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The real Cleopatra

A review of Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Elizabeth Taylor she wasn’t. Nor was she the Cleopatra of Shakespeare’s imagination, or of Plutarch’s. Cleopatra was, simply put, one of the ablest and most powerful women in the history of the world. She ruled unchallenged the richest kingdom of the Western world for more than two decades.

In this extraordinary work of historic reconstruction, prize-winning biographer Stacey Schiff digs deep below the surface of the available sources, both primary and secondary, to write what is surely the fullest and most accurate picture we’ll ever have of the elusive first-century Egyptian queen.

Cleopatra was, of course, the long-time lover both of Julius Caesar and of his protege, Mark Antony. She bore four of their children, three of Antony’s and one of Caesar’s. History has tended to know her as the wily seductress who reduced both men — two of the most significant figures of the ancient world — to love-slaves. Schiff sets us straight.

Cleopatra was unquestionably a consummately charming and accomplished lover, but as Schiff paints her, it was more her charm — and the staggering wealth she commanded — that was the lure for the Romans. Apparently, she may not even have been beautiful by the standards of the age (several decades before the life of Jesus). She was, however, a brilliant linguist, adept in seven languages, and the richest person in the Mediterranean world. She effectively owned the Kingdom of Eqypt, with its fabulous wealth in wheat, glass, papyrus, linen, oils, shipping, and trade. The splendor of her palace; her capital, Alexandria; her wardrobe; and her court easily put to shame the best efforts of Rome, a rustic provincial town by comparison.

Strictly speaking, Schiff’s life of Cleopatra is a work of historiography, an inquiry into the validity of the sources of historical information. In telling the story of this truly astonishing woman, she examines contrasting accounts written both by contemporaries and later historians and weighs their claims in the light of available evidence. In lesser hands, the book would languish in tiresome scholarship. Schiff succeeds admirably in holding the reader’s attention, even introducing an undercurrent of tension and suspense as the story rushes toward its inevitable end with Cleopatra’s dramatic suicide.

Schiff sums up her story as the book comes to a close: “Two thousand years of bad press and overheated prose, of film and opera, cannot conceal the fact that Cleopatra was a remarkably capable queen, canny and opportunistic in the extreme, a strategist of the first rank. Her career began with one brazen act and ended with another.” With Cleopatra’s death and the subsequent accession of Augustus to the Roman throne, the ancient world became history and the modern era began.

ISBN-10: 0316001929

ISBN-13: 978-0316001922


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Filed under History, Nonfiction