Reviewed by Judy Garrison
Be prepared to have a slew of your conceptions about iconic Cleopatra, born in 69 B.C., last of the Egyptian pharaohs, relegated to the misconception pile. Yes, a queen by 18 and a kind of earthly goddess, she was alluring to men, and, yes, she had sexual liaisons with emperors. But she didn’t look like Elizabeth Taylor (she was tiny and birdlike with a prominent hooked nose); she had a command of 9 languages, possessed a brilliant mind; knew how to build a fleet and how to mitigate the effects of famine. She was, we learn, an ambitious, capable and powerful woman first; her steamy romantic life came second. Schiff writes, “Two thousand years of bad press and overheated prose, of film and opera, cannot conceal the fact that Cleopatra was a remarkably capable queen, canny and opportunistic in the extreme, a strategist of the first rank.” In short, she was a consummate politician in a country that had traditionally allowed women to play that role. Women in Egypt inherited property and could own it independently, and they negotiated their marriages, in distinct contrast to women’s low status in the Rome of the day.
There is much that surprised and alarmed this reader about the details of Cleopatra’s life, for instance marrying and then murdering her brothers! However, we learn that she was descended from the Ptolemaic dynasty – Greek aristocracy — in a family accustomed to partaking of bother-sister marriages and sibling murders, a family tradition, so to speak, where these acts were regarded as neither taboo nor criminal. I still cringed, but reminded myself I was looking back at a time with values and customs very different from our own.
Schiff, who received the Pulitzer Prize for three of her biographies – of Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Vera Nabokov and Benjamin Franklin — has delved deeply into the earliest sources on Cleopatra which were written from 50 B.C. to 150 A.D., sources such as Plutarch and Cicero (we have nothing from Cleo herself and no papyri from Alexandria survive). Though the book includes Notes, an Index, and a Bibliography, it is still a mystery to me how she acquired and wove together the facts and vivid scenes into the juicy narrative she gives us. Her effort is credible and I exult in this counter-story to that of many early historians — all men – who distorted her image. One called her “the whore queen”, as if to say that she attained political power through the trading of sexual favors. Not true, declares the author.
Schiff contrasts the cultured Egyptians of Alexandria, who were astronomers before Rome even existed, with their tradition of learning, their world-famous library, living in a city that boasted marvels of mechanical engineering such as “automatic doors and hydraulic lifts, hidden treadmills and coin-operated machines,” with the conquering warriors of Rome, frenetically in pursuit of empire building, nearly surrounding Cleopatra’s Egypt until she appealed to Caesar himself to consolidate her power against her brother.
Schiff’s brisk and authoritative storytelling left me breathless, but happily entertained with endless fascinating details about the principals and the times: the Egyptians would feed a fried mouse to a baby to alleviate teething troubles; the contraceptive practices of the day included attaching a spider’s egg to the body with deer hide, but only before sunrise; we’re treated to a scene of Cleopatra cooking up oddball recipes for baldness, and another of her sailing to Jerusalem, large with Marc Antony’s child (one of her 4 children by 4 different men) to negotiate with Herod.
Stop at the Andes Library and borrow the book yourself. There’s a lot brewing in today’s Egypt, but, I dare say, for action and color you can’t beat Cleopatra’s 22 year reign, and this particular telling of her life.~