Not exactly about poetry

Cleopatra: A LifeCleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Langdon Hammer, in a Yale Open Courses lecture on YouTube (… , at about 38:00) , speaks of “Leda and the Swan” as the culmination of a series of poems indicating Yeats’s belief that history is somehow in the body, hence the rape (divine force reduced to brute power) and the question, “Did she put on his knowledge with his power?” I was a little skeptical, and I’m not absolutely convinced that I’ve got it right but when one considers that European Caucasian culture grows from Rome, that shining city on seven hills that has as its founding myth the rape of the Sabine women, the idea begins to seem less outlandish.

And yes, Leda is Greek and so was Cleopatra, but the Romans borrowed their pantheon from the Greeks.

In “Cleopatra,” Stacy Schiff presents us with the triumphant Julius Caesar, balding and vain, strutting and rutting around Rome in red cape and calf-high red boots, “seducing” the wives and daughters of all his colleagues. I am tempted to draw comparisons with modern times but will resist.

But I will say that his triumph was an example of conspicuous consumption that puts our 1% in the shade.

Cleopatra, on the other hand, comes to Rome from another city where arts and culture are much more sophisticated and creature comforts much more decadent. Alexandria had, in addition to its great library, 400 theaters and lots of street theater. Meals of the lark’s tongues variety were served on platters of gold-plated silver. It had hydraulic lifts, automatic doors, and coin-operated machines (the acme of civilization). Moreover, Cleopatra is accustomed to a culture in which women had extensive rights and privileges. They could, for example, “initiate lawsuits and hire flute players.” Because an “and” yokes items of equal value I am left to wonder what is so special about flute players. By contrast, Schiff informs us that a Roman was obligated to raise only his first-born daughter. In Rome, ‘women enjoyed the same legal rights as infants and chickens.”

That must surely be a typo but, given the cockish behavior of Caesar, perhaps not.

Not that Cleopatra was innocent. Though she could be benevolent. And seemingly she was a damned good administrator.

We know little about her. Schiff’s strategy is to draw a highly detailed picture of the culture that formed her, leaving a sort of Cleopatra-sized model we can use to picture the woman behind the legend.

I will not finish this book. Not because it is less than fascinating but because I have so many things I must read and I cannot read this one fast. I am constantly compelled to go in search of someone to whom I can say “Listen to this.”

I’m reading it for a book club and today’s the day. And here I am on page 107 of 302 pages. Mark Antony’s name hasn’t even been mentioned yet.

So I’ll let it go.

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