15
Oct
13

A Fresh Take On An Ancient Story: Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life

Cleopatra: A Life

Well-researched and well-written, Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra is a fascinating read about a figure who, for all her fame, remains sadly elusive.

After all, everyone knows the outline of Cleopatra’s life: an Egyptian queen who slept with Caesar and Mark Antony, then when Octavian subdued Alexandra, she killed herself with an asp. People as diverse as Florence Nightingale and Shakespeare have thrown her under the bus as a witch, whore or worse. And for nearly as long as she’s been dead, her story was used to illustrate what happens when a female corrupts someone great: nothing good.

Of course, Cleopatra was none of those things. And Schiff’s biography aims to set the record straight.

It’s a tough job. Even the ancient biographers and historians didn’t like her too much, although it should be said they wrote for a Roman audience and under patronage that Cleopatra fought against. So even from the get-go, the sources weren’t sympathetic. And thats where there are sources: there simply aren’t many for Cleopatra’s early years. Consequently, Schiff has a lot of holes to fill and not much to fill them with.

She does an admirable job. In a biography that’s a little short on definite conclusions, but heavy on showing multiple ideas for what could’ve happened, she recreates what she can of Cleopatra’s life and tries to put it into a greater context. Her early years are a mystery, but it’s known she was exiled when her brother Ptolemy XIII seized the throne. A civil war ensued and Rome found itself embroiled in it after Caesar found himself after Cleopatra emerged from a sack in front of him. Later, she’s emerge as sole ruler of the Egypt as it’s empire expanded to it’s largest size. She funded Roman conquests and one half of a civil war, having children with two of it’s most famous citizens.

But at the same time, she was a conniving queen. She was ruthless to people who stood in her way, killing two of her brothers and a sister. She often tried to play sides against each other and alienated those close to her, fuelling her downfall. And her feud with Herod would make an interesting book in itself: he was alternately supporter and enemy, eventually an active participant in her downfall.

That downfall is a dramatic story, the narrative backbone of this biography. It reads a little like a history of Rome in this period, going from the troubles at Rome when Caesar was assassinated, to the bombastic speeches of Cicero to the war between Antony and Octavian, climaxing with the battle of Actium. It’s helpful to people without a lot of knowledge of those turbulant times. And while she defers to a wide variety of ancient sources – Plutarch, Cassius Dio, and Josephus, among others – she’s always careful to present their biases, too.

She’s right to. This book clearly sets out to try and restore Cleopatra’s reputation or at least strip away some of the propaganda. There are centuries of it. One example Schiff uses is when Cecil B. DeMille pitched her role by asking an actress “How would you like to be the wickedest woman in history?”

To that end Schiff was successful: in her pages, Cleopatra comes alive as a queen who was astute and rich, able to connect to her kingdom in a way few leaders can and who, sadly, fell for the wrong man at at the wrong time (spoiler: she dies).

Rating: 8/10. While some might object to the lengths Schiff goes to in calling out ancient sources and the leaps of faith she makes (there are a lot of holes in Cleopatra’s life, let alone her motivations), it helps cut through the noise and lets one of the most remarkable personalties of the ancient world come through. Recommended, especially for history buffs.

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