There is something about biographies of people you hear so much about but know so little that stirs me up. Anyone who mentions the name ‘Cleopatra’ is sure to have an image in their mind, if only the depiction that Elizabeth Taylor made of the Egyptian queen in 1963. Stacy Schiff takes the reader along a winding adventure into the world before the Common Era, where actions to unite came at the cost of land and life, both bloody endeavours. Through her tedious research, Schiff brings to life a woman known by few but whose name is synonymous with regality. A brilliant depiction here, if heavy on history. Perfect for the biography fanatic, as well as those curious about a complicated woman in history.
Born into the Ptolemaic dynasty that ruled Egypt, Cleopatra was of Macedonia Greek origin at a time of much political and geographic change. Her family ruled over the region with an iron fist and would not diminish themselves to speak Egyptian, choosing Greek for their daily interactions. However, Cleopatra did eventually learn the language and customs of the locals, if only to further strengthen her time as ruler of the region.
After the death of her father, Ptolemy XII, Cleopatra was required to serve as co-ruler of Egypt with her brothers, Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV, both of whom she had to marry, as per Egyptian custom. However, neither liaison brought about children and Cleopatra was soon able to cast them off and reigned alone, ingratiating herself with the locals by citing that she was the reincarnated Egyptian goddess, Isis. With Egypt being eyed by Rome as a potential item of acquisition, Cleopatra headed to Europe to liaise with Julius Caesar, an event that led to a secret tryst, leaving Cleopatra the Emperor’s mistress.
Nine months later, Cleopatra bore a son from this union, whom she named Caesarian, or little Caesar. Upon Caesar’s assassination in the Roman Senate, Cleopatra found herself in an interesting position, both as the mother of the Emperor’s child and as ruler of Egypt; she had to choose a side to fill the Roman void.
Turning to back Marc Antony, Cleopatra and all of Egypt held their collective breath as the Roman Civil War grew in fervour, pitting Antony against Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (later known as Augustus). While events in Rome were becoming bloodier, Egypt stood in the middle as the prized possession of both factions, with Cleopatra still holding the reins of power. Her backing Antony turned romantic and Cleopatra bore him twins, Cleopatra II and Alexander Helios, as well as another son, Ptolemy Philadelphus. Their passion was strong and Schiff left the impression that it might have helped Cleopatra see Egypt as both fertile in its political and cultural heterogeneity.
Schiff discusses a fairly significant hierarchy between the common Egyptian and the upper-class Greeks and Mesopotamian. During the Roman Civil War, Schiff also discusses Cleopatra fervour to exact revenge on enemies within the state, quelling any who spoke out against her, including a sister that threatened her hold on power, and sentiments that might have been interpreted as against Antony’s forces.
After the loss at a key battle, Antony attempted suicide in shame, though the historical narrative differs at this point, depending on which account the reader might follow. Schiff presents both the idea that Cleopatra learned of her lover’s death and killed herself, or had Marc Antony brought to her on the verge of death and witnessed his final breath, before allowing herself to be bitten by an asp.
The reader can parse through this and some of the other accounts to come up with their own personal finale, but all the same, Cleopatra’s life centred around reigning the land eventually subsumed into the new Roman Empire and her passionate connection with two famous Romans, both firmly established in the record books. A biography thick with information, nuances, and powerful symbolism, Schiff is sure to impress any reader to dares take the time to investigate the life and times of this most famous Egyptian ruler.
This is my second Schiff biography (and my second time with this piece), which seeks to shed light on powerful and controversial women in history. The attentive reader will no doubt realise the onerous task of trying to amass a biography of a woman as popular as Cleopatra.
Misnomers pepper the historical record, making the discovery of a true story all the more difficult, though Schiff does a formidable job in collecting a thread by which the reader can follow events somewhat fluidly. Additionally, all formal documents were created either in that time before the Common Era or within a hundred years thereafter, let alone that many were penned in languages that have either since died or been significantly altered.
Schiff shows readers why she is worthy of another Pulitzer for her detailed work in weaving a digestible biography, adding fact to a narrative chock full of dates and political happenings. I found things difficult to follow at times, which could be a mix of my own mental acuity and the amount of information each chapter presented, though Schiff is not to blame for my lack of cognizance. I only wish I could have latched on better to what was being presented, as I am sure I could have ascertained even more out of this wonderful piece. Told frankly and succinctly, Schiff does a masterful job that anyone with a passion and curiosity for biographies will find endearing and truly captivating.
Kudos, Madam Schiff for another wonderful biography. I am eager to find more that you have written down the road as I continue to expand my knowledge of areas in which I am interested but know very little.
A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons