Sunday, November 4, 2012

Cleopatra: a Life by Stacy Schiff

      Cleopatra is one of the legendary figures out of history that we hear about but may not necessarily know much about.  I had read about her in the works of Josephus.  Shakespeare wrote about her and so did some French romanticists. Elisabeth Taylor glamorized her and others have vilified her. Other than that I was fairly ignorant about this “Queen of the Nile.” 

    Stacy Schiff writes a colorful, if not very objective, biography of one of the most famous-or infamous depending on your viewpoint- historical figures.  In her book, Cleopatra: a Life, she attempts to weed out the legend and get at the heart of who this woman really was.

     It’s interesting that Schiff starts out her book by declaring that most historicists throughout the ages had a biased opinion against Cleopatra rooted in the age old sin of chauvinism.  Sure, she murdered her own family members in her quest for power.  Sure, she slept with powerful leaders of the Roman Empire.  Okay, and maybe she poisoned a few hundred prisoners in order to get just the right sort of elixirs to use on her enemies. Hey, she had a country to maintain.  What’s a poor girl to do? 

    Ms. Schiff’s prejudice for her subject is exposed in an especially revealing response to a question in an interview printed at the end of the book.  After blasting all those rotten men for relentlessly attacking Cleopatra just because she was a woman, the interviewer asks her why a woman, Florence Nightingale, referred to Cleopatra as a “disgusting woman.”

    Ms. Schiff answers the question thus: 

     By the time Florence Nightingale got her neurotic hands on Cleopatra, she had been mangled beyond recognition by both history and literature.  For their own political reasons, the Romans needed her to be a femme fatale who seduced Mark Antony and lusted after Rome.  Shakespeare took it from there.

     Neurotic hands?  Uh, maybe Ms. Nightingale found someone who would murder her own family members and poison hundreds of people disgusting.  Does Ms. Schiff not find that disgusting?  My advice to Ms. Schiff is not to fall in love with your subject if you want to be taken seriously.  And, by the way, I find it somewhat chauvinistic to assume that because a writer is male he can only have nefarious reasons for writing about a female historical figure.  That’s called presuming motives.

     In fact, after establishing that it is practically impossible to know the true Cleopatra, we are then expected to take Ms. Schiff’s word for who she says Cleopatra is.

     Still, I have to say that I found Cleopatra: a Life to be engaging, interesting and a book that finally put a definitive face on someone I had never taken the opportunity to examine before.  Frankly, I don’t know why Ms. Schiff takes the ancient biographers denigrative portrayal of Cleopatra so personally.  She accuses Josephus of hating her, but-having personally read Josepus’ account- I didn’t see where Cleopatra got special treatment.  The times were brutal and so were the leaders of the era.  Josephus makes her out to be a typically manipulative power monger. Schiff admits the same in her own account.  Besides, it’s nothing compared to his description of Herod Antipas.  Yeesh.  No wonder Joseph fled to Egypt with Mary and baby Jesus.  What a monster.

     In Ms. Schiff’s book we follow Cleopatra as she climbs to power in Egypt and how she carefully maneuvers herself and her country into a favorable position with the Roman Empire.  Her first conquest is Julius Caesar, by whom she has one son, Ceasarian.  When Julius falls to assassins, she then turns her sights on Mark Antony.  Her relationship with Mark Antony produced three children.  Cleopatra gambled in order to secure her position inside of the Empire but unfortunately aligned herself with what -after several acrimonious years of power struggling with Octavian (Augustus Caesar) - became the losing team.  This led to both her and Mark Antony’s death by suicide.  Better kill yourself than be dragged through the Roman streets in chains or worse.

     Ms. Schiff has done her homework and her bibliography testifies to the meticulous detail and research she invested in this book.  It reads as well as any novel and will give the reader a definite taste of the time period preceding the first century A.D.  I recommend Ms. Schiff’s book to anyone interested in the life of one of the few female rulers of the ancient world.

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Man of la Book said...

I also liked this book ( but like you had some issues with it. Mainly the first 100 or so pages where there too many “maybe”, “we can guess…” and “prob­a­bly” for a history book.

I can understand the issues that Ms. Schiff had though, there are very little, if any, primary sources.

Sharon Wilfong said...

It must be very hard to write a book where there is so little to go on. Like you, though, I liked the book, overall. If you don't mind I'll go ahead and add your link to my post.

Brian Joseph said...

Great commentary on this book Sharon!

I wrote about it myself back in July ( Though I emphasized different angles in my post, I think that your criticism of certain aspects of Schiff's bias is well reasoned and accurate. I do tend that not emphasizing reprehensible acts is an issue that many writers tend to display when writing about many historical figures especially leaders of nations.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Briah: I agree with you about writers. Maybe it's so much in their head, the reality doesn't touch them. Perhaps they need to go to a contemporary nation that has despots leading it (e.g. North Korea) to develop some empathy. If you don't mind, I will add your link to my post.