Title: Cleopatra: A Life
Author: Stacy Schiff
Synopsis (Courtesy of Powell’s Books): “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 protege. 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.”
Thoughts: Cleopatra is a name that automatically conjures certain images thanks to Hollywood. Unfortunately, thanks to the adage that the victors record the histories, all that exists are myths and tall tales when it comes to her true self. Portrayed as a harlot and a witch who used magic and sex to lure two of the most powerful men into doing her bidding, the true Cleopatra has been lost to time. Ms Schiff, however, brings her back from the dead, weeding through the fiction to uncover the hidden truths behind the mystery that is one of the ancient world’s greatest leaders.
Cleopatra truly does deserve that title as one of the ancient world’s greatest leaders. Under her leadership, Alexandria and Egypt remained the wealthiest country in the known world. Alexandria was renowned for its learning, its culture. Cleopatra herself prized education and ensured she surrounded herself with the top philosophers, scientists, linguists, mathematicians, and the like. Brave and politically savvy, Cleopatra placed her people above all else. Her relationship with Julius Caesar was one way of obtaining the political support necessary to ensure her people would remain protected as the Romans obtained greater power. Her relationship with Mark Antony, however, was something special. Originally designed as another power play to shore up political support against Octavian, their relationship became one based on love. Unfortunately, this relationship also meant her tragic undoing.
As mentioned, very little remains about Cleopatra, and what does exist was written by authors and poets that were trying to incur favor with the Romans. As a result, that which does exist is understandably biased against her. Ms. Schiff does an amazing job of reading between the lines of these supposed histories, extracting a more accurate picture of Cleopatra or at least determining the blatant lies. Some things will remain hidden forever, including the truth behind Cleopatra’s death. Was it a well-executed suicide, or was it something more dastardly on the part of Octavian? Unfortunately, mankind will never know. At least the asp is debunked.
What strikes the reader most is the loss of Alexandria and of such a great leader. As a female, one cannot help but marvel that one of Octavian’s major reasons for opposing Cleopatra in the first place is because she was a woman, and he could not stomach the thought of that much wealth in the hands of a woman. Under her reign, women enjoyed an immense number of freedoms, the likes of which they would not see again for centuries. Octavian needed the Egyptian wealth, but he also did not like the precedent Cleopatra set for the rest of the world. How different would the world be today had misogyny and greed been a factor?
Extremely well written, Cleopatra transcends an ordinary biography. Instead of a dry, fact-filled timeline of history, Ms. Schiff uses historical narratives to obtain a complete picture of this mysterious woman, using not only narratives directly about Cleopatra but into the Ptolemy dynasty in general. She delves into Egyptian lifestyles, Roman politics and other sources to present the psychology behind her actions and remove as much of the mystery as possible. The result is as complete a picture of this remarkable woman as has ever existed.
The story of Cleopatra has always been rather tragic, only because Cleopatra has been portrayed that way throughout the ages. Ms. Schiff makes her story truly tragic only because of what might have been. Cleopatra was a leader like no other. Revered as a goddess, Egypt and Alexandria enjoyed unimagined prosperity during her reign. There were learnings that would disappear with her that would also take centuries to rediscover. The world lost an amazing woman when she died. Ms. Schiff brings her back to the world, so that we can rediscover the fascinating woman that was Cleopatra.
Thank you to Hachette Books and GLIBA for this advanced review copy.