating people and would like to read more non-fiction this year. My problem is that 85% of the biographies I’ve ever read bore me to tears. I picked up Cleopatra: A Life last year after it was recommended twice on the Get Booked! podcast to readers like me who usually struggle with biographies. I made it two chapters in before I gave up. The book starts with the understanding that the reader already knows all the myths and rumors about Cleopatra at the outset. In reality, here is what I knew about her when I started: She was an Egyptian Pharoah, she poisoned herself (maybe because of a love affair gone wrong?), and she had relationships with both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. I was overwhelmed by details and the desire to do outside research just to understand what I was reading. After hitting the maximum renewals on my library copy, I returned the book mostly unread.
In an effort to be a more intentional reader this year, I told myself to give it one more try. Remembering back to my experience with Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell (another long book I abandoned just a few chapters in but ended up loving), I downloaded Cleopatra: A Life on audio. What a difference! Yes, I still had a steep learning curve because of my utter unfamiliarity with Cleopatra’s history, but listening helped it felt less like a textbook and more like a story. I know people who say they can’t listen to books because they get distracted and miss things. That is precisely why this worked for me: I definitely missed oblique references to plays I’ve never read (I’m looking at you, Shakespeare), but the narrative kept on moving anyway.
Did you know that Cleopatra spoke nine languages?! As someone who barely spoke three at the height of my linguistic efforts, I am in awe. She was the first Ptolemy to ever learn Egyptian, and her ability to speak with people in their own language was one of her greatest strengths as a general and queen. Those who met her commented over and over that she wasn’t even very beautiful (a shock to Romans who knew her by reputation) but that her sense of humor and wit made her irresistible? That’s a woman I’d love to learn more about. I was not at all surprised to hear the ways she was demonized for being a powerful woman, but I was still shocked to realize that she gets all the credit (and blame) for seducing Julius Caesar. In reality, she was just a kid when they met while he was a grown man and held all the power in the relationship politically. We will never know what happened, but I can imagine. In the end, though, I fell into the same trap as historians and artists for thousands of years. Despite my amazement at Cleopatra’s competence and intelligence, I couldn’t help but obsess at the opulence and tragedy of her relationship with Mark Antony. Sorry, Cleopatra! It was just too remarkable to look away.
I am so glad I tried Cleopatra: A Life a second time. Empowered by my success, I already have my next biography picked out (The Black Count: Glory, Betrayal, Revolution, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo), and I definitely plan to check for an audiobook first.