Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Cleopatra Behind and Beyond the Sources

I recently read Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life, which raises interesting questions about the use of sources. (I’m currently teaching a class on primary sources, so I’m especially interested in this facet of the book.) Schiff opens the book with a discussion of the historiographical challenges:
No papyri from Alexandria survive. Almost nothing of the ancient city survives aboveground. We have, perhaps and at most, one written word of Cleopatra’s (6).
And the sources that have survived are problematic: 
Classical authors were indifferent to statistics and occasionally even to logic; their accounts contradict one another and themselves (6).
The book presents an interesting reconstruction of a life (Cleopatra has been given many lives and will be given many more), and before the topic of reception is revisited in the last chapter the consequences for the historical record seem inevitable: Because of her epic failures, Cleopatra was destined to be both erased and mythologized.