Francine Prose Liberates Cleopatra

With a few notable exceptions, the queen has been the captive of male biographers who have emphasized her malign and duplicitous behavior.

Napoleon Sarony via Wikimedia Commons
The actress Sarah Bernhardt as Cleopatra, 1891. Napoleon Sarony via Wikimedia Commons

‘Cleopatra: Her History, Her Myth’
By Francine Prose
Yale University Press, 208 pages

This biography is an act of liberation. Cleopatra left no diaries or other accounts of herself, and with a few notable exceptions she has been the captive of male biographers who have emphasized her malign and duplicitous behavior. Francine Prose roots out misogyny with her forensic examination of Cleopatrology, and by showing how history and family dynamics shaped her character and actions. 

Plutarch is Ms. Proses’s first target. Why is he so sure that Cleopatra was faking her love for Marc Antony? Was Plutarch simply propounding a specious motivation in his portrayal of a conniving queen, or did he have primary sources that no longer exist? 

What has to be decisive in a new biography of Cleopatra is the supple, interrogative language that Ms. Prose practices. She is on high alert, measuring the styles employed when describing her subject.

Here, for example, is Ms. Prose’s nod to another brilliant biographer of Cleopatra, who nonetheless has to be slotted into the narratives that outdo the bloody “Titus Andronicus.” 

“The litany of Ptolemaic family horrors is so long, complex, and awful that historians and biographers have often adopted an almost comically neutral tone as they rattle on the crimes. Here is Stacy Schiff on the subject of Cleopatra’s heritage: ‘In the late third century, [Ptolemy IV] murdered his uncle, mother and brother. Courtiers saved him from poisoning his wife by doing so themselves, once she had produced an heir. Over and over mothers sent troops against sons. Sisters waged war against brothers. Cleopatra’s great-grandmother fought one civil war against her parents, a second against her children…. Berenice II’s mother borrowed Berenice’s foreign-born husband, for which double-duty Berenice supervised his murder…. Cleopatra III … was born the wife and niece of Ptolemy VIII. He raped her when she was an adolescent, at which time he was simultaneously married to her mother. The two quarreled. Ptolemy killed their fourteen-year-old son, chopped him up into pieces, and delivered a chest of mutilated limbs to the palace gates on her birthday.’”

That’s a lot of space in a short biography to devote to another biographer’s work, but Ms. Prose cannot prove her point otherwise, and must show how much every biography of Cleopatra is part of the history of writing about Cleopatra.

The long quotation also serves to undermine accounts that see the queen as simply her own person, a personality, rather than a historical figure whose actions derive from her family past and the demands of office. 

Cleopatra’s deadly family history, Ms. Prose reminds us, has its parallel in European history and even now in “dictatorships and strong monarchies” that “incite and reward homicidal transfers of power.”

Yet the differences in family dynamics now, for the most part, are what preoccupy Ms. Prose, who believes it is “foolish … to assume that we can fully understand the thoughts, emotions, and instincts of those who live in another era — human beings with such different world views that even such (one would think) basic institutions as the family have little in common from era to era except the acts of blood and birth.”

Even Plutarch, it must be remembered, wrote more than a century after the deaths of Cleopatra and Antony. Plutarch did not take into account that this Egyptian queen, intelligent and diplomatic, would not share confidences even with those close to her.

What makes Cleopatra stand out in Ms. Prose’s book is that she did “so much that women were not supposed to do”: “Even today it would be unusual for anyone, especially a woman, to function as a city planner, military strategist, diplomat, linguist — and ruler of an enormous country with a diverse and restive population.” Earlier Egyptian queens did take on some of these jobs, Ms Prose points out, but none rival her in the “length and accomplishments of her reign.”

So Ms. Prose proposes to excavate a Cleopatra buried in her romantic involvement with Caesar and Antony, and she succeeds — as much as anyone can with a figure who even in her own time had her own reasons for not being entirely known.

Mr. Rollyson is the author of “A Higher Form of Cannibalism? Adventures in the Art and Politics of Biography.”

The New York Sun

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