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Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff.

November 24, 2014

Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff.  Little, Brown and Company, 2010.

November Nonfiction Readalong

An engaging biography written for general readers about a woman more remembered as a seductress than for her actual accomplishments as a ruler.

As Stacy Schiff observes, most of us think of Cleopatra as the temptress who bewitched Roman leaders into betraying their own country. The ancient historians who wrote about her created that image, but they were hardly unbiased. When Rome emerged as victorious in their struggle against her, they were the ones who got to tell her story. Convincingly, Schiff reveals a larger picture of her as an intelligent and capable ruler, one of the most powerful women of all time, steering her people through a time of dangerous transition and change.

Cleopatra was ruler in Egypt during the last years of the  pre-Christian era. Between Greece’s domination of the Mediterranean Sea and the rise of the Roman Empire, her family, the Ptolemies, ruled in Egypt. Their capital in Alexandria was the most impressive city within the region; a center of culture, learning, and pleasure when Rome was only beginning to acquire such luxuries. As Rome expanded, however, Egypt existed on its edge, and was its its major threat and rival. By Cleopatra’s time, it was virtually a vassal or satellite kingdom, independent but clearly under the domination of Rome. Egyptian rulers walked a fine line between pleasing Rome and their own people, a task made more difficult as assassinations and civil war among Romans created doubt about who controlled the empire.

The Ptolemies had originally come from Macedonia. Their cultural traditions came from the eastern Mediterranean and differed from those emerging in Rome. The dynasty favored marriages between brothers and sisters who ruled together. Strong women rulers were common. Cleopatra was originally married to a younger brother, but the two each had armies and were fighting each other for the throne when Julius Caesar arrived in Alexandria. Cleopatra sneaked into the city and gained his support. She was charming, intelligent, and well-educated; an excellent choice to be ruler in an Egypt dependent on Rome. Fighting within Egypt continued, but Cleopatra and Caesar won. He returned to Rome, and she gave birth to his son. She spent time in Rome, but after Caesar’s assassination, returned to Egypt where she ruled successfully for over a decade. She created armies and built a fleet of ships. Posing as the mother goddess, Isis, she led traditional religious observances. Her traders brought luxury goods from the Far East, and under her guidance the economy flourished. In the process she became the richest individual in the Mediterranean, a potential ally for any Roman aspiring to lead his own country.

After Caesar’s death, Romans fought over his possible successor. The main rivals were Octavius, his adopted son, and Mark Anthony, his leading military leader. At times the two united against other opponents, but each determined to best the other. Anthony reached out to Cleopatra for support. In addition to their personal attraction, the two developed a partnership that was politically advantageous to both. Cleopatra’s wealth paid for Anthony’s military campaigns. She also bore him three children, one daughter and two sons. Eventually, however, Octavius gained the upper hand. When he attacked Alexandria, first Anthony and then Cleopatra committed suicide. Neither had any viable options.

Rather than giving readers new information to “fill in the gaps” in Cleopatra’s story, Schiff convincingly shows us how the Roman men who told her story were able to create her as a perfect villain enabling those they supported to destroy both Caesar and Anthony. She and the eastern world came to stand for everything sensuous and exotic that Rome stood against. Rather than credit her ability to rule and her wealth, they depicted her as only a bewitching woman against whom the Roman rulers they opposed were helpless. They blamed Cleopatra for being a seductress, not noting that both Caesar and Mark Anthony regularly seduced women. Cleopatra had plenty of flaws. She could be ruthless and arrogant, but so were the male rulers of her time. As Schiff notes, the men who have written history have frequently treated woman with ability and authority as they have Cleopatra.

When I started reading Schiff’s Cleopatra, I knew almost nothing about the historical period and its leading figures. I found her basic premise convincing. I like the manner in which she based her interpretations on the actual writings of those responsible for what we know about Cleopatra. Inga Clendinnen does something similar in her research on the first settlement in Australia, reading them, as she says, “against the grain” to tell a different story than the one the authors intended. In addition, Schiff writes well, making the complicated political and military story easy to follow.

After reading the book, however, I still have no sense of how Schiff’s version of Cleopatra’s life fits into more recent scholarship. Schiff is a writer more than an historian. This is her first venture into writing on this particular time and place. Her documentation chiefly refers to the ancient histories she challenges. She notes that scholarship on women in classical times has proliferated, but her bibliography of recent research is very brief. I don’t intend to discredit Schiff’s work. I just wanted more about how other historians today view Cleopatra and her times. I doubt they have accepted the Elizabeth Taylor’s movie version of the Egyptian queen.

I recommend Schiff’s Cleopatra for readers curious about women in the ancient Mediterranean world and looking for history that well-written and insightful.

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 27, 2014 7:38 am

    What a wonderful review! I bought this book in hardback, and I’m ashamed to say I haven’t got to it yet. Your review certainly makes me want to go and pick it up right away.

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