Thursday, December 23, 2010

Cleopatra: A Life

"Cleopatra: A Life" by Stacy Schiff is a perfect example to showcase history being written by the victors. From Goodreads:

"Her palace shimmered with onyx, garnets, 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, among the most prominent Romans of the day. Both were married to other women. Cleopatra had a child with Caesar and--after his murder--three more with his protégé. 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, Cleopatra's supple personality and the drama of her circumstances have 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. Rich in detail, epic in scope, Schiff 's is a luminous, deeply original reconstruction of a dazzling life."

This is an excellent work of non-fiction I became aware of when I saw Stacy Schiff doing the book tour thing on the Daily Show. It is amazing, if Schiff's assertions are correct, how maligned Cleopatra VII was by her Roman contemporaries and misunderstood by more modern historians. It's not surprising that a woman head of state at that time would be lampooned as a sexual temptress by a world primarily controlled by men. Indeed Cleopatra's 22 year rule was one of the most properest in Egypt and the Ptolemaic dynasty. It was clever of Schiff to take the known history of the period (first century B.C) and split the difference with other historians, Appian, Dio, Plutarch, to name a few, whose narrative of the Ptolemaic queen may have been a little too Roman influenced.

A brilliant book that catalogues Cleopatra's multiple rises and failures while living among many historical characters including Gaius Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, Octavius, King Herod, and Cicero. Highly recommended especially if interested in the subject matter or the time in history. The only warning I would add is that the book tends to read like a text book and can be difficult at times especially when referencing people and places of the ancient era.

"Two thousand years of bad press and overheated prose, of film and opera, cannot conceal the fact that Cleopatra was a remarkably capable queen, canny and opportunistic in the extreme, a strategist of the first rank. Her career began with one brazen act of defiance and ended with another."

No comments: