It’s time for my “book report” on Cleopatra: A Life by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff, the second book for Martha Stewart’s Books I’m Reading club that I’m participating in with Sony and the Martha’s Circle of bloggers. I enjoyed the book, despite the fact it’s non-fiction and I had a lot of fun writing this post. It took me back to my beloved days in college. Yes, I’m exposing myself as a nerd who likes to read things and analyze them.
Before I read Cleopatra: A Life, if you had asked me the first two words that come to mind when I hear “Cleopatra,” they probably would have been “Egyptian” and “seductress.” I hazard to guess that I’m not the only person who would think along those lines, and neither word is very accurate in describing who this woman really was. So much of what we know about Cleopatra comes from literature, movies and paintings that base their information more on fiction and myth than reality. Now that I have finished Stacy Schiff’s book, the words “powerful” and “strategic” are what come to mind when I think of the Greek queen of Egypt, Cleopatra.
Stacy Schiff begins the Notes section of the book with the following: “The dead ends and missing pieces in Cleopatra’s story have worked a paradoxical effect: they have kept us relentlessly coming back for more.” I love this and think it defines beautifully why people have been intrigued by Cleopatra, from her time until now. There is so much we don’t know, and the information we do have is often jaw-dropping and scandalous. She was only married twice, both times to her teenage brothers. Incestuous marriages were common among the Ptolemies, Cleopatra’s family that ruled Egypt for nearly 300 years. In fact, Cleopatra had only four great-grandparents and six great-great-grandparents (normally people have 16!). She had all three of her siblings murdered. As far as we know, she only ever slept with two men, but those two men were Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, who both happened to be the most powerful men in Rome and married men at that. Alexandria, the city that was her home, was the Paris of the ancient world…perhaps even more decadent and lavish in riches than Paris ever was. Her world is one that is intriguing to imagine, filled with fascinating history as well as a good dose of gossip (look out for Cicero!). No wonder Cleopatra’s name was not soon forgotten.
What struck me about Cleopatra is how witty, smart, powerful, and politically shrewd she was, despite her young age (she became queen at 18 and did not live to see 40). From the book we learn, “She was magistrate, high priest, queen and goddess. She was also – on a day-to-day basis and far more frequently – chief executive officer. She headed both the secular and the religious bureacracies. She was Egypt’s merchant in chief. The crust of state business consumed most of her day.” The image of her lying around eating grapes and being fanned by palm fronds while seducing great Roman rulers is pretty much blown out of the water. Not to say that being the richest person in the Mediterranean didn’t come with its fair share of luxury (it certainly did…the descriptions of the feasts she threw are stunning), but there was more to Cleopatra than that. For example, her relationships with Caesar and Antony were not a result of a young girl’s romantic whims. These relationships were strategic and crucial in securing her role as leader of Egypt, especially since both yielded children (including all-important sons).
I found fascinating Schiff’s supposition that Cleopatra was most likely not classically beautiful. The only imagery we have of Cleopatra is from coins she had minted herself, images that do not depict her as necessarily beautiful, but certainly strong. Instead, it was her wit and charisma that were truly mesmerizing and, as Plutarch tells us, her irresistible charm and language of flattery gave her the ability to turn people to her will, which proved to be quite a powerful tool.
True to the drama that was her life, Cleopatra’s death ended in suicide, of which we of course do not know the exact details. If you want to read more about it, you’ll have to pick up Schiff’s book yourself. (It’s good stuff. In fact, when Jon Stewart was talking with Stacy Schiff about Antony and Cleopatra’s deaths, I do believe he pointed at the book with a big grin and said something to the effect of, “It’s #*@%&$@ awesome.”)
I was impressed with Schiff’s research and writing. I can’t imagine researching this book. It must have been fascinating but also frustrating. First hand accounts are not in abundance, and the historical records that do exist are often written by Romans, who had their own political agendas, often opposed to Cleopatra’s. The story is engaging, the research well-done, and I loved that Schiff is very clear in stating what is known fact and what can only be guessed at based on what we know of the era. I felt like I was in good hands.
Be sure to catch Stacy Schiff on The Martha Stewart Show next week (date to come soon). I can’t wait to see her interview! There is also a great interview on NPR in addition to her Jon Stewart appearance. I’m glad Martha forced me to learn something new this month. It was good for me and fun at the same time!