The Four Word Review: Remarkable woman, Amazing biography
The Grade: A
Makes me want to read: More about Isis and Nefertiti, and reread The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern World by Justin Pollard
My Thoughts: Perhaps one of the most misunderstood historical figures, Stacy Schiff has done a remarkable job of separating the fact from the fiction of Cleopatra. Did you know there’s actually no evidence Cleopatra killed herself with an asp? The asp is supposition and dramatic license. She is supposed to be a temptress, yet Caesar and Mark Antony were both known for the many, many sexual partners and conquests. In fact, when Cleopatra first met Caesar, he was in his early 50s and she was only 21.
Cleopatra’s story was original written centuries after her death by Roman men who hated her. Seems the Romans had a great talent for tearing down powerful women they disliked. Even Cicero, a contemporary, could be counted on to declare his hatred for her. She was an intelligent woman with a better library than his: this offended him on three levels. (This is also an example of Schiff’s witty prose. I loved her writing style.)
We don’t even know for sure what Cleopatra looked like, hence the brilliant cover of a woman turned away from the viewer. Schiff does an excellent job filling in the blanks. She is straightforward in her writing–when we don’t know something, she’ll tell us, but she’ll also give us an idea of what it is we don’t know. For example, we may not know what kind of gala she threw for Caesar, but we know what a typical Ptolemaic feast in Hellenistic Egypt looked like, so we can infer.
Masterful is the adjective I keep coming back to when I want to describe Cleopatra and this biography. I’ve no doubt this will be one of my favorite books of the year.
I’m a bit enamored with Cleopatra. I spoke with my aunt, who has also read the book, but is more cynical than I. “I don’t think you’d want to go to dinner with her—she killed all her siblings!” The sarcastic response is, at least half of them had it coming. Yes, she was responsible for the deaths of most of her siblings. It’s what Ptolemaic rulers did. Cleopatra could be ruthless, and that’s one of the reasons I admire her.
When I finished reading, I began writing all the traits and attributes of Cleopatra I either admire, or believe to be strong components of her personality: Strategic first, diplomatic second. Charming. Intelligent. Educated. A linguist. “Faced with the inevitable, she will counter with the improbable.” Decadent *and* intellectual. A self-assured leader. Formidable. “Spirited, disciplined, resourceful.” Opportunistic and canny. Masterful. Incomparable.