Cleopatra: A Life. Stacey Schiff.

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 died at age 39, 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, an unopposed leader of a fabulous ancient culture, and an important if finally diminished force in the early history of what I guess we were accepting when I was in university as 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.

Stacey Schiff could write travel brochures. I’d love to be there in foolish fantasy two thousand years ago, even without cars, computers, or cardiac catheterization. Her reverse telescope mercifully shuffles off to the side a lot of things we take for granted like reasonably good smell in public places, everybody being treated as though they were a human being, and an expectation to live past infancy and then beyond about 50. Schiff’s ancient Alexandria is way more alluring to somebody from the midwest deciding where to go on a cruise than would’ve been the melting pot Alexandria of Lawrence Durrell in the 1960s.

But first century BC Egypt probably wasn’t just physically unpleasant, it was also politically what most egalitarian moderns wouldn’t be willing to put up with: 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 having 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 soft 20-year-old self wrapped in a rug into the Alexandria palace and cohabited, apparently through a combination of sex and smarts, with Julius Caesar who was living there temporarily and who didn’t mind hanging around 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 so on of Mark Antony, “(hailing, at the age of 28) from the take-no-prisoners school of seduction”.

Her relationship with Antony was famous and is complex. Both revered Julius Caesar and opposed his adopted heir Octavius, but “impossibly handsome” Antony was all too nice a guy, a bit of a drunk, and nowhere near the military genius of his distant uncle Julius. Spies and senators jumped back and forth between Antony and Octavius for the leadership of Rome, putting modern-day double agents 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 feels to me like a cross between Arnold Toynbee and Freddy Cannon’s 60s history teacher Abigail Beecher. She is minutely familiar with the complexity and many vacant patches in the historical record, and has also had to interpret it all bearing in mind the motivations and reliability of a lot of long-gone authors. But apparently perfectly able to hold attention herself based on online pictures, she helps us simple moderns to see as happening right now a very old sexy story of powerful wealth with an attractive woman in control, at least in the beginning. No images of Cleopatra survive, but there is evidence she might have been good-, but not gorgeous-, looking. She is presented in this bibliography as brilliant, formidable, and an awful lot more than a seductress. I think Stacy Schiff does a masterful job of summing-up this pinnacle of female power and sex in modern terms:

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.

Brilliant accomplished people are also men and women. A lot of famous very people are known as much for their sex life as for other achievements. Certainly our man- or womanhood can help us (or mess us up) spectacularly. We don’t diminish John Kennedy, 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.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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