Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Cleopatra: A Life

The reviews of this book present an interesting dichotomy. Scholarly reviewers rave about author Stacy Schiff’s ability to flesh out the life and times of a queen about whom very little is known. Other reviewers complain that there is very little about Cleopatra herself in the book. Although not a professional historian, I am firmly in the camp with those who stand in awe of this recreation of an extraordinary woman.

History is written by the victors. As Schiff points out, in Cleopatra’s time they were men, Romans whose culture did not allow for powerful women or female rulers. In their eyes, she was the enemy who had seduced Caesar and Mark Antony, bent them to her will and contributed to their destruction. Subsequent authors through the ages, accepted this interpretation of her and embroidered on it.

In this book, Cleopatra’s life is placed in the context of both the Egyptian culture that she ruled and the Alexandrian culture of the ruling class (her ancestors were Macedonians who had conquered Egypt). Both of these cultures allowed for a woman ruler, unlike many other ancient cultures. To the Egyptians, she was a goddess, the incarnation of Isis.

Both cultures allowed her to rule without a husband unlike many future European queens who were forced to make the difficult choice of remaining single like Elizabeth I of England or choosing a husband who either alienated her subjects like Prince Philip of Spain, the husband of Elizabeth’s half-sister Mary, or cost her her throne like Lord Darnley, the husband of Mary Stewart of Scotland.

Her world is brought to life in this enchanting book. One can almost smell and feel the humid, spice laden air of Alexandria and the chill of the Roman hills. The colors, the pageantry, the rites and the people come alive.

It’s been more than thirty years since I last took an ancient history course but the author provides plenty of background information on each country and personage who was a part of Cleopatra’s life. I was able to follow along with no problem.

Unlike the heavy, ponderous style of male biographers, Schiff’s writing style is peculiarly suited to her subject. Her light feminine style provides the perfect voice for a smart, fearless, feminine queen.

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