Book Review Cleopatra: A Life By Stacy Schiff
Let the name "Cleopatra" enter your head and then let your mind run rampant with the ideas and images you have of the fabled last ruler of Egypt. Seductress. Beauty. Powerful schemer. Lavish spender. Lover of two mighty Romans: Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Vain. Trollop. Selfish.
Go ahead, let more thoughts fly. Fabulous silks. Feasts for thousands. Garish eye makeup. Elizabeth Taylor. Death by an asp.
When you are done tallying up what you think you know about Cleopatra VII, last pharaoh of Egypt, most of it will be wrong. That's because most of it was cooked up by male Roman historians who hate the idea of a female monarch who had so much freedom and so much wealth. In Cleopatra: A Life, historian Stacy Schiff, a Pulitzer Prize-winner, sifted through stray notes, letters to Semitic princes, writers that have never been looked at for decades, and casts a critical eye on the usual Roman writers gave their commentary on Cleopatra.
What Schiff came up with is a fascinating tale of a well-educated woman who spoke seven languages, took charge of her country at the age of 18, wasn't particularly beautiful (as far as we can tell) but developed a captivating personality, a fearsome intellect, and someone who was beloved by her subjects. As for the romances with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, Cleopatra seems have gone into the love affairs with a clear head and the practical purpose of saving Egypt. Regardless of how the Roman writers regarded her, she was no tramp. She picked her lovers deliberately—and they were quite happy to have her.
When it comes to the issue of Cleo's looks, there is no defining statue or sculpture, because Octavian—who conquered Cleopatra in the end—made such through work of destroying all her public images. Schiff tries to argue that the wicked-witch-like faces on coins of Cleopatra's time were true renderings, since the queen had to approve them. But as anyone knows, portraits on ancient metalcraft were poorly done and Cleopatra probably had the choice of okaying the coins or having no coinage at all. Arguments go on about various busts that have been discovered. One that was featured in July's National Geographic magazine is in Schiff's book with a caption saying it might not be Cleopatra at all. It's impossible to believe that the siren of the Nile looked like the shrew upon the coins, but which statue is hers?Continued on the next page