Posts Tagged ‘julius caesar


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.


History through the winner – Caesar on the Civil Wars

The Civil WarThe Civil War by Julius Caesar

Casear’s The Civil War is actually three related books: a long one by Julius himself on the initial crossing of the Rubicon, the battles in Spain and defeated Pompey in Alexandria. His account ends abruptly, but is continued by anonymous accounts continuing through events in Alexandria, then through northern Africa and finally in Spain.
Like his account of the Gallic wars, Casear’s section is straight-forward and enthralling, although one should keep his aims in mind: these are not unbiased looks at how things unfolded. These books were meant to show how great a leader he was; in so many words, they’re propaganda, reading meant to excite the masses.

Even now, some 2000 years after the events within took place, they’re still great reading. Unlike some of his contemporaries – Plutarch comes to mind – Casear’s prose is uncluttered and direct. When he writes of battles, his first-hand knowledge shines: at times it feels like a conversation with the leader. But when he writes about how he spared this person or that town, showing off how merciful he could be, it bogs down the general reader (although it’s worth noting he was pretty lenient, much more so than some of the people who followed him as Emperor).

However, the other three books are more mixed: the Alexandrian account is interesting reading, the Spanish War is fragmentary and disjointed and the African war is somewhere in between. The differences between them and Casear’s are stark, and not just in language: only after you see them repeatedly say the gods decided who would win which battle do you realize secular Casear’s writings could be. All three aren’t quite as interesting as Casear’s account, either: they range between too unwieldily and too fragmentary. Oftentimes, they don’t have the access to the larger picture that Caesar’s does: they focus more on the front lines then the strategy. Still, their addition completes an incomplete picture.

Penguin’s edition is translated by Jane Gardner, who also provided a great introduction and copious notes in the back: maps, a listing of who’s who and many footnotes, all of them helpful, throughout the book. I can’t speak to the nuts and bolts of her translation, I’m willing to credit her for how readable the book is, especially given the state of the last two accounts. While her translation is pretty simple for the most part, it can to be long-winded at times. Take this example, addressing Pompey’s front lines at the battle of Pharsalus:

Between the two armies there was just enough space left for them to advance and engage each other. Pompey, however, had told his men to wait for Casear’s onset, and not to move from their positions or allow the line to be split up. He was said to have done this on the advice of Giaus Triarius, with the intention of breaking the force of the first impact of the enemy and stretching out their line, so that his own men, who were still in formation, could attack them while they were scattered. (Pg 152)

The value of this book as a primary source can’t be overstated, either. Precious little has come down to us from this period in time; that we have the memoirs of not only one of the leaders, but from the eventual dictator of Rome, is itself pretty damn cool. On that alone, I’d recommend this book. That it’s a genuinely exciting and lively read is a welcome bonus.

Rating: 7/10 The Civil War is a great, if biased, read on the end of the Roman Republic. The average reader start with a modern history of the Civil Wars – Tom Holland’s Rubicon comes to mind – before moving to a primary source like this. For those willing to delve a little deeper, and read between the lines here, The Civil Wars is a rewarding read: Casear’s accounts take you right to the battles. The other accounts? Not so much.