Sunday, January 23, 2011

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

I was  living in Spain (briefly), as were Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Rex Harrison when they were filming the movie, “Cleopatra.” It was 1958 and I was 12 years old.  I remember with illogical clarity that Elizabeth Taylor, although married to Eddie Fisher at the time, fell in love with Burton. It was tabloid high drama. Then came that enormous diamond ring, but back to the “real” Cleopatra.

Well, probably not the real Cleopatra, but rather author Stacy Schiff’s “Cleopatra: A Life.” Schiff is no neophyte. She won the Pulitzer in 1999 for “Nora,” which I now must read, about Nora Nabokov, wife of “Lolita” author, Vladimir Nabokov, but back to Cleopatra.

Honestly how can we expect Schiff or anyone to get Cleopatra’s life-story accurate? She lived fifty years before Jesus was born, and her city, ancient Alexandrian, was destroyed by tsunamis and earthquakes! Besides there are no vowels in hieroglyphs!
What we do know about Cleopatra is that she was the last pharaoh before Egypt became part of the Roman Empire. We also know that she was 21years old when she met 52-year-old Caesar, who was married at the time, and fathered his child, Ptolemy Caesar, nicknamed Caesarion (no relation to the similar-sounding surgical birthing procedure). We also know that after Cesar was assassinated, she had three more children with Mark Antony (also married).

But most fascinating is that Cleopatra was unanimously considered a brilliant ruler who knew how to use wealth, power and intelligence to gain political and military advantage. Schiff says, “From every ancient source, we have testimony to Cleopatra's irresistible charm, to her ability to speak many languages, and to turn people to her will.” Cleopatra was making hefty economic and military decisions at the age of 13. Click on Read More Below...

One antithetical idea that surfaces in Schiff’s book is that although Cleopatra was clearly a seductress, it probably wasn’t her looks, but rather her intelligence and charisma that won hearts. Even the few existing Alexandrian artifacts don’t portray her as a beauty. This won’t of course stop the movie industry from casting Angelina Jolie in the planned movie of Schiff’s book (that’s the rumor floating around). 

Then there was the opulence of Alexandria and the depth of incest and parricide so commonly practiced in Cleopatra’s culture. Being born in royalty seemingly had its downside. You were expected to marry and have kids with a variety of family members. Also, assassination was so common amongst royalty that they all had “tasters,” in case food was poisoned, and slept at odd hours to minimize the opportunities for someone to sneak in and off them.

Schiff’s description of the Alexandrian wealth and Cleopatra’s lifestyle were detailed and fantastical, and the wealth was apparently enjoyed by all, rather than the few. Cleopatra was an exceptional manager of her countries resources!

I recommend “Cleopatra: A Life,” with a caveat. The reviews were very mixed. Many comments were from academians who felt it was “dumbed down,” and many others thought it was too academic. I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure I can say it is a “must read.” 

1 comment:

  1. The details of Anthony and Cleopatra's life together are much more fascinating and exciting than the "maybes" and "probablys" of the first half of the book. The final chapters, which details the showdown between Octavian and Antony are an absolute joy to read.
    An excellent book not for those just interested in Cleopatra but also in Roman history in general.