I am hopelessly and helplessly condemned by my own lust for literature that I recklessly and depravedly buy books with remorseless abandon. My day job is the ever more practical occupation of freelance musician. I'm not rich. Which makes my licentious book purchasing all the more irresponsible.
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.”
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.
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?
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.
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
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.