Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff – book review

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by Amelia Gordon

  Many of us know of the life of Cleopatra through the plays of Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw and the lush 1963 film starring Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Early on she is portrayed as an imp, later a seductress, a symbol of luxury and a destroyer of men. She has been excoriated by Roman and Greek historians Plutarch, Lucan, Suetonius and Dio Cassius as well as and the Jewish historian Josephus, portrayed as a wealthy Egyptian whore who seduced Caesar and destroyed Mark Antony. She was irresistibly beautiful.

The Cleopatra protrayed by Stacy Schiff is another person entirely. She was of Greek, not Egyptian descent. She was not physically beautiful, but was irresistibly charming, with a melodious voice, a quick wit, intelligence, curiosity, education and an ability to please. Not to mention her wealth. Egypt was by far the wealthiest of the client states of Rome, far richer than Rome itself. Cleopatra was not only capable of throwing huge banquets and celebrations, at which gifts of the gold and silver tableware and furniture were made to departing guests, she was able to finance Roman wars, a chief attraction in an era of conquest and Roman civil wars. Alexandria was a luxurious paradise – Rome a city depleted and exhausted by years of civil war.

Cleopatra ruled for 22 years over largely worshipful subjects, from the intellectual and aesthetic capital of the ancient world, Alexandria. She ascended the throne at 18 and was married to two younger brothers in succession. The first one, Ptolemy XII she eliminated with the help of Julius Caesar, the second, Ptolemy XIII she is reputed to have poisoned. Before doing so, however, she spent time in a desert exite, after a failed attempt to oust her 10 year old brother and co-ruler and his advisors  At 21, She deftly managed to have herself presented to Caesar, who had installed himself in Alexandria, over the objections and past the guard of her brother. Arriving back in Egypt from exile, she arrived rolled in a gunny sack, or carpet, depending on the tale and was unrolled before him, thus seizing the advantage of her brother. Her brother threw a temper tantrum and was later involved in a civil war in which Caesar backed Cleopatra. He died during the conflict although no one is absolutely sure how.

Cleopatra’s attraction was not just sexual. She was the favourite of her father Auletes, the Egyptian client king of Rome and exhibited discipline and prowess in the art of ruling. She spoke nine languages and could address the rulers and people of her own and other Roman client states in their own languages. She bothered to learn Egyptian, the language of her people, which other Ptolomeic rulers had not. She was descended from Ptolemy, the nephew of the great Macedonian general, Antigonus, who served Alexander the Great. Antigonus ruled much of Asia after declaring himself king in 206 B.C. .Ptolemy remained in Egypt after its conquest by Alexander, to rule and leave descendants in the Ptolemaic dynasty  to rule for 275 years, from 305 B.C. to 30 B.C.. The last of these and the last queen of Egypt was Cleopatra.

Cleopatra’s  life story is epic. Not only was she queen of Egypt, she took as lovers both Caesar and Mark Antony, the leading Roman rulers of their day. She had children by both: Caesarion, Caesar’s son who became her co-ruler during his childhood, by Mark Antony twins Cleopatra Selene and Alexander Helios, as well as a third child Ptolemy Philadelhus. All three rulers were likened to Gods by their people and Cleopatra carefully cultivated her identity as the goddess Isis. But these men were not exclusively hers. Both were noted for their sexual appetites and prowess with many partners and both had wives in Rome. Romans, in any case, could not legally marry non-Romans. Imagine the lineage that might have ruled Rome if Antony had not been defeated by Octavius.

Schiff attempts to put Cleopatra in the context of her age. The luxury with which she surrounded both Roman rulers and the lavish spectacles she staged were not simply decadence, but were designed to wow everyone, prove her worth to her Roman overlords and to establish herself in the hearts of her people as a deity. And in this she largely succeeded. Not to be forgotten is her huge contribution to the unsuccessful Parthian wars conducted by Mark Antony and to his side in the battle against his nemesis Octavius, who became Caesar Augustus after Antony’s death.

Antony lost his position and his life, largely because he was less successful in his assigned portion of the Roman Empire, the East, than his co-ruler of Rome, Octavius was in the west. He failed to conquer Parthia, and the march into and out of that kingdom recalls Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and his disastrous retreat. Antony also clearly preferred the pleasures of Alexandria, only partly because Cleopatra was there and stayed away from Rome too long, allowing Octavius, who had been plucked form obscurity by Julius Caesar who named him heir, to seize the narrative. In the end, Antony’s colleagues deserted him when they saw he was losing.

The death of Antony and Cleopatra could not be overdramatized. Without any embellishment, it is dramatic and tragic in the extreme, but I should leave the reader to discover it in Schiff’s story. There has been much written about Rome and  Egypt, even in their own time and she pulls these sources into a fascinating biography.