Cleopatra: A Life

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Stacy Schiff's _Cleopatra: A Life_ is good, but ....

Jan 25, 2011
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Nice photographic insert, some new angles on the story.

Cons:But throughout I felt there was something lacking here.

The Bottom Line: Another look at the life of Cleopatra VII, Queen of Egypt.


The last pharaoh of Egypt, Cleopatra VII, is a character that I both detest and enjoy reading about. And it seems lately that there have been a plethora of books, both fiction and nonfiction, being written about her today. New discoveries about Cleopatra's life are being discovered in her capital, Alexandria, Egypt.

Author Stacy Schiff is the latest in a long line of writers to take on the topic of this very controversial ruler. To the ancient Romans, she was everything that Rome wasn't -- a woman, a monarch, a Greek, the mysterious and rather decadent East. Worst still, she managed to seduce not one, but two, of Rome's greatest leaders -- Gaius Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. She defied Rome, obviously used poison and witchcraft to get what she wanted, and married her own brothers and murdered her siblings.

Clearly, she was a very bad, bad woman.

Or was she?

From Cleopatra's disruptive childhood in Alexandria to the final act of her life, Ms. Schiff blends the personal and political in this tale of a woman who has come down through the ages as one of the more infamous queens. From films and novels, the story of Cleopatra smuggling herself into the palace after the Romans and Julius Caesar roll into Egypt wrapped in a carpet is fairly well-known and rather dramatized. But the question remains, what really happened? Schiff tries to answer that question, along with the subsequent cruise down the Nile, bearing Julius Caesar's only son, and her travel to Rome and then having to flee after Caesar's assassination. Along the way, we get to learn quite a bit about how the Romans, especially Cicero, felt about having Cleopatra in their midst. And it isn't very good -- Romans have always been a bit skittish about having a monarch in their midst, and it must have been disturbing to have both a Caesar who was taking on absolute power and an Eastern semi-deified goddess planning only heaven knows what around.

After Caesar, Rome descended into a hotbed of politics with several claimants seeking to grab the power that Caesar had. Chief among them was Caesar's adopted heir, Octavian, a youngster when he started, and a cold-minded, ruthless plotter when he had to be. On the other side of the balance was Mark Anthony, Caesar's friend and ally, and a good general in his own right. A detente was eventually reached between the two, with Anthony taking over the Eastern side of Rome's lands, from Greece to the mid-east, and putting Cleopatra in a decision as to just who she was going to back. For at the time, Egypt was the bread-basket of the known world, and especially Rome. Rome needed those shipments of wheat, and if Cleopatra decided to, she could easily cause revolution by cutting off the grain supply.

When Anthony 'summoned' Cleopatra to meet with him in the city of Ephesus in what is now Turkey, Cleopatra did so. She also did it with a great deal of extravagance and style, awing the Romans with a level of high-living that was staggering for the time. Anthony was dazzled, and Cleopatra used every wile she could on him, and eventually they became firm allies, at the very least.

But her alliance with Anthony, while being one of the more passionate ones to come down in history, also put her on the wrong track with Octavian, who could easily foresee what was coming. Unfortunately for Cleopatra and Egypt, the demise of Egypt as an independent power in the ancient world was on the horizon...

I did find this one rather interesting, with Ms. Schiff providing a great deal of the political interactions of the time, and shedding some new light on some of Cleopatra's decisions. I really enjoyed reading how the political dynamics worked, and how Cleopatra was able to manipulate her own power and influence to get what she wanted. I also liked the sections where the author took pains to explain why the Romans feared her so, and the eventual survival of Egyptian culture in to the modern world in rather unusual ways. That was a surprise to me, but on reflection, it is a very valid point.

While the writing does get rather tiresome and dry at times, the story here is still vivid and while it does try to be balanced, it's pretty clear that history is indeed written by the winners. Whether some new documents may turn up in the future to reveal more of Cleopatra's side of the story, this book still is a very good effort.

As well as the narrative, there are two inserts of photographs, including the more recent portraits thought to be of Cleopatra, along with other major players in the story. The bibliography offers many good suggestions for further reading, and the last chapter of the book goes into how Cleopatra's tale has come down through the ages. The only thing that was really lacking was a genealogical chart showing some of the tangled relationships of the Ptolomies, and those of the Romans. Other than that, this one is fairly complete.

On the whole, this one gets three and a half, rounded up to four stars from me. It's readable, with some new ideas and information in spots, but overall, there is little that is out of the ordinary here. Which is too bad, I'd expected more from an author who won a Pulitzer Prize. Recommended for those who enjoy reading about this period of history.

Cleopatra: A Life
Stacy Schiff
2010; Little, Brown and Company, Hachette Books
ISBN 978-0-316-00192-2


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