Schiff, Stacey. Cleopatra: A Life. Little, Brown New York 2010. Bio; 2/18.
Most of us remember Cleopatra through Shakespeare (if we studied English lit), Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton (if we were watching movies in 1963) or like we remember Julius Caesar and Jesus (via a junior high or Sunday school familiarity with ancient history). Although this uniquely fascinating woman lived for only 39 years, her life made an enormous difference in the Western world two thousand-plus years ago. We find her in reverse-telescope long retrospect in this biography an icon of feminism, a fabulous leader of a fabulous ancient culture, and an important if finally diminished force in the early history of our western culture.
Alexandria is a pretty ordinary Egyptian/European city today, but Schiff presents it in the first century BC as a present-day New York, Oxford, Paris, and Monte Carlo. a:
scholarly paradise with a quick business pulse and a languorous resort culture, where the Greek penchant for commerce met the Egyptian mania for hospitality, a city of cool raspberry dawns and pearly late afternoons, with the hustle of heterodoxy and the aroma of opportunity thick in the air. Even the people-watching was best there.
Schiff could write travel brochures. I’d love to go there, even without cars, computers, or cardiac catheterization. It’s a thousand times more alluring than the melting pot Alexandria of Lawrence Durrell in the 1960s. But first century BC Egypt wasn’t what most egalitarian moderns would be willing to put up with. It was politically extremely controlled and fabulously corrupt. Wealth amassed ever upward into the royal monopoly which took half of the country’s huge production. Imagine Donald Trump winning not only the presidency of the most successful and powerful country in the world, but personally arrogating half its production: a value today of around $9 trillion per year. There are too many variables, but Cleopatra was all-things-considered one of the wealthiest people and one of the very wealthiest women in history.
She was probably the most significant of the ancient Egyptian Ptolemaic family of queens. Royal family members routinely assassinated their parents, siblings, and children for political reasons. Having accomplished whatever she needed to of that, Cleopatra was also considered a goddess (identified with Isis), and of course connected in so many more ways than one with the royalty of Rome ascendant at that critical time in history.
She famously smuggled her 20-year-old self into the Alexandria palace and cohabited, apparently through a combination of sexual attractiveness and smarts, with Julius Caesar who was living there temporarily and who hung around long enough to father a child with her. Later, after his assassination, she sailed with a retinue consisting of a portable version of her home town Alexandria to Tarsus where she overwhelmed the heart, mind, and manhood of Mark Antony, “(hailing, at the age of 28) from the take-no-prisoners school of seduction”.
Her relationship with Antony was complex. Both revered Julius Caesar and opposed his adopted heir Octavius, but “impossibly handsome” Antony was both too nice a guy and nowhere near the military genius of his distant uncle Julius. Spies and senators jumped back and forth between Antony and his opponent for the leadership of Rome Octavius putting modern-day turncoats to shame, depending on who anyone thought was ascendant at any time. But (no spoiler, it’s all ancient history) Octavius eventually overcame Antony and Cleopatra in Alexandria and Cleopatra successfully committed suicide over Octavius’s objection.
Schiff is an affectingly formal biographer with a lovely sour sense of humour. She feels to me like a cross between Arnold Toynbee and my grade 8 English teacher. There is terrific complexity and many vacant patches in the historical record with which she is minutely familiar, but she’s also had to interpret it all bearing in mind the motivations and reliability of a lot of long-gone authors, and give it to us in a context of modern sensibility. I think she does a masterful job. No images of Cleopatra survive, but there is evidence she might have been a good-, but not gorgeous-, looking woman. She is presented in this bibliography as brilliant, formidable, and an awful lot more than a seductress. Schiff (herself quite presentable based on online pictures)’s summing-up of this spectacular pinnacle of female power and sex includes the following quotes:
It has always been preferable to attribute a woman’s success to her beauty rather than to her brains, to reduce her to the sum of her sex life. Against a powerful enchantress there is no contest. Against a woman who ensnares a man in the coils of her serpentine intelligence – in her ropes of pearls – there should, at least, be some kind of antidote. Cleopatra unsettles more as a sage than as a seductress; it is less threatening to believe her fatally attractive than fatally intelligent.
We will remember that Cleopatra slept with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony long after we have forgotten what she accomplished in doing so, that she sustained a vast, rich, densely populated empire in its troubled twilight, in the name of a proud and cultivated dynasty.
But things change. Two thousand years has obliterated and submerged Cleopatra’s Alexandria, and
a very different woman, the Virgin Mary, (has subsumed) Isis as entirely as Elizabeth Taylor has subsumed Cleopatra.
Spectacularly brilliant and accomplished people are also men and women (and maybe a few other genders). I don’t think anybody very often accomplishes much without some sort of reference to what we call their sexuality. Certainly our man- or womanhood can help us (or mess us up) spectacularly. We don’t diminish John Kennedy or Catherine the Great or Warren Beattie because sex was a big deal in their lives. Just so I guess with Cleopatra. No less than not-so-sexy Benjamin Franklin, Marie Curie or Albert Einstein this wonderful character remains enormous in history.
This book is a great read for anybody serious about history who enjoys smart high-class writing. 8.7/9.0.