Julius Caesar and Cleopatra have been my most recent bedfellows. It’s been impossible to ignore the advertising campaign Hachette mounted to promote Stacy Schiff’s biography of Cleopatra and as the book was on my holiday list, it is now safely ensconced on my night stand.
This is by no means a review of such book – yes, I am liking it but you might want to find out for yourselves or read more scholarly reviews. But as a lover of ancient history I couldn’t pass the opportunity to read a biographical work steeped in whatever research material is available and written with a good dose of skepticism as to what the clichés on the Egyptian queen have been through the ages.
What I was fascinated to discover is that women, in ancient Egypt, enjoyed rights and freedoms that are not commonplace in a large part of the world to this day. First of all, they were treated as equals to men – women could choose whom to marry, they could own property, run businesses, seek divorce, keep custody of the children and even be granted alimony. Whatever they owned did not become common property once they married and girls were typically educated on a par with boys. If we consider that women in Rome, at the same time in history, were treated slightly better than slaves, we have a picture of what an evolved society Egypt used to be. Cleopatra in particular, having benefitted from an excellent classical education and having mastered nine foreign languages, was skilled at various tasks ranging from economics, rhetoric, the running of an army and mediation – she actually spent most of her days receiving petitioners and adjudicating their cases. So, she slept with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony that we know of – I’d say she fared a lot better than most of our politicians who could learn a thing or two from her adroit survival skills.
They say that history repeats itself – well, history hasn’t given us too many strong female role models throughout the centuries. Elizabeth I could stand on the same pedestal as Cleopatra but, then again, the business of history has been mainly dominated by the male species who might have chosen not to celebrate the many heroines, large and small, that graced the centuries.
While growing up, the only female role model I was usually pointed towards was Marie Curie – without taking anything away from Ms. Curie’s gigantic contributions to science, I wish little girls had a wider array of cool females to draw inspiration from. Kudos to Ms. Schiff for providing a great building block.