Thursday, January 27, 2011

"Cleopatra: A Life"

Genre: History
Author:Stacy Schiff
Julius Caesar restored her to the throne after she showed up unannounced in her Roman-occupied palace in Alexandria, dressed in a sack. The two may or may not have voyaged down the Nile but they definitely had a son --Caesarion--whose very existence threatened the whole Roman Empire.

Marc Anthony needed her to finance his war against the Armenians and the Parthia-ns and later dressed himself up as Dionysus to her Isis in a grand display in Alexandria; Marcus Cicero hated her for upstaging him when she was Caesar's guest in Rome; she crashed Roman society and started a craze for all things Egyptian in fashion among Romans of both sexes. King Herod (the Great) wanted to assassinate her when she passed through Jerusalem after seeing Marc Anthony off on one of his eastern conquests, and, finally, the ruthless and back-stabbing Octavian wanted to take her captive back to Rome to celebrate his victory at Actium in 31 BCE and later invasion of her kingdom. (She had other plans, although not death by the bite of an asp you get in Shakespeare's play.)

She ruled over a kingdom of eight million people, and was the richest person in the ancient world by far. She was a hands-on monarch, meeting with delegations of her people and serving justice to those who had been wronged by her vast bureaucratic layer of inspectors and officials. She had a bit of a sibling rivalry with her younger sister, Arsinoe IV, which got resolved when she had her agents drag the younger daughter of her beloved father outside a temple of refuge in Greece and put to death. (She could be nasty, yes, but this was not unusual in those days when brothers and sisters competed to rule kingdoms.)

And nineteen centuries later, the Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille enticed a star actress, Claudette Colbert, with the offer of playing the Egyptian queen in his epic movie by asking her, "How would you like to be the wickedest woman in history?"

Much of Stacy Schiff's memorable and for me fascinating book recalls a lot of these well-known situations this great Queen faced. (She was the last of the Ptolemaic monarchs in Egypt, a dynasty that lasted nearly three centuries.) Her main theme is to show that Cleopatra was an amazing woman in her own right, who mastered several languages and was as witty and able a rhetorician than any leader in Rome or elsewhere. A great deal of her biographies from ancient times have been written by Roman historians like Plutarch, Dio Cassius and the Romanized Jewish general Josephus. They tended to portray her as a temptress and a practitioner of magic, taking over men like Marc Anthony and making them slaves to oriental decadence.

The truth, as always, is much more nuanced. Yes, she needed Roman assistance at times but her rule of Egypt and popularity as a living embodiment of Isis made her more of an ally than a lover. And her Nile-fed land was rich in grain for hungry Italians, and precious metals for all who had the disposable income to covet them.

She was no "martyr to love" as Chaucer called her, or a "silly little girl" as Bernard Shaw described her. Rather she was in Schiff's judgement closer to the 7th Century Coptic bishop who termed her "The most illustrious and wise of women, greater than the kings that preceded her."

I highly recommend this book. Below, Ms. Schiff reads from the book on "The PBS News Hour". Her description of ancient Alexandria in Cleopatra VII's time shows why it was THE great metropolis of the age.


  1. Four stars there Doug as this sounds like a very interesting book on an ancient world during ancient times.

  2. Thanks Jack. This book seems masterfully researched.

  3. Your welcome Doug, I will be honest I never read on her before and hence I was conservative with my post. But it truly does as I read and then listened to this and it does sound like a very intriguing book.

  4. that was very interesting Doug...she is certainly more interesting than our female politicians of today...say uhh Palin or Bachmann..:) has them out classed as well :)

  5. Thanks Mike. Cleopatra had a great multi-lingual tutorial-style eduction that would leave a lot of today's politicians, male and female, well behind. And, yes, I think she was smarter than the two politicos you mentioned.

  6. Thanks for the photos and other images, Good Stuff!

  7. Thanks for posting this review of what sounds like an fascinating book Doug Cleopatra certainly is an intriguing figure from history and a damn sight better looking than Hosni Mubarak, but what about that Julius Ceasar, what a guy he was Doug. He has a child with Cleopatra, he conquers Gaul, invades Britannia (twice), fights a civil war in Rome, fights a civil war in Egypt and murders Pompey there....meanwhile besides having Ceasar for her lover Cleopatra also has a long standing realtionship with his second in command Mark Antony having his 3 kids too...although 3 out her 4 children came to a sticky end as did she, Mark Antony and Ceasar himself of course.

    They worked hard and played hard that crowd.

    Sounds like a good read Doug, thanks for the heads up on this exploration of the lfe of this ancient Egyptian monarch.

    Egypt's relationship to global superpowers and power-mad empires seems to be an enduring theme..... I wonder if Mrs Mubarak will ever have a son called Obamaron, that'd be a turn up for the books now wouldn't it Doug?

  8. LOL @ "worked hard and play hard". And people think The Stones kept crazy hours and habits.

    No matter which visage of Cleopatra one might choose to be closest to what she really looked like, it is clear from Plutarch and other historians (including Ms. Schiff) that Cleo had charms old Hosni could only dream about.

    Julius Caesar was a "total bad-ass" indeed, AA, to use the American vernacular. It was said by one of my old "profs" that Ceasar killed a third of the Gauls, sold a third of them in to slavery and planted towns about to "civilize" the rest. I get tired just thinking about it.

    And still he had time to do all that other stuff, like that invasion/pub crawl of what we now call England. He would have stayed longer in Britain but the army revolted near Colchester when they discovered the pubs closed promptly at ten every night. (Wartime restictions you know.)

    Too bad about her children...a couple of them by Marc Anthony were adopted by Octavia, Octavian's sister, who was Marc Anthony's spurned wife. (The kids probably got poisoned. Lot of that going around back then.) Poor Ceasarion was cut to pieces by Roman soldiers shortly after her mother committed suicide. He was headed to India by ship out of the Red Sea but his tutor told him he should go back to Alexandria and throw himself at the mercy of Rome and all that.

    That tutor was a dumb sod.

    Iti s odd how this best-seller has come out just last month, just as Egypt is back on the world stage. The image of Obama floating down the Nile on a perfumed barge, dressed up like Apollo and taking notes for his next self-serving memoir while besmitten with Cleopatra...yes that would be one for the books!

    You're welcome AA. Thanks for your comments.

  9. Mmmmm, no self respecting woman would omit her course in poisons and their affect. I wonder if that is why she chose the asp to bring about her own death. What puzzles me, is, who did she find to tell her she wouldn't suffer as she breathed her last breath?

    Cleopatra was a strong woman and played her hand well. I don't think it was her beauty that attracted. The closest images of her on coins show a hooked nosed female. Surely it was her power that was her magnetism, Elizabeth Taylor she wasn't! I notice that most of the great and powerful women were good at scheming. I don't think the men stood a chance. Whatever went on at the book club, it must have included 'how to get your man and his riches.'

    Cleopatra was certainly immortalised by Shakespeare and what better hand to do that. From what I have been hearing about historians of the past, I'm going to have to return to school. :-)

    Thank you for the review, Doug, it looks like a good read

  10. Yes, I suppose "Poisons: Their Uses and Effects" is still a required course for young ladies in many of those Swiss "finishing schools", Cassandra. ;-) (An appropriate name therefore, eh?)

    Yes, I tend to trust the coins to give us an image of what Cleopatra looked like, as she doubtless had to approve the visage. It is said she also was the first monarch to establish the value of her issued coin by what it was stamped as being worth, as opposed to size or weight.

    Ms. Schiff believes Cleopatra swallowed hemlock mixed with an opiate, something similar to what Socrates drank, or possible some omitment. The asp, though, is a great artistic touch. And ,yes, after having besotted Caesar more likely with charm and intelligence more than a great profile, i suppose brave but headstrong and reckless Anthony was no match for her. He needed a strong woman at his side and probbaly should have taken more, not less, advice from her especially about Octavian, one of the worst types of double-dealers of history in my view. Anthony grossly underestimated him--Cleopatra would have got his real measure right off!

    It makes one want to revisit that play and the greatest female character of power Shakespeare ever wrote.

    I'm thankful we have had such popular historians like Stacy Schiff and the late Michel Grant and Barbara Tuchman with us to sift through the ancient texts and bring out the most likely picture of great leaders from the past!

    You're welcome, Cassandra, and thanks for your comments

  11. Yes, I was reading a while ago that it is unlikely that an asp was used by Cleopatra to aid her death, but more likely she drank a potion. This particular lady has gone down in history as having a lot of influence for a woman, but there were quite a few strong females at that time and some quite nasty at that.

    George Bernard Shaw, also wrote a play Caesar and Cleopatra which brought about the famous scene where she was unrolled from a carpet at his feet, nice touch that.

    Indeed people like Stacy Schiff, Michel Grant and Barbara Tuchman do all the hard work for us so we can lounge on the sofa and read in comfort about people from the past.

  12. Looking at the video, Doug I get stuck on Alexandria's main High street. Gosh, they surely must have had civil engineers even then. I like the way this book reads, I shall have to check out Amazon.

    Thank you for pointing me in the direction of Stacy Schiff's book.

  13. How magnificent that 90-foot wide boulevard in Alexandria must have been, Cassandra. The great colonnades as well!

    What bold urban planning, all without modern steam or petrol-powered equipment. Must have wowed the tourists and out-of-towners!

    Knowing your interest in ancient history, I think you will enjoy this book. I certainly did, as did many reviewers.