Saturday, February 26, 2011

"Cleopatra: A Life" is a Chance to Enjoy the Enduring Wiles of the Egyptian Queen

“She really was impressive, wasn’t she,” said my great-aunt Phoebe over the soup. We were discussing our mutual fascination with Stacy Schiff’s biography “Cleopatra: A Life.” Aunt Phoebe’s sparkling eyes brightened talking about the victories of the queen. Although a figure infamous for her sexual allure, Schiff separates the strength of the woman from the strength of her notorious legacy. The result is a sumptuous depiction of the era, with a discerning eye turned toward the biases of the time.

The tumultuous world of Cleopatra's Egypt is easily accessible on the arm of Schiff. Her extensive research puts her at ease in her subject's world and gives her the ability to enthrall those who are unfamiliar with its terrain. Schiff deftly organizes the clutter of history and hearsay and she brushes the cobwebs off of intrigues 2,000 years old.

The name Cleopatra is tossed around with such frequency that one imagines one knows her entire story. Her seduction of Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, her venomous suicide, her deadly allure. Cleopatra's name is practically synonymous with devastating beauty. The primary point that Schiff makes about the queen is that we have virtually no idea what she looked like. The exquisite cover of the book shows the arch of a woman's neck, her face turned away. Cleopatra was a woman who always held something back, making her all the more dangerous and powerful.

It is difficult to trust the descriptions we do have of the queen and its necessary to examine the sources. Notably, no one was able to mention her beauty without also elaborating on her intelligence. In an early biography of Marc Antony by Plutarch, Cleopatra dominates more than have the narrative. Schiff is mindful of the fact that people writing about Cleopatra wrote a hundred years after her death, or more. Inevitably they were men. Cleopatra’s accomplishments were extensive, (presiding as an unmarried queen over an enormous empire, enlisting the help of Rome in the face of a siege, carrying the children of two Caesars) and it is unsurprising that the commentary about her success is biting.

Schiff pokes fun at the attitudes of the time, and indeed some details inspire frank amazement. Members of the Ptolemy clan routinely married uncles, mothers and daughters. Cleopatra was likely the daughter of a brother and sister. The family was also known for brutally murdering each other in order to achieve the throne. Amusingly the Greek language was considered one of "low morals, the dialect of sex manuals, a language 'with fingers of its own.' The Greeks covered all bases, noted a later scholar, ‘including some I should not care to explain in class.'"

Schiff educates us on the customs of the times, and describes the opulent approach of the queen that it becomes impossible not to get lost in her world. The evidence shows that Cleopatra was educated in the same manner as Julius Caesar and that their personalities were uncommonly alike, as was their desire to rule their empires.

Throughout the book Schiff debunks a few myths. An asp undoubtedly did not strike the queen in the breast, despite the poetry of the image. For all the accusations of Cleopatra being a skilled and wanton seductress, she was a virgin when she became Caesar's lover and Marc Antony may have been the only other. There are moments of repetition in the tome, but by and large the information, based on thorough research and clever guesswork, is a spectacularly engaging biography.

What with all the conjecture around the infamous temptress, what remains is Cleopatra's indomitable wit and her ability to shape the world around her despite her gender. Whatever the whispering tongues of history have said or will say, she lived her life as she chose to, no small feat.