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Cleopatra: A Life

Stacy Schiff

Average Review Rating Average Rating 9/10 (1 Review)
Book Details

Publisher : Little, Brown and Company

Published : 2010

Copyright : Stacy Schiff 2010

ISBN-10 : HB 0-316-00192-9
ISBN-13 : HB 978-0-316-00192-2

Publisher's Write-Up

The Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer brings to life the most intriguing woman in the history of the world: Cleopatra, the last queen of Egypt.

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.

About the Author:
Stacy Schiff is the author of Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), winner of the Pulitzer Prize; Saint-Exupéry, a Pulitzer Prize finalist; and A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, winner of the George Washington Book Prize and the Ambassador Book Award. Schiff has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library.

The recipient of an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she lives in New York City.

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Reader Reviews

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Review by Chloe Lizotte (310811) Rating (9/10)

Review by Chloe Lizotte
Rating 9/10
Although it might seem that a book about Cleopatra's life would primarily focus on her life in Egypt, her close ties to powerful Romans called for much reporting on the state of the Roman Republic during her lifetime. Cleopatra's visit to Caesar's Rome was a jarring transition - she left Alexandria's vivacious culture, beautiful weather, and majestic architecture for Rome's stifling, unhygienic, chaotic streets. Schiff refers to Rome's inferiority complex towards the Greeks, which came up in our class discussions this past semester. Although the Romans were quickly gaining power and leverage in the Mediterranean, they lacked Greece's high societal standards, as Greece "continued to spell culture, elegance, [and] art" (109). Rome was steadily becoming more aware of these shortcomings, and as a result, it began to reject the excesses of other cultures. Needless to say, Alexandria provided an easy target. Masking their envy of Egypt's financial stability and power, Romans would refer to the pyramids as "idle and foolish ostentations of royal wealth" (109). All Alexandrian imports were written off as either barbaric or far too decadent.

The Roman outlook on the rights of women also starkly contrasted with that of the Egyptians, making Cleopatra's life all the more difficult. In Rome, "female authority was a meaningless concept" (111), and they were expected to blend into the background. Women did not even have their own personal names, inheriting the female version of their father's name, much less any natural rights. Cleopatra, however, was accustomed to a society in which she needed to make any public appearance a city-wide spectacle. She had grown up in Egypt, the most progressive Mediterranean country, where women were able to divorce their husbands, inherit money, hold property, initiate lawsuits, and essentially remain in charge of their own lives. Instead of the all-white wardrobe of a Roman, Cleopatra sported vibrant colours and extravagant jewellery. Inconspicuousness was not one of Cleopatra's strengths. Needless to say, it was impossible for Cleopatra to quietly assimilate into Roman society - not only was she a woman, she was "richer than any man in Rome" (112), multiplying the public scorn. The Roman outlook on Cleopatra informed the way she was portrayed throughout history, as many historians "constructed [her story] as much of male fear as of fantasy" (300).

The contrast between both civilizations greatly surprised me as I was reading the book. I never had any inkling that any country in the ancient world was as forward-thinking as Egypt in terms of feminism, which was refreshing to read about. This also added to the impact of Cleopatra's death, since legal autonomy for women disintegrated along with Alexandria's power. I was also taken aback by the way Schiff depicted Rome. I was aware that it was a few cultural steps behind the other notable Mediterranean civilizations, but I didn't realize how large the gap actually was. When Cleopatra visited Rome, the society had "only just discovered urban design" (109). Previously, the organization of the city was not planned or thought-out, and it showed. The city was "an oriental tangle of narrow, poorly ventilated streets and ceaseless, shutter-creaking commotion" (108), both squalid and unsanitary. As we discussed in class, the wealthier classes did exist, but poor Romans dominated the population without much of a middle class to balance it out. To Cleopatra, this inside look at Rome must have been just as perplexing, considering the strength of the civilization as a whole.

The book also gave an interesting view of Roman politics. In particular, Schiff described the way politicians avoided looking at the actual issues at hand. Even when Caesar was assassinated, a politically charged act, "enmity rather than issues" (148) ruled people's opinions in their assessment of that event. Schiff also addressed the self-absorbed nature of the Roman Senate. When Octavian and Antony began to clash for control of Rome, the Senators did nothing to end this conflict and prevent civil war. They decided it was "far better that the two rivals obstruct each other…than that they join forces" (145), understanding that any cooperation between the two could mean the end for their own power, their most prized possession. The Senators were correct in their thinking – when Octavian and Antony realized they needed to work together for control of Rome, they "agreed that the Senate was the main source of [political] troubles" (Lendering). They then proceeded to eliminate "nearly a third of the Senate" (153) and its supporters through proscription.

Rome's political undertakings required sufficient funding, something which proved challenging to attain. This amplified the importance of the civilization's ties to Cleopatra - although the Romans might have cast a scornful eye at the excesses of her culture, they could not deny that they depended on her for wealth. Antony especially relied on Cleopatra for money during his scuffles with Octavian for control of Rome. Antony was fixated on successfully carrying out a military campaign in Parthia, as he knew that "only an Eastern victory could once and for all secure Caesar's glorious mantle" (214). Cleopatra was well aware of Antony's goals, and she also knew that becoming Antony's ally would protect Egypt, since Antony was known for the strength of his army. The alliance was beneficial to both sides, and their futures became even more closely linked when the two became romantically involved. It was interesting to read about how both Cleopatra and Antony understood the practical side of their relationship, since most other historians place much more emphasis on their passionate love affair. Schiff instead describes this as a twelve-year burn, but does not dwell on their emotions, likely because there is great uncertainty in such speculation. The book provided insight into the way these figures actually lived instead of perpetuating the popular mythology of Antony and Cleopatra.

I loved reading this book. It was both well-written and contained much vigorously researched information. Whenever uncertainty did come up, Schiff did an excellent job analyzing the probabilities of possible explanations for gaps in the historical record. In the end, I came away feeling like I had gotten to know Cleopatra as a person. Rather than the stereotypical image of a manipulative seductress, I now see Cleopatra as an intelligent, gifted strategist, and one of the most influential women of the ancient world. In a universe where males ruled the political sphere, Cleopatra held her ground and led her own civilization to greater prosperity. Although some aspects of Cleopatra's story will remain shrouded in mystery, I feel that Schiff's book is the most comprehensive and informed biography possible.
Chloe Lizotte (31st August 2011)

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