Book Review: Cleopatra

cleopatra_a_life stacy_schiff

“The personal inevitably trumps the political, and the erotic trumps all: We will remember that Cleopatra slept with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony long after we have forgotten what she accomplished in doing so, that she sustained a vast, rich, densely populated empire in its troubled twilight, in the name of a proud and cultivated dynasty.”

Growing up, Ancient Egypt was something of an obsession of mine.  Like most things, I think it started with Raiders of the Lost Arc, but it blossomed into something more as time went on.  It wasn’t just digging up tombs and finding ancient bones that I found interesting, it was the lives that led to those bones, to those ruins, and those statues.  And how could I not notice Cleopatra.  Long before I knew anything about Rome and Caesar, I knew Cleopatra.  Well, I thought I did.  Over the years I’ve found that a great deal of the history we learned in school was at best shallow and at worst (sadly, most often) simply wrong.  There are countless reasons for this; not the least of which is a sort of iris through which much of the past has been distorted, the Victorian Era, when history got a prudish make-over.  But Cleopatra has been getting bad press since day one; two thousand years of having her name dragged through the mud or held aloft like a prize, depending on who was writing the books.  Stacy Schiff’s biography tries to cut through all the fluff, the rewrites, and the outright slander to get at the woman and her times.  Like with Bettany Hughes’s excellent Helen of Troy, I think one of the most striking and useful parts of this book is the recreation of the time, the context in which the person lived.

The various conflicts throughout the lives of Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Cicero, and Octavian, among many others, help to create a tapestry of cause, effect, action, and reaction in a world on the cusp of tectonic shifts.  The end of an era, the beginning of a new.  So many players at the table, all bets off.  The unlikely winners and losers, the highs and lows, the doomed and the destined.  The story is as rich as any novel, and as well written.  Schiff manages to dance comfortably on that fine line between recitation of facts and a novelist’s grasp of story.  And most important, these people come off as…well, people.  Men and women with goals and dreams, driven and pulled by each other and the sweep of wars and loves.  Societies going through tumultuous changes on a grand and intimate scale.  We see Rome, still a stinking warren of mud spattered buildings, still sputtering with barbaric pride.  Alexandria, refined and perhaps a bit snobbish.  Rome, with its focus on physical prowess and not too subtle anti-intellectualism.  Alexandria with its love of art and learning.  How could they not clash?  And of course, the clashes were about more than land and gold, they were about lifestyle and world view.

Again, Schiff gives famous names their human faces.  I quickly came to like Julius Caesar, with all his many faults.  Cicero strongly reminded me of someone I knew and didn’t especially like. Cleopatra, at first clever and lucky, but eventually ruthless and powerful.  Mark Antony, a man of great passions, is as bold a hero as any bard could hope for, and as tragic.  Even knowing the history, at least in broad strokes, I couldn’t help but hope things would turn out better, that some people would win while others get their comeuppance.  Alas, this history was written in blood a long time ago.

Of course, when trying to tell the story of Cleopatra, Schiff has a hard job of separating the truth from the propaganda.  Does she do it?  Even she isn’t sure.  Throughout the book, she reminds the reader that much has been lost, much has been exaggerated, obliterated, and intentionally obfuscated.  And always, Cleopatra, or the idea of Cleopatra, has been used as a tool.  She quickly became the “Whore of the East.”  As often happens when you have people from a more civilized, cultivated, and yes, rich place; those who are not as civilized, cultivated, or rich look upon them as pampered, decadent, and immoral.  And, when you have an conspicuously male centered society like Rome, a supremely powerful woman, in charge of that rich, cultivated nation very quickly becomes the target of the harshest slander.  Schiff doesn’t paint Cleopatra as some victimized wimp, nor as the painted trollop, nor a secret modern hero.  She was a product of her life and times, a resilient, cunning, daring, competent ruler, forged in the disasters of her early life, soaked in the blood of her enemies.  A foil to the rulers of Rome, and a historic figure of tantalizing complexity.  With all these people coming together, at the heads of great nations, it’s no wonder we’re still talking about them two thousand years later.

If you want to see Rome through a different perspective, or just want a glimpse into the era that produced so many famous names, this book is a great read.  If you want to read a compelling story of love, loss, betrayal, politics, religion, life, and death, with murders, suicides, sex, and wild parties, this book has what you need.  And you don’t need to have a background in Roman/Egyptian history to understand or enjoy it.

“She lost a kingdom once, regained it, nearly lost it again, amassed an empire, lost it all.  A goddess as a child, a queen at eighteen, a celebrity soon thereafter, she was an object of speculation and veneration, gossip and legend, even in her own time.”


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