Strangely enough, politics may just be the one realm in which having kids imposes no penalty on women. Kids are practically a necessity. For scientists, or Supreme Court justices, or chief executives, or the woman who wants to learn to fly F-l8s off an aircraft carrier, it works differently.
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As Dio observed later, democracy sounded very well and good, 'but its results are seen not to agree at all with its title. Monarchy, on the contrary, has an unpleasant sound, but is a most practical form of government to live under. For it is easier to find a single excellent man than many of them.
For a few thousand years, women had no history. Marriage was our calling, and meekness our virtue. Over the last century, in stuttering succession, we have gained a voice, a vote, a room, a playing field of our own. Decorously or defiantly, we now approach what surely qualifies as the final frontier.
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We don't know how Cleopatra spent her days, but we do know how other Hellenistic monarchs spent their days. There has been a great amount of scholarship in the last 30 years about education in the Hellenistic world and women in the Hellenistic world. We now know how an upper-class woman was educated in her day.
The vanity extended most of all to his library, arguably the real love of Cicero's life. It is difficult to name anything in which he took more pleasure, aside possibly evasion of the sumptuary laws. Cicero liked to believe himself wealthy. He prided himself on his books. He needed no further reason to dislike Cleopatra: intelligent women who had better libraries than he did offended him on three counts.
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Here you have an incredibly ambitious, accomplished woman who comes up against some of the same problems that women in power come up against today. Cleopatra plays an oddly pivotal role in world history as well; in her lifetime, Alexandria is the center of the universe, Rome is still a backwater.
For the several thousands of years before they became firefighters and physicians, women were sirens, enchantresses, snares. At times it seems as if female powerlessness is male self-preservation in disguise. And for millennia, this has made for a zero-sum game: A woman's intelligence was a man's deception.
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Certainly, I am writing as a 21st-century woman, so I am much more inclined to view her as a three-dimensional woman. I think we keep coming up with this stubborn problem of a woman being judged by her appearance rather than her accomplishments. We are much more inclined to ask: was Cleopatra beautiful?
We're talking about, essentially, the Roman historians, who wrote Cleopatra into the story mostly so that they could talk about the rise of Rome. And that is one of the problems, of course, in recounting her life. She's only ever apparent to us when there is a Roman in the room, or when her story intersects with the rise of Rome.
From every ancient source, we have testimony to Cleopatra's irresistible charm, as Plutarch has it, to her ability to speak many languages including, as he puts it, the language of flattery and essentially, to be able to turn people to her will - really a great political genius, in that respect.
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Life-writing calls for any number of dubious gifts: A touch of O.C.D., a lack of imagination, a large desk, neutrality of Swiss proportions, tactlessness, a high tolerance for archival dust. Most of all it calls for an act of displacement. 'To find your subject, you must in some sense lose yourself along the way,' is Richard Holmes's version.
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I once interviewed David Herbert Donald, the Lincoln historian, and we talked about how one deals with the secondary sources and the previous biographies. He said something which kept coming back to me as I worked on Cleopatra, which was: 'There's no further new material; there are only new questions.'