Saturday, March 5, 2011

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff - A review

It is said that history is written by the victors and thus it is extremely difficult to get a true picture of the vanquished. They are almost always demonized and denigrated. There is probably no more cogent example of this than Cleopatra, the last queen of Egypt.

Her first biographies were written by Romans, eager to please her implacable enemy, Octavian, soon to be Caesar Augustus. Octavian was the victor; Cleopatra and Mark Antony were the vanquished. They could expect nothing good to be written or remembered of them.

The early biographies and histories that were written of Cleopatra were biased and politically motivated. The writing was altogether xenophobic and sensationalistic. Even in these accounts though, something of the strong will and personality of the woman came through to inspire later poets and writers. For more than 2,000 years she has fascinated us and still does. She has been written about time and again, and in her book, Cleopatra: A Life, the excellent historian Stacy Schiff has sifted through all those writings to reconstruct the real Cleopatra and give us a portrait of the woman of charisma and formidable intelligence, as well as iron will and self-control.

Cleopatra ruled Egypt and a good part of the Mediterranean region for some twenty years. She was a resourceful leader who was apparently beloved by her subjects. She was a leader who, Schiff writes, "knew how to build a fleet, suppress an insurrection, control a currency, alleviate a famine."

The broad outlines of Cleopatra's story are almost too well known, from her audacious gambit of having herself smuggled into the palace where Julius Caesar was staying and presented to him, to the final act after the battle at Actium, after Mark Antony had committed suicide and Octavian had taken her beloved city of Alexandria. Cleopatra committed suicide probably not with the aid of an asp but with a quick-acting poison hidden in a basket of figs. Thus she deprived Octavian of the ultimate victory of being able to parade her through the streets of Rome in golden chains.

Interestingly, Sciff postulates a theory that Octavian may actually have been complicit in her suicide, realizing that having Cleopatra as an ornament in his triumphal parade might not be altogether wise or seemly. She had, after all, been the mistress of the divine Julius and the mother of his child. Romans could be fickle in their affections and they might not take kindly to seeing her humiliated. There is no way of knowing the truth of the matter, of course, just as there is no way of knowing the truth of much of Cleopatra's story.

Even though the reader knows how this story is going to end, Schiff has written a highly readable page-turner of the famous events and personalities. She has scrupulously labeled speculation for what it is and has tried to steer us strictly within the confines of the known facts. It can't be easy following in the footsteps of the many writers who have preceded her, beginning with people like Dio, Plutarch, Suetonius, and Josephus, (not to mention Shakespeare) but she has acquitted herself always with audacity and style. Not unlike her subject.

2 comments:

  1. I really want to read this! It stares at me everytime I'm in a bookstore lately, and I've been considering it for Kindle reading. Most of what I've read about Cleopatra has been fictional, but she was a fascinating woman.

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  2. Reading this book gave me a new appreciation of "The Memoirs of Cleopatra" that I read a year ago, Susan. That book by Margaret George was over-long and took me forever to read, but I think she mostly got it right. Schiff is a very talented writer and I think you might enjoy this book about that fascinating woman.

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