When I received "Cleopatra: A Life" via my From Left to Write membership, I just knew my husband was going to steal it. See, he's the nonfiction junkie in the house, and "Cleopatra" is exactly the sort of book he gobbles up on his daily commute. So for the first time ever, my husband is guest-blogging with his thoughts on the book.
Stacy Schiff’s "Cleopatra" deserves every bit of the praise it has received since its release. Because Cleopatra stood at the intersection of a three-thousand year old kingdom and thousand-year empire, centuries of imperial propaganda and sexism have, until now, obscured her actual motivations, feelings, and emotions. Schiff has collected and sifted primary sources – and quoted the most colorful ones – to humanize the woman, letting the reader understand Cleopatra’s fears, loves, and desires amidst some of the greatest wars of the West and the greatest riches of the East. Schiff begins by describing the perversities of Cleopatra’s Ptolemaic empire. Installed by Alexander the Great to rule over conquered Egypt, the Ptolemies enjoyed three hundred years of court intrigue, royal incest, and assassinations that went off like clockwork. This is the background that places Cleopatra, barely out of her teens, in the Egyptian desert, her brother having exiled her from the pharaoh’s palace in Alexandria. From there, Cleopatra brilliantly exploits the arrival of Julius Caesar, fresh from his victory in the Roman Civil war, the first of her Roman lovers, and the father of her first child.
Throughout the rest of the book, Schiff, though brilliant writing, pithy conclusions, and humorous asides, exposes the reader to the world of first-century BC Rome (“still the kind of place where a stray dog might deposit a human hand under the breakfast table”), the unexpectedly liberated role of women in cosmopolitan, polyglot Alexandria, and the intrigues that gripped Rome as the Republic came to an end. Throughout, Schiff produces a history that is not told by great men of that age and their male chroniclers, but one that puts the reader in Cleopatra’s mind so that we can appreciate her charm, sense of humor, and formidable ambition.
After the Battle of Actium in 31 BC gave Octavian sole control of the nascent Roman Empire and left Marc Antony a broken man, Schiff describes how Cleopatra, furiously planning for their survival, “did the thinking for them both.” Not surprisingly, the most dramatic portion of Schiff’s tale comes here at the end, between Actium and the asp, when Cleopatra struggles to save both her Greek-Egyptian empire and her Egyptian-Roman household. Here, Schiff’s skill as a storyteller and historian shines brightest. She movingly retells Antony’s death in Cleopatra’s arms while also managing to describe Cleopatra’s thinking as she tried to rouse loyal tribes and allies to fend off the inevitable Roman invasion of her Egypt. “[S]he was formidable – spirited, disciplined, resourceful – in her retreat,” Schiff writes. “Two thousand years after the fact, you can still hear the fertile mind pulsing with ideas.” Two thousand years after her death, the fact that we can hear Cleopatra’s mind at all is a tribute to Schiff and her amazing book.