Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff

Published November 1, 2010.

Her palace shimmered with onyx and gold, but was richer still in political and sexual intrigue. Above all else, Cleopatra was a shrewd strategist and an ingenious negotiator. Though her life spanned fewer than forty years, it reshaped the contours of the ancient world.

She was married twice, each time to a brother. She waged a brutal civil war against the first when both were teenagers. She poisoned the second. Ultimately she dispensed with an ambitious sister as well; incest and assassination were family specialties. Cleopatra appears to have had sex with only two men. They happen, however, to have been Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, two of the most prominent Romans of the day. Both were married to other women. Cleopatra had a son with Caesar and - after his murder - three more with his protege. Already she was the wealthiest ruler in the Mediterranean; the relationship with Antony confirmed her status as the most influential woman of the age. The two would together attempt to forge a new empire, in an alliance that spelled their ends. Cleopatra has lodged herself in our imaginations ever since.

Famous long before she was notorious, Cleopatra has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons. Shakespeare and Shaw put words in her mouth. Michelangelo, Tiepolo, and Elizabeth Taylor put a face to her name. Along the way the supple personality has been lost. In a masterly return to the classical sources, Stacy Schiff here boldly separates fact from fiction to rescue the magnetic queen whose death ushered in a new world order a generation before the birth of Christ. Rich in detail, epic in scope, Schiff's is a luminous, deeply original reconstruction of a dazzling life. (book flap blurb)

First and foremost this is a history book. The plot is taken from real time 2,000 years ago. It hasn't been bloated with fantastical elements or intense drama. In fact, if you were reading this book as you would a work of fiction, you'll find yourself sadly lacking that same kind of connection to Cleopatra as you would to a main character in a novel. Why? Because Cleopatra is nearly unknowable. And she's not a fictional character. She's spoken of from a distance, seen more through the eyes of men around her than through her own lenses. If you're not interested in Caesarian Roman or Ptolemaic Egyptian history, you might not get much out of this book. But if you are, and you want to know more about the elusive Cleopatra, not the Elizabeth Taylor or Shakespeare version but the real person garnered from first hand accounts and a few words out of her own mouth, you'll guzzle this book up as if it were your life force.

The person of Cleopatra is the center of this book's universe with which all other events orbit. Unfortunately, the only way we can truly get to know Cleopatra now is by analyzing the events happening around her through the eyes of the people she's come in contact with. As I said above, this creates a sort of distance from her but it allows for a more objective look into her life. With these elements Schiff allows you to dissect her life and get a better hint of who Cleopatra was as a person, what her personality really was like and whether something of those scandalizing rumors really were true. Augustus Caesar did a good job of striking her from the history books. But not good enough. Here she remains to this day and Schiff did an excellent job of digging up the truth behind this woman we know next to nothing about. We barely even know what she looks like save for some sanctioned Ptolemaic coinage with her bust stamped onto it.

Despite the rampant incest (holy god, we're talking about a family stump here, ew) and homicidal tendencies, Cleopatra's ability to rule a kingdom was astonishing compared to any ruler, let alone a woman living, quite literally, in a man's world. That's not to say her reign was full of smooth sailing, but she knew how to talk, walk and act in order to get what she needed for her country. She put her country first above all else (except maybe her children). Just like the accounts of this book orbit around Cleopatra, every piece of minutiae of Cleopatra's life orbited around the success of her kingdom. It's hard to determine if she did something genuinely out of love or if it was show, but it was all for Egypt, ultimately. Even when she tried negotiating with the immovable Augustus after she swindled Antony into his own suicide, it was all political. It was Antony's only way to die on his terms and Cleopatra's last hope of saving her country.

Despite the distance I say this book creates between the reader and Cleopatra, it does an excellent job of forming a more accurate image of her in your mind's eye. That Elizabeth Taylor hussy image gets pushed aside as all of these missing pieces replace it, forming this real live person that feels more a part of history itself than just Hollywood. While the puzzle isn't complete, and probably never will be, Schiff does an fantastic job of digging up absolutely everything she can on this amazing woman and giving it to us as straight as can be. She doesn't hide what Cleopatra is, or what she potentially was. No secret is safe, nor even skewed. I felt like I was back during her reign, sitting on a cloud with the gods and watching all of these events unfold. Some of the images were blurry but they were clear enough to determine just what was going on.

While it took a little while for me to get through, this book is an excellent historical read. A must read for anyone interested in the life and times of Cleopatra without the fabrications of storytelling and millennia of innuendo. It's raw, it's unforgiving and you will come away from it being more knowledgeable about such a shadowy figure in history. And then you'll want to read it again to be sure you picked up all of the historical tidbits you may have missed.

If you want a good piece of fiction to follow this book with, you should pick up Cleopatra's Daughter by Michelle Moran. It picks up almost right where Cleopatra ends and Moran sticks pretty closely to the facts Schiff writes about. Honestly, I don't think you'll be able to stop at the end of Cleopatra. She's just far too interesting of a person.

1 comment:

Jessica said...

I won this book a little while ago. I was looking forward to reading it. Now I want to devour it.
Clearly you enjoyed, I hope I do as well.

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