Archive for March 1st, 2011

Cleopatra: A Life

Tuesday, March 1st, 2011

By Stacy Schiff

The Short Take:

This fascinating biography not only gives you a much better understanding of this last of the Egyptian pharaohs, it also illustrates the huge gulf between the majestic culture of the Alexandrians of Egypt and the muscular, conservative outlook of the Roman people. It was a real eye opener for me.


I freely admit that my image of Cleopatra VII was largely shaped by Hollywood movies. I did know that the Ptolemys — the 32nd and last dynasty of Egyptian pharaohs — were one messy family and actually Greek, not Egyptian. But I had no idea just how messy and murderous their family tree was. Yowza!

I also had no idea that Alexandria was a much more cultured, orderly, and prosperous place than Rome at that time. The vast differences between the two cultures as well as the superior attitude the Romans took over all other peoples were deftly described by Schiff and gave me a more balanced vision of this Mediterranean world.

Schiff also presents good evidence of Cleopatra VII as a smart, confident woman was raised to rule and well suited to her job. Schiff delves past the work of centuries of pro-Roman writers who considered Cleopatra a scheming seductress and the enemy of all things Roman. Schiff looks into the actual history of the time to see how all the pieces fit together as well as referencing those disparaging writings.

The result is a fascinating book that not only expands historical knowledge but also adds nuances to one’s understanding of relations between Rome and Egypt as well as between Cleopatra and her two famous lovers.

A Little Plot:

You probably already know the mainpoints — Hollywood has been close enough with actual events if not in tone: first Julius Caesar, then Mark Antony. But there is so much more to Cleopatra’s story. She fought for her crown and her country, ruling successfully for 20 years. She strived to keep Egypt free of the Roman yoke by choosing alignments that should strengthen her position. She never gave up.

Huzzahs to Schiff for giving us a much richer portrait of this capable and clever leader of a great civilization!

If you want to visit Stacy Schiff’s website and learn more about her, her book, and its reception, click here.


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