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Monday, March 18, 2013

“Cleopatra: A Life”, by Stacy Schiff

368 pages, Little, Brown and Company, ISBN-13: 978-0316001922

Cleopatra is an enigma: she has been vilified, glorified, magnified, and made into something that probably has little relation to reality by the historians of the past and the authors and playwrights of more current times. Untangling the web of lies and half-truths to get a true picture of the woman, ruler and goddess that she was is a herculean task not to be attempted by the faint of heart.

Enter Stacy Schiff, our undaunted historian; she tries valiantly in her book Cleopatra: A Life to sort out the mesh of facts, lies and equivocation that makes up the sum of the history that exists on the larger than life figure that we know as Cleopatra. Contemporary of Caesar and Mark Anthony, a ruler of note in a time of historic giants, we are left without a clear picture of the woman. The author presents a linear time line of Cleopatra, noting the probable truths from the unlikely facts that make up the sum of our knowledge, presenting a clearer picture. The author's writing is an easily read, though she does toss in an occasional speed bump of a word early on, betraying her academia, but overall the flow is smooth and quite enjoyable. The depth of the research is apparent, but not overwhelming through excessive footnoting. I found myself only struggling to keep up my interest at one point in the story, about midway through the relationship with Mark Anthony.

But as I immersed myself in Cleopatra’s world of gods and goddesses, her schizophrenic belief that she was the goddess Isis and Mark Anthony Dionysus whirled around in my mind. How were these people capable of living two streams of consciousness at one time? Stacy Schiff paints a very clear picture of the state of consciousness of the people living at that time. We ought to pay attention to it now because we in the Western World are still dealing with the remnants of such mentalities – this type of split way of viewing the world. Cleopatra could tax her people to death yet they adored her opulence and treasured her escapades because to them she was also Isis. She was the living goddess Isis known also as Cleopatra. It was okay for her to have her siblings murdered. It is this paradigm that the despots of the world still adhere to – this link to “divinity” – that pattern is clear enough. Difficult for us today perhaps to fathom how people living at that time so easily slipped between sacred and profane worlds. Between mortals and gods. Important for us to do so if only to understand how our own worldview, of gods and mortals, plays out against theirs. Tricky business this if we consider the wars going on now in the very territories that Cleopatra and Mark Anthony traipsed about in waging their own wars. In the end war was their downfall. With the defeat and death of Cleopatra the Ptolemy dynasty came to an end.

Above all, however, this is the first book that struggles (successfully, in my opinion) to reveal to readers Cleopatra the person rather than the myth; she was not only a brilliant ruler but (to the shock of the ancient world) also a woman. Not only was she other than the dazzlingly irresistible vamp and witch of legend, but she possessed a mind, charm, education and wit so incredible that the two greatest leaders of the Roman world were so captivated by her that they were willing, even eager, to risk their lives and their countries just to be her close companion and sometimes lover (neither of them could legally marry her under Roman law). Cleopatra bore these men children, potential heirs to the vast riches of the most powerful empire in the world at that time. As the author points out, she also ushered in a new era that changed and more often than not improved endless aspects of the rest of the world over the subsequent centuries. We cannot truly understand Cleopatra's motives or actual feelings in many instances, but Ms. Schiff has shifted through all of the most reliable if any of them are truly reliable) authoritative works on the life and times of this most illustrious and fascinating ruler in order to present us with a far more realistic, logical and understandable (not to mention enjoyable) picture than has previously seen print. I wildly applaud her for this wonderful, highly successful and important effort.

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