Title: Cleopatra: A Life
Author: Stacy Schiff
Genre: Nonfiction: Biography; History
Rating: *** 1/2
Her palace shimmered with onyx, garnets, and gold, but was richer still in political and sexual intrigue. Above all else, Cleopatra was a shrewd strategist and an ingenious negotiator. Though her life spanned fewer than forty years, it reshaped the contours of the ancient world. She was married twice, each time to a brother. She waged a brutal civil war against the first when both were teenagers. She poisoned the second. Ultimately she dispensed with an ambitious sister as well; incest and assassination were family specialties. Cleopatra appears to have had sex with only two men. They happen, however, to have been Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, among the most prominent Romans of the day. Both were married to other women. Cleopatra had a child with Caesar and–after his murder–three more with his protégé. Already she was the wealthiest ruler in the Mediterranean; the relationship with Antony confirmed her status as the most influential woman of the age. The two would together attempt to forge a new empire, in an alliance that spelled their ends. Cleopatra has lodged herself in our imaginations ever since.
Famous long before she was notorious, Cleopatra has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons. Shakespeare and Shaw put words in her mouth. Michelangelo, Tiepolo, and Elizabeth Taylor put a face to her name. Along the way, Cleopatra’s supple personality and the drama of her circumstances have been lost. In a masterly return to the classical sources, Stacy Schiff here boldly separates fact from fiction to rescue the magnetic queen whose death ushered in a new world order. Rich in detail, epic in scope, Schiff ‘s is a luminous, deeply original reconstruction of a dazzling life (from Goodreads).
Thoughts: Everyone has heard of Cleopatra, of her relationships with Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, and her infamous suicide. But there was more to Cleopatra then this. The last ruling member of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, she was also the last active Pharaoh of Ancient Egypt. Her Ptolemaic ancestors were of Macedonian Greek descent, and she was the only ruler of the Dynasty to learn to speak Ancient Egyptian, the language of the vast majority of her subjects. Coming to the throne at 18 (along with her ten-year old brother), she ruled for over 20 years, years in which she expanded Egypt’s territory and influence to its highest point in over 200 years. With Rome encroaching on all sides, she used diplomacy, intrigue, and yes, sex, to keep her kingdom from the behemoth’s clutches for as long as possible. When Rome finally came calling, when Egypt was finally, indisputably lost, she took her own life, depriving Augustus of at least the final victory- her parade as a captured monarch through the streets of Rome.
Cleopatra’s life has been overshadowed in the popular consciousness by the events of her love life and her death to such an extent that the actual events and accomplishments of her life have been lost and untruth has reigned as fact. This is for a couple of reasons; everything we have about Cleopatra, her life, and her rule have come down to us from non-Egyptian sources. We have nothing from Cleopatra herself, except one small note that might be written in her hand in regards to some governmental matter. So we have next to nothing to go one besides Latin sources- history is written by the victors, after all. And a lot of these sources are not only Latin, but were written years, sometimes decades after her death. The information we have is very much one-sided.
The other factor going into what we know- or what we think we know- about Cleopatra is that simple fact that her life and the events surrounding it took place on such a large stage that things are easily exaggerated and taken as fact. Cleopatra died in 30 BC, a few decades before the birth of Jesus. She knew King Herod (they did not get along), her life encompassed the death of the Ancient world and the birth of Modern. She gave birth to Julius Caesar’s only son and had three children by Marc Antony. Cleopatra lived such a life that it’s easy to take other ‘facts’ about her at face value-despite what most people believe, she did not kill herself by cobra bite; she most likely poisoned herself with a mixture of hemlock and opium, although exactly what poison she used is up for debate.
Sexism in the Ancient World and through the centuries has further hidden the real Cleopatra from view. Under Roman writers Cleopatra became a seductress with insatiable lusts, who ensnared Caesar and, with his death, captured Marc Antony with her sexual prowess. Of course, this is simply not true. When Cleopatra and Caesar met she was 18 and he in his fifties. He was balding and past his prime. Cleopatra was engaged in a civil war with her younger brother, her fellow co-ruler. She needed Caesar’s support, especially considering she was forced to flee to the edge of her kingdom some months earlier, literally running for her life. Ptolmaic rulers had a habit of killing ambitious family members stretching back centuries and she was in real danger. Of course, we don’t really know how their relationship developed and who made the ‘first move.’ Maybe there was some genuine feeling between the two, but I confess that I feel that, for Cleopatra at least, saving her life and regaining her throne were paramount and her relationship with Caesar helped her to achieve that. With Marc Antony I am led to believe that there was real affection and love between the two but that this did not stop Cleopatra from doing all that she could to keep Egypt free from Roman control and firmly in her hands. Of course, siding with Marc Antony had its risks and, with his defeat by Octavian, she lost everything.
While overall I enjoyed this book I did feel that there were some problems. There is so little known about Cleopatra, so few concrete facts about where she went and when and what she did while she was there, that Schiff had to make some allowances. For example, Cleopatra might have traveled down the Nile with Julius Caesar in a mix of pleasure cruise and royal procession. There is no way to know for sure based on the sources we have available to us, but Schiff describes the possible-but-unconfirmed cruise in some detail- the boats they would have traveled in with their rooms, furniture, and other luxuries, the cities and towns they would have stopped at or floated by, and what religious and state events they would have taken part in as they floated down the Nile. None of this might have happened, or all of it, or many just part of it- we just don’t know. And while uncertainty is ok- I would rather the author made known when they are acting on assumptions in place of masking personal opinion as fact- there is so much in regards to Cleopatra’s life that I left the book a little disappointed in just how little I learned about her. As a person, her thoughts and feelings, she is hidden from us. Even in the historical record she is slippery; just what happened at Actium, the moment that started the beginning of the end for Marc Antony, Cleopatra, and Egypt, is unknown. It was a disaster, yes, but why it was a disaster is a mystery. Schiff compensated for the lack of concrete facts by discussing other events in the region- events in Rome that would have an effect on Egypt and hence Cleopatra, Marc Antony’s fiasco campaign in the East, etc. There is nothing wrong with this but I wanted more about Cleopatra herself which just wasn’t possible based on the information we have. Schiff is a good writer but at times her prose went decidedly ‘purple’- describing the ‘warm sands’ of Egypt, its ‘burning sun,’ the ‘white marble’ of her palaces, etc. It got to be a little too much for me, I’m afraid. I finished this book with more questions than when I started, but also with more respect for Cleopatra as a women and as a ruler which makes it a success in my opinion.
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