Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff

Eight stars

Beginning a month (or forty days) of biographies, I thought I would work through this buddy read. In her biography of Cleopatra, 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. 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, 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.

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The Witches: Salem, 1692, by Stacy Schiff

Seven stars

From a period of time so fraught with scandal and religious ferocity, Stacy Schiff is able to construct a powerful and well-paced book that offers readers insight into the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Admitting from the outset that much of the stereotypical views of witches–their pointy hats, bubbling cauldrons, warty chins, and evil cackles–was formulated much later by fiction writers, Schiff tries to get to the core of events in colonial New England and provide the reader with everything needed to place these events in proper context. Salem events took place primarily over a nine-month period, between January and September, 1692, though the idea and persecution of witches dates well-back in the colony and for centuries around the world. Witchcraft of the time related strongly to the practice of allowing the devil to use one’s body as a vessel for his own devices, as Schiff notes, contrasting greatly with the strong puritanical nature of Salem and the New England environs. As such, the hunting out of witches and their subsequent trials became a long-standing biblical war, akin to that found in the Book of Revelations, on which the Puritans based their fervour. From the outset, Schiff provides the reader with a collection of characters, both puritanical leaders and those who were agents of the Devil, to play out these events, both standing firm to their set of beliefs. In developing the persona of the witch, Schiff focusses on the blunt and honest admission by some women (as well as a handful of men) who agreed to turn towards the Devil for assistance in their daily lives, or because they felt out of place amongst others in town. The book’s focus is not to exemplify the vastly generic nature of witch hunting and persecution, but to show that those in Salem who were possessed had no problem admitting it. Schiff mentions a few traits seen in these individuals, such as the evil eye, marking across the skin, or a copy of a contractual agreement with the Devil, usually signed in blood. These traits separated the individuals from others and became the collection of foundational traits by which the religious elders judged others to be witches. Schiff notes that possession or witchcraft crossed ethnic and socio-economic lines, as well as varied in age, citing a girl of seven as being happy to admit that she is a tool of the Devil. Schiff surmises that it was the extrapolation of the aforementioned traits by judicial and religious leaders that created the frenzy of false accusations and the deaths of many who attested to their innocence. Familial and fraternal relationships with known or admitted witches tended to be seen as automatically guilty, as well as some oddities in the person (shakes, birthmarks, speaking oddly), though the puritanical fire and brimstone proved not to weed out the guilty, but to make an example for those placed before the authorities. Schiff notes various forms of torture to wean out admissions, which would sometimes come to offset the pain in which people were put. Most readers will see, like torturing prisoners, those in positions of power can usually get the answers they want if the barbarism is painful enough. Some trials were drawn out while others were brief affairs and required only a witness or two, but all guilty verdicts were handled in the same way; a death sentence for the convict. These public executions served also to scare people into reporting others who appeared possessed or professed to doing evil acts (and one can surmise that it was also to pack the pews for religious meetings). Throughout the tome, Schiff offers up wonderful detail of each point in the process , placing events it into historical context. While I might have expected more of a ‘law and order’ approach (hunt them out and bring them to trial in the latter part of the narrative), Schiff explores the different types of witches and their varied occult activities, grouping individuals in this manner and, on occasion, referring to a person in a few chapters, as their personal stories were quite complex. This was definitely a scary time in colonial America and Schiff effectively portrays it, without the bells and whistles of a Hollywood storyline. An interesting novel that seeks to open the eyes of the reader while trying to separate fact from inevitable fiction.

Having never read Schiff before, I was not sure how to approach this. Truth be told, when the book was recommended to me, I thought it would be more of a fictional account of the trials with a great deal of substantiated proof (a piece of historical fiction). Once I realised in the early going that this was a full-on historical and biographical account, I was pulled into the narrative and sought to learn as much as I could. Schiff admits that her research was stymied by not having the actual transcripts of the trials, but simply summaries and some court documents that have lasted over three centuries. To have the compendium of actual transcripts would have made for a much more riveting depiction, though Schiff is effective in portraying all that occurred and breathes life into those who were accused. There are two things that come forth in these accounts over all others; the religious might under which the colony was held at the time and the openness of those who were actually witches. Schiff portrays the clash and the trials lose their muster as being a strong judicial battle to find the traitors in the midst, especially since these individuals stand firm in their convictions of being strong-willed agents of the Devil. Schiff paces her tome out effectively, trying to offer up varying perspectives of those who were brought to trial and their different accusations, though since much of the narrative focussed on Salem, the same characters are interspersed within, seeing as it is likely that the witches would all interact on some level. The attention to detail that Schiff offers is second to none and I found myself enthralled in the details, though I will admit there were portions I found dry and drawn out. All that being said, Schiff knows how to present an effective biographical and historical piece on one of the most misunderstood short periods in time, while also dispelling many of the myths that surround both witches and the trials in this small New England community.

Kudos, Madam Schiff for this wonderful insight into this most scandalous subject. Rest assured, I will be coming back to read more of your work soon!