Cleopatra: A Life
by Stacy Schiff
Reading this book had special significance for me, because Cleopatra and Egypt were my first real historical obsessions. It all started on that day of days, when The Mummy remake came out in 1999. I was captivated, enthralled, absolutely in love with Ancient Egypt. I read The Memoirs of Cleopatra (historical fiction) multiple times, watched The Mummy on repeat throughout my teenage years, and even tried to teach myself hieroglyphics. This did not end well. Actually it ended with me writing self-deprecating remarks...IN hieroglyphics; though they were most likely wrong. Hieroglyphics are hard. Despite this, I have cherished a passion for Egyptian history for nearly two decades, and Schiff's book on Cleopatra brought it all back in full force.
Right off the bat, Schiff introduces what is simultaneously the greatest fascination and the greatest struggle in studies of Cleopatra: "In one of the busiest afterlives in history, she has gone on to become an asteroid, a video game, a cliché, a cigarette, a slot machine, a strip club, a synonym for Elizabeth Taylor." She is at once one of the best known historical figures and also one of the least understood. Most of what we think we know about her comes from foreign sources hostile to Cleopatra, most of which were written long after everyone who knew her had died. Because of this it seems impossible to ever untangle fact from fiction, to ever really understand her in the context of her own life. Enter my new hero, Stacy Schiff.
Schiff explores Cleopatra's life and experiences through known facts, literature, rumors, archaeology, and educated guesses based on what we know about other high-status people in this period of Egypt. She discusses our sources, and why certain ones are more credible than others (unfortunately most sources have to be questioned...when they are all written by patrician Roman men terrified of women in power, it's kind of hard to believe all the nasty things they say about her). The book is not always chronological and it is not always clear what facts the author's statements are based on, but Schiff truly has a gift for painting pictures and creating experiences with her words. Her prose makes Egypt sound so beautiful and magical, opulent and divine...THAT'S the Egypt I want to see, not the modern one! Who knew that 2,000 years ago Alexandria, inexplicably, had "automatic doors and hydraulic lifts, hidden treadmills and coin-operated machines"?!?!?
Clockwise: Probable bust of Cleopatra, definite bust of Julius Casesar, and embarrassing bust of Mark Antony. My god, those curls!!!
Cleopatra gives a wonderful brief history of the Ptolemy Dynasty, of which Cleopatra was part (she most likely wasn't Egyptian at all, but rather Macedonian). The dynasty was famous for its nefarious love of murder and incest...one couple fought passive-aggressively by chopping up their own children and sending the bloody pieces to each other on their birthdays. Even more disturbing is that fact that they later reconciled and had more children to replace the ones they mutilated. I mean, Jerry Springer would have a field day with these families. Anyway, fitting right into the mold, Cleopatra was married to both of her brothers, who she later murdered, and she gave the orders to kill at least one of her sisters. Despite these minor character flaws, Cleopatra was most likely highly educated and intelligent, speaking 9+ languages, and creating a prosperity under her rule that Egypt had not seen in generations.
Through facts and hypotheses, Schiff also explores Cleopatra's romantic relationships, with two of the most famous and powerful men in the western world: Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Neither was really a gem, if you ask me. Caesar was basically a man-whore, who slept with the wives and daughters of just about everyone he met, and Antony was essentially an overgrown frat boy, taking joyrides through Rome on chariots pulled by lions and vomiting during his speeches in Senate because he was hung over from partying too much the night before. Also one of these men was murdered and the other committed suicide. Just saying.
Cleopatra is a whirlwind of excitement and drama, full of assassination attempts, affairs, wars, rooms knee-deep in rose petals, accusations of homosexuality, suicide, sex (possibly love?), dethronements, and, of course, murder. It reveals a world more like a Shakespeare drama than even Shakespeare's actual dramas. When Cleopatra died (also likely a suicide, though there is a chance she was foully murdered by Octavian), Egypt became a Roman province and would not recover its autonomy until the twentieth century, so the end of her story is literally the end of a free Egypt for thousands of years.
Through all of this, Stacy Schiff navigates and guides the reader superbly---Cleopatra is not a dry history book full of facts and dates...it cannot be that, there is simply not enough factual information. But this is a fascinating and beautifully written journey into the world of the real Cleopatra, heavily supported by literary and archaeological evidence and illustrated throughout by Schiff's masterful descriptive prose. It highlights all the propaganda surrounding Cleopatra and reminds us that the story we think we know about her may not be the real story at all. In the end, Schiff's Cleopatra comes down to us across the two millennia-wide gulf as a smart, powerful, adept, and strategic woman who was much more complex and worthy of our respect than the Romans ever wanted us to think.
My next task? To translate this review into hieroglyphics in honor of Cleopatra! Take that, Romans!
.......Maybe not. Hieroglyphics are hard.