Thursday, November 15, 2012

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

As soon as it came out, I wanted to read this book.  Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra: A Life had lingered in the back of my mind for far too long, and I pounced on it the moment that I saw it in my sister's bookcase.  

I always had a fascination for Cleopatra as a woman and a ruler, and harboured a sneaking suspicion that a lot of the literature written about her was probably more the result of an over active imagination than actual facts.  A lot of the myths about Cleopatra are explored through Schiff's analysis of what few texts exist from her era, and she confirms some of the thoughts that I had when hearing about her life story.  Often times female political prowess and female sexual power are viewed as interchangeable, and Cleopatra has borne the brunt of this stereotype.  Her romantic conquests include two of the most influential figures in Roman history, which has positioned her as a kind of sorceress/seductress, rather than the charismatic, savvy person she really was. 

Schiff makes a number of points which allow the reader to question the Cleopatra portrayed by her Roman biographers.  One of the theories that resonated with me, was the connection which existed between Cleopatra and Julius Caesar centred around the fact that neither had anyone else who could relate to their demi-god statuses.  It would be a lofty, but lonely position.  The other lure that Cleopatra possessed which is not often brought up in contemporary accounts, is the vast amounts of wealth in the Egyptian coffers.  Cleopatra was the richest ruler in the entire world, and so keeping her pacified would be one of the chief aims of her would-be collaborators.  She could and did bankroll the ambitions of Mark Antony, and as such, he treated her as an equal.  

The other portion of the story of Cleopatra that always seemed false is her death at the hands of the asp.  It seems doubtful that anyone would choose to commit suicide with a six-foot long snake, rather than drinking poison.  Schiff puts forth the idea that someone would have smuggled poison into her quarters, and this is far more plausible.  Though the image of a snake is more dramatic, than a swift death at the hands of a potion.

I will not go into any more detail, but needless to say this book is a fascinating portrayal of Cleopatra which is rare in its frankness.  

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