Day 22: Cleopatra: A Life

Cover for Cleopatra: A LifeWhen my grandmother traveled to Egypt in the 1960s, she wanted to buy a bust of Cleopatra. She was surprised to find out that the Egyptians consider Cleopatra a traitor. No images of her were available, so Granny Billie came back with a bust of Nefertiti instead.

When you think about Cleopatra, maybe you imagine the beautiful seductress played by Elizabeth Taylor in the movie. Maybe you think about the scheming whore in Antony and Cleopatra. Maybe you even think Cleopatra was Egyptian. (The Ptolemys were Greek.) Stacy Schiff, whose book Cleopatra: A Life was selected by the New York Times for its best books of 2011 list, would point out to you that Cleopatra’s history was written by the victors, her defeaters.

Schiff tells us the engrossing story of what is known of Cleopatra’s true life. Certainly she married her brother. So too did most of the Ptolemaic rulers marry their own siblings. Certainly her brother was executed when he revolted against her. The Ptolemys were noted for lopping off the extra branches of the family tree.

What you may not know is probably more to the point. Schiff shows us a picture of Egypt, the wealthiest country in the ancient world when Cleopatra gained the throne, but already on the wane. And there is its powerful ruler, Cleopatra, not beautiful but cultured and intelligent, reportedly fascinating in conversation, educated. Not the type of woman the patriarchal Romans are used to dealing with.

A clever strategist and negotiator and witness to Rome’s attempt to gobble up the known world, Cleopatra early realized that she needed to carefully pick her allies in Rome’s continuous battles for control of the empire. First she picked Pompey over Julius Caesar—not ultimately the wisest decision, but her family had ties to him, and her brother’s betrayal of him was one of the horror stories of the age. Then she negotiated a partnership with Julius Caesar, but unfortunately he was soon assassinated. Her next choice was not as percipient, but Marc Antony seemed to be the greatest soldier of his time.

There are few unbiased records of Cleopatra’s life, and none that are biased for her, but Schiff does an excellent job of examining the various allegations made in the existing records and judging their likelihood. Rather than the ruthless vixen reviled through the ages, Schiff depicts Cleopatra as a strong woman who was doing her best for her country.

Although some have criticized the book as heavy going (one actually commented that it “lacked dialogue”—I don’t know what source that person thought the dialogue would come from), I didn’t find it so. It was written for the general public but reflects serious scholarship, and Schiff has found an elegant balance between that and entertainment.

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