Thursday, July 19, 2012

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff


Stacy Schiff ‘s Cleopatra: a Life is simply the most enjoyable biography that I have ever read. This book was both enormously entertaining as well as very informative. Schiff is an extraordinary writer. In terms of historical scholarship, her research and attention to detail are unparalleled and she is an excellent crafter of prose. This is my second Schiff book, her A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America is also a highly recommended work.

I loved this book so much for three reasons. First, the intrigue, politics and personalities involved are fascinating. Cleopatra is but one player on a world stage that included Julius Caesar, Marc Anthony, Octavius, King Herrord, Cicero and many other lesser known personas who maneuvered, intrigued, charmed and warred with one another for enormous stakes that included the lives and deaths of the players as well as control over vast wealth and portions of the earth.

Secondly, while familiar with many fictional accounts of these times and people, this is the first time that I have delved into information that was even close to historically accurate. Aside from brief mentions in a college textbook, I have only been exposed to fictional accounts of this era from sources such as Shakespeare as well as television shows and films.

Finally, as eluded to earlier, Schiff is a great writer whose books are a joy to read. Her prose is often poetic and she is a mistress of allegory and clever allusions. She is extremely witty and is often bitingly direct and ironic. For instance, below are a few quotes from various parts of her narrative,

“And in the absence of facts, myth rushes in, the kudzu of history”

“Cleopatra descended from a long line of murderers and faithfully upheld the family tradition but was, for her time and place, remarkably well behaved.”

“Cicero, was the Roman John Adams”

 Schiff explains that this biography of the Egyptian Queen was a little problematic, as available sources were both scarce and suspect. As a result, through no fault of the author, there are missing pieces here. We get some idea of Cleopatra’s personality, but very little of it is first hand and it is full of gaps. Though very literate, no actual writing by the Egyptian Queen herself has survived. Furthermore, very little writing about her by fellow Egyptians remains and most of the available sources are Roman. There is, unfortunately, a sense that certain truths about this woman will remain forever unknown. For instance, Cleopatra’s actions during the battle of Actium, which would shed an enormous amount of light upon the Queen’s character, are maddeningly obscured by a lack of facts.

In addition, as Schiff herself points out, we need to be weary of “facts” and stories that have been presented about the Egyptian monarch. Many of the sources that are available are those of Roman “historians”, such as Cassius Dio and Plutarch, who were often more interested in pushing political and misogynistic agendas as well as telling “good stories” as opposed to getting their facts correct.

 Cleopatra VII Philopato, born in 69 BC as an heir to the Ptolemy throne. This family of Greeks was descended from Alexander the Great and had ruled Egypt for centuries. Throughout the years down though Cleopatra’s time, Ptolemaic siblings married and murdered one another in a dizzying battle for power and succession. Cleopatra herself was successively married to two of her brothers and was directly responsible for the murders of multiple siblings including her second husband - brother. Of course these same siblings were attempting to murder and usurp her.

Cleopatra ruled Egypt at a time when the superpower Rome was gobbling up kingdoms and empires throughout the Mediterranean region and beyond. While still an independent nation in her time, Egypt was more or less reduced to that of a client state of Rome. However, due to its enormous wealth, it was a satellite nation that possessed enormous power and influence in the Roman world.

Both Rome and Egypt were in the constant throws of complex and often bloody power struggles. These contests often intertwined with one another and involved intricate connections between people and events starching over enormous distances.

As a Ptolemaic heir Cleopatra was considered to be a human incarnation of a Goddess. She was extremely educated as well as literate. Her studies were not only scholastic, but included what we would describe today as standards of social grace befitting a queen and a human deity. In a world where royal persons usurped and murdered children, parents, siblings and spouses, it was unusual that Cleopatra maintained a loyalty and closeness to her father, the on again off again ruler of Egypt.

After the death of her father, Cleopatra married her brother Ptolemy XIII and, for a short period, the two co – ruled Egypt. Civil war soon broke out between the sibling – spouses. While in exile, Cleopatra ingratiated herself with Julius Caesar. The two became lovers and Caesar subsequently allied his Roman forces with the queen. Ptolemy XIII was eventually defeated and may have been killed in battle.

Cleopatra bore a son whose father was accepted at the time to be Caesar’s. Throughout Caesar ‘s reign as leader of Rome, Cleopatra consolidated her power. Under her control, Egypt enjoyed a period of unusual stability and prospered. After Caesar ‘s assassination Rome descended into complex and multisided civil wars. Cleopatra eventually allied herself with Marc Anthony who also became her lover and who sired additional children with her.

The armies and navies of Octavius eventually defeated Antony and Cleopatra’s forces. As Egypt was overrun first Marc Antony took his own life followed by Cleopatra shortly thereafter.


There are so many directions that this marvelous book takes us into. I want to talk about what I would define as Cleopatra’s competence. In a world of rulers who often were far better at gaining power then actually ruling, Schiff paints Cleopatra as an extremely able head of state.

Schiff describes the Egypt of the time as possessing a controlled economy somewhat comparable to that Soviet Union. During Cleopatra’s reign the land prospered economically. Beholden to the flood cycles of the Nile, Egypt historically gyrated between periods of prosperity that were followed by periods of famine. Cleopatra deftly managed food and other resources during the hard times to lessen the misery of her people. During the prosperous times the nation thrived under her leadership.

She was also a great patron of arts and science. Egypt’s capital, Alexandria, may have been the world’s greatest city at that time. It was the center of culture, art and learning. It had, however, been experiencing a period of decline in the proceeding century. Innovation in the fields of art and science rebounded and blossomed during Cleopatra’s time thanks to her efforts.

She was extremely popular with the Egyptian people. Schiff credits this esteem to a combination of economic success, an embrace of Egyptian native religion often ignored by her predecessors, as well as a strong dose of charisma and propaganda.

Cleopatra also expertly played the world game of influence and power. While ultimately Egypt was subdued and absorbed by Rome, this end result was likely inevitable. During her reign, the Egyptian sovereign took an Egypt that had been threatened and was in decline and expanded its wealth, territory and influence. Once she consolidated her power the country also enjoyed an uncharacteristic period that was distinguished by the absence of dynastic disputes and civil war.

Part of Cleopatra’s success on the international stage was attributed to what Roman historians and writers labeled as scheming and seduction. Schiff reminds us that these writers described similarly successful men who employed nearly identical strategies as possessing great skill, intelligence and virtue.  An accomplished female ruler was labeled as lascivious and cunning. Her male counterparts were lauded as great men.

Schiff does point to strong evidence that while not a classical beauty, Cleopatra was very good at charming and flattering people and therefore had a knack of talking others into seeing things her way. Whether her charm was related to an erotic charisma is far from clear. While the Egyptian monarch certainly did have sexual affairs with powerful men, her male peers, including Caesar, Antony and Octavius, had scores of liaisons with both female and, at times, male royal personages all over Europe, Asia and Africa. Little criticism was ever leveled against these men for their promiscuity.

While she did have affairs with both Caesar and Marc Antony, she was not the manipulating seductress portrayed by her detractors. Instead she was an intelligent and skilled leader contending for the interests of herself as well as that of Egypt. While Schiff concedes that Caesar may have acted against his own best interests as a result of being smitten with her, Cleopatra’s alliance with Anthony made perfect strategic sense for both leaders and neither was under the other’s sensual “control”, at least early on.

It is possible that later in the relationship Antony may, from his point of view, have made some poor strategic decisions that benefitted Cleopatra. This is not entirely clear however. Conversely, Schiff postulates that very late in the game it may have been in Cleopatra’s best interest to jettison an Antony whose fortunes were in decline. Despite the distorted interpretations of Roman historians, this betrayal likely never occurred.

Finally, even in the method of her death did Cleopatra show great competence. She carefully planned the event for at least several months. Schiff reports that the famous story that the deed was accomplished with the aid of a poisonous snake is almost certainly apocryphal. The Egyptian monarch likely used a poison that did not cause convulsions or other horrendous “side effects”. Instead she likely just went to sleep and died.

Lest I be accused of pouring too much praise on the Egyptian Queen, like her peers such as Marc Antony, Caesar, Octavius, etc., Cleopatra, by today’s standards, cannot be described as a moral person. For instance, she ordered multiple executions, was complacent in enslaving large numbers of people, used prisoners as experimental subjects in her quest to find a painless and effective poison for herself, just to name a few of her transgressions. While these actions were consistent with the leadership of many nations and empires of the day, they should not be glossed over.

Once again, I have not focused on all of the interesting ideas presented in this biography. Readers will find many additional important and compelling themes. Schiff has indeed written a book that is both accessible and entertaining. Cleopatra: a Life successfully throws some light on the enigmatic story of one of the most famous and intriguing women who ever lived. Anyone with even a casual interest in Cleopatra or the era in which she lived will find this biography both engaging and enlightening. 

22 comments:

Guy Savage said...

A friend read this an loved it. We both agreed that the cover did it no favours.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - I actually thing that the cover is OK, but not great. It is a little understated. By by hiding her face, I think that it exemplifies that fact that we know something about this woman, but due to the gaps in the historical record, there is still great mystery.

Caroline said...

I'm really glad you reviewed this. I liked the review a lot and it helped me make up my mind, I think I'd love to read it.
She is such a fascinating character and it seems the complexitiy is well captured and I certainly don't mind that the writing is as good as it is.
About the cover. I would have agreed with Guy a while ago but recently I found out something a bit weird.
On YA and genre novels you find often pictures of people and you always see the face. Whenever a book is more literary and they still use a photo, the face or the whole head is missing. Once you start to pay attention it's interesting to see. Not sure how conscious this is. In any case, this cover would support my theory.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline - Think that you would like this book as it really was several cuts above the typical historical biography. I should note however that poking around internet reviews I find that opinion on Schiff's writing is very divided. There seem to be a lot of people who do not like her style. As noted I love her prose.

I found a piece from CBS news describing how this particular cover started a trend of book covers showing women with turned heads. The link is here:

http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-207_162-20079648.html

Caroline said...

Thanks for the link.

Maria Behar said...

Hey, Brian!

This is an excellent and very informative review. You have given us a highly detailed look at the life of this historical figure, as presented by a writer who has done her research well. I was totally fascinated as I read your review, which is a biographical account in itself!

You know, when I think of Cleopatra, it's Elizabeth Taylor who inevitably comes to mind. I've always disliked her, because of the way she took up and discarded men. From what you've written here (and your information comes from Schiff), it sure sounds like Cleopatra was even more unsavory!

However, I do applaud you for pointing out the misogynistic bias of those who criticized Cleopatra at the time. There were men who were just as, if not even more, promiscuous, as you stated, and yet, they were always praised, regardless!

Thanks for such a terrific review!! : )

P.S. As for Caroline's comment about cover models on adult vs. YA fiction covers, I haven't found it to be true. There are many book covers for young adult books in which the heroine has her back to the viewer, or her face cannot be seen, in one way or another. Check out the covers of the "Fallen" series, by Lauren Kate, as well as "Winter's Shadow" and "Winter's Light", by M.J. Hearle. There's one YA book featured in my sidebar, titled "Dark Destiny", on which the heroine has her back to the viewer. I read a lot of YA novels, so I know... : )

Violet said...

I've never really paid much attention to Cleopatra because I think that she and her life have been glamourised and sensationalised to a ridiculous degree, but this sounds as though it's a more realistic rendering of her life and times. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Maria - The Elizabeth Taylor - Cleopatra connection is so strong in our society. Sometimes when I picture Cleopatra I actually picture Elizabeth Taylor! The bias going down through present day is amazing. Based upon Schiff's text Caesar likely had more relations then Cleopatra, yet we do not remember him as the great seducer.

It seems not only that some people of the era were unsavory, apparently anyone who rose to a position of power in those days was pretty bad.

I wonder, if anyone knows of a book cover with a woman whose head is turned as to obscure her face, that came out before this book.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Violet - One interesting thing about the sensationalized was that it also occurred in Cleopatra's time. As per Schiff both Cleopatra and Marc Antony were some of the world's first superstars. They projected a glamorized image throughout the ancient world.

One fascination side note. According to Schiff Cleopatra was somewhat popular with Egypt's jewish population as she often favored them as a group for strategic reasons. A few actually believed at the time that it would be Cleopatra and Marc Antony's union who would produce the long awaited Messiah.

Ryan said...

I think, by nature, biographies are problematic for any number of reasons. that is why I have trouble with the term "definitive." As if a life can be summed up, encased in lucite and deemed understood.

That being said, thank you for bringing this title to my attention. I've been looking for a good historical biography. I especially like biographies that ambitiously delve deep into the past. It takes a brave writer to tackle a subject so distant.

If you haven't read it already, Will in the World by Jeremy Greenblatt is an excellent biography of William Shakespeare.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Ryan - I agree with biographies so I think that it is best to read several on the same person in order to achieve understanding. I am a bit of a history buff so I tend to look at these as history books. Even with history books however, it is beneficial to get alternate views.

Thanks for the recommendation. I have not read Will in the World but I love Shakespeare so I will likely get to that one.

Jennifer Hartling said...

“And in the absence of facts, myth rushes in, the kudzu of history” What a brilliant and true quote!

Brian, I read this as well and was completely fascinated. What a woman. And we don't even need all the myths to make her so. The truth is better..and stranger than fiction as usual.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jennifer - That is a great line! Schiff's Benjamin Franklin book also has some great quotes.

I agree about the myths being so unnecessary, If you recall, one of Schiff's points were that some of the myths were created based upon sexiest thinking. The reasoning went that a female monarch could not be intelligent and competent. Any success must be attributed to being a sorceress, a seductress, etc.

Guy Savage said...

I read somewhere that no one knows what she really looked like (hence the cover with her face turned). It looks a little romancey though (the cover gives that impression) but it's sold well so what do I know?

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - According to Schiff, Cleopatra's appearance is very much a mystery. Schiff does conclude from sketchy sources that she was not perceived to be very beautiful.

I agree that the cover could work for a romance novel. Indeed as per Maria's comments as well as the piece that I linked to above, subsequent to Schiff's book being published, many romance and YA books were influenced by this cover.

As for the Romance theme in the book, Cleopatra's affairs with Caesar and Marc Antony do play a prominent part in her story. The focus on these affairs might appeal to a fan of romantic literature. Beyond that however, Schiff is a solid historian who really seems to present a balanced and nuanced account of the facts.

JaneGS said...

Great review--I also read and really enjoyed this book, and I'll have to check out The Great Improvisation as I think Schiff is a very adept writer.

Loved your quotes and your analysis of Cleopatra--she wasn't moral by 21st century western standards but she was a strong and intriguing person.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane- thanks for the good word.

Having read a fair amount of history, there are so many figures, especially leaders of nations, who did many admirable things, but who also committed what I would call immoral acts. The world is a very complicated place!

vb said...

Thanks for the review, I was meaning to get this book then put it off...great review...every aspect of the book is well done without revealing much..
;))

Brian Joseph said...

Hi VB - Thanks for the compliment . Since I like to talk about themes and philosophies of authors more then I like to really review, sometimes I do give a bit too much away. I try to warn readers beforehand however.

I would love to read your comments if you do read this.

vb said...

But that really helps ignorant souls like me...:))

Sharon Henning said...

Excellent review. You brought out a lot that I didn't. Schiff did do a good job writing about this mysterious woman and her book reads as enjoyably as fiction.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Sharon - Thanks so much.

there really was a lot to this book so one can approach it from several different directions. Let me point readers to your outstanding commentary on this book:

http://sharonhenning.blogspot.com/2012/11/cleopatra-life-by-stacy-schiff.html