Thursday, December 1, 2011

"Cleopatra: A Life" by Stacy Schiff

Schiff's new biography of Cleopatra sets out to dispel some of the myths that have surrounded the famous queen for ages, particularly those portraying her as nothing more than a seductress, a femme fatale who led Julius Caesar astray and destroyed Mark Antony. In A Life, Schiff instead posits Cleopatra as an intelligent strategist focused on maintaining her rule and independent kingdom.

There are a lot of great details throughout the book that make it a fascinating read for anyone interested in the classical world. Cleopatra was part of the Ptolemy dynasty that had ruled Egypt for years, yet they were Greek. The family had a nasty habit of killing each other off in order to gain the throne (and you thought the characters in A Game of Thrones were bad), something Cleopatra gamely participated in as well. So fabulous was Cleopatra's wealth that she gave away horses and couches to Roman dinner guests.

It's Cleopatra's relationships with the Roman leaders Caesar and Antony that have given her the most notoriety. These relationships take up much of the book, though the men come more to life than Cleopatra. In the end, it's difficult to know how exactly Cleopatra felt about the relationships. On the one hand, Egypt needed Rome as an ally, so a relationship with the men makes political sense. On the other hand, Cleopatra had children by both men and famously commits suicide after Antony's death (though, significantly, she does so after being conquered and imprisoned). Did she love them? Did they love her? These questions cannot be fully answered.

Though Schiff's research is exhaustive, in the end, the reader learns more about the context surrounding Cleopatra than the queen herself. This may be largely because history is written by the winners--in this case, the Romans--so the information we have on her is from a biased and critical Roman-centered point of view. Schiff does a nice job of trying to parse through the sources, determining each author's agenda, but it also means she's left with little in the way of fact. Most everything about Cleopatra herself is boiled down to "probably's." It was frustrating to know so much about Caesar, Antony, Cleopatra's wealth, Alexandria's status in the Mediterranean, and the status of women and so little about the the woman herself.

The book does not begin chronologically, and so I found it confusing at first because it would jump back and forth in time. Once it became traditionally chronological, I had an easier time. I listened to the audiobook version, narrated by Robin Miles. Miles has a pleasant neutral voice, but she's not particularly engaging, and I wished for a bit more spunk. I did fall asleep at intervals during the book, but I'll attribute that more to my tiredness than a failure of Schiff's work.

Cleopatra: A Life is a comprehensive look at an interesting and important period in history and the intersection of two very different cultures. Although at times a tad dry or repetitive, Schiff does much to raise Cleopatra beyond the Hollywood image of her and into her own right as a powerful and intelligent leader of a nation.

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