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Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

I think I’ve mentioned my obsession with Ancient Egypt before. It shows no sign of abating. I’ve had this biography of Cleopatra on my shelf for a few months, and now seemed just the right time to read it. I very glad I did, as it’s written really well, and I merrily skipped my way through the life of this incredibly interesting woman.
Cleopatra aimed high. Competing for power in a man’s world called for great intelligence, wit, and courage. Cleopatra had all three qualities in abundance. She not only had to deal with her own family, in the guise of siblings as hungry for the throne as she was, but also the might of the Roman Empire. Those Romans got everywhere, stomping about, demanding payments and loyalty, and generally making a nuisance of themselves. Cleopatra was a tricky prospect for most of the Romans In Charge; as a woman she should be quieter and more obedient. Instead she was forceful and ruthless. To ensure her own safety on the throne she got rid of her brothers and sisters, a time-honoured Ptolemaic tradition. She also wooed Rome, first Caesar then Mark Anthony.

The first century B.C. was a turbulent time in Rome, power struggles at the top causing civil wars. Client rulers had to pick sides carefully. Cleopatra hitched her star to Caesar in the first instance. For some time this proved a prudent strategy. It allowed her to reign supreme at home, and made her an important player in Roman affairs. The wealth of the Ptolemy’s was immense; much of it found its way to Rome. Caesar’s assassination was traumatic for Cleopatra, both personally and politically. The ensuing chaos was difficult to negotiate, but eventually she was able to make a union with the dashing Mark Anthony.

Their relationship is the stuff of legend, perhaps even more so than with Caesar. Cleopatra is forever fused with Elizabeth Taylor for me; her iconic screen performance is deep deep in my soul. Stacy Schiff does an amazing job of disentangling the fact from fiction. The lack of reliable sources is a major hindrance to uncovering Cleopatra’s motives and thoughts. There is nothing in her hand, nor dictated by her. Always, she is viewed through the lens of hostile male writers. Somehow Schiff transcends this difficulty, comparing, weighing up, making judgements. In her hands Cleopatra the ruler emerges; astute politician, born to her position and determined to fully occupy her role.

The popular view of Cleopatra as a siren, ensnaring poor weak men with her feminine wiles is so obviously a construct designed to denigrate her abilities, but it is so oft repeated that it is hard to move away from. Reading this book will leave you with a much better understanding of this formidable woman. Her mind was easily her best feature, her sense of pageant impeccable – of course powerful men were attracted to her; she had so very much to offer. Her aura of divinity, as Isis, conferred status on her consort. Her bountiful wealth was quite a draw too.

At times I was transported away to another time and place. As Schiff discusses Cleopatra’s innovative entrance when meeting Caesar for the first time I wanted nothing more than to have a time machine to whisk me away and witness her daring for myself. Schiff also achieves the near impossible by engaging me in the shenanigans going on in Rome. Usually I skim all that stuff because the whole Roman Empire thing leaves me cold; I can never get on with their political back-biting. I actually read the words in this book! Schiff must be a very good writer indeed to make that happen.


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