Monday, June 28, 2010

Book Review:Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff

An accessible and well-written biography of the scandalous and brilliant Egyptian queen, Ms. Schiff has given us a new thinking about Cleopatra VII.

Turns out I didn't know much about Cleopatra at all, only what I'd gleaned from Shakespeare and Elizabeth Taylor in passing, having not actually even watched all of either performance (which is all well and good as those tales are spurious at best.) One thing I didn't realize was how close in time Cleopatra's time (and hence Julius Caesar's, Mark Antony's, and Octavian's) was to the time of Jesus. In fact, Herod was a contemporary of Cleopatra's. She was born in 69 BC. A family of Greeks that had long ruled Egypt, the Ptolemys were notorious for marrying their siblings, and killing most of their immediate families (including parents, children, siblings, spouses), and for being direct descendants of Alexander the Great. Cleopatra was married twice, both times to her brothers, the first one tried to overthrow her, and the second one she had killed before he could get such notions. She had 4 children, 1 by Caesar and 3 by Mark Antony. She ruled Alexandria and Egypt for 22 years. Well-educated, Cleopatra was fluent in many languages, and was a master manipulator. Her first husband/brother at thirteen years old had exiled her and would have killed her. Undeterred, the 21-year-old Cleopatra snuck into the capital and into the palace under his nose, to persuade Julius Caesar to take up her cause.

Her famed beauty is mostly mythological if we look at her image on her coins, the only images we have from her era. But she did certainly have a way of bringing men under her spell. A quick study and a thoughtful scene-stealer, she went out of her way to create a vision of herself that spoke to men's egos. Not a strumpet or a loose woman, she seemed very faithful to the two fathers of her children. As a powerful woman, most of her story tellers found her indefensible, wanton, conniving, and frightening, and therefore the stories we have of her have been colored by fiction. Ms. Schiff is a historian of the first order, who manages to brush away all the tall tales and rumors, to leave bare the truth of the richest ruler of the time, who managed an empire nearly as large as Rome's, as peacefully as one could be in that era, and who lived on her own terms.

Lyrically written, this is a first-rate biography. Ms. Schiff brings ancient Egypt to life, with the Alexandrian library and Cleopatra's decadent feasts and celebrations. An inspiring and calculating ruler, Cleopatra should serve as an example of what a strong woman ruler can do (minus the familial bloodshed; but in her defense, that was a centuries-old tradition which primarily served to save her life and her throne. Along with her husband-brother, her sister Arsinoe also planned to usurp her. Her older sister Berenice, was killed by their father, after she had ruled in his absence. Killing her sencond husband-brother before he could get any bright ideas was just the smart thing to do.) Thoroughly enjoyable, I really respect Cleopatra for all she accomplished and for doing things her own way.


nomadreader said...

I have only the sparest knowledge of Cleopatra as well, and I certainly learned a lot from your review. I confess, I first heard of this biography when the Angelina Jolie casting news broke, but I really enjoy well-written biographies, and I would like to learn more about Cleopatra. This book is definitely on my radar, and I'm eagerly anticipating its release this fall!

Carin Siegfried said...

And to clarify, this is the book the Angelina Jolie movie is going to be based on.