Elizabeth Taylor, she wasn’t. Nor was she the Cleopatra of Shakespeare’s imagination, or of Plutarch’s. Cleopatra was, simply put, one of the ablest and most powerful women in history. She ruled unchallenged the richest kingdom of the Western world for more than two decades. In this extraordinary work of historic reconstruction, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Stacy Schiff digs deep below the surface of the available sources, both primary and secondary, to write what is surely the fullest and most accurate picture we’ll ever have of the elusive first-century Egyptian queen. Here, at last, is the truth about Cleopatra.
Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
Cleopatra was, of course, the long-time lover both of Julius Caesar and of his protege, Mark Antony. She bore four of their children, three of Antony’s and one of Caesar’s. History has tended to know her as the wily seductress who reduced both men—two of the most significant figures of the ancient world—to love-slaves. Schiff sets us straight.
Rome was a provincial town by comparison with her capital
Cleopatra was unquestionably a consummately charming and accomplished lover. But as Schiff paints her, it was more her charm—and the staggering wealth she commanded—that was the lure for the Romans. Apparently, she may not even have been beautiful by the standards of the age (several decades before the life of Jesus). She was, however, a brilliant linguist, adept in seven languages, and the richest person in the Mediterranean world. She effectively owned the Kingdom of Eqypt, with its fabulous wealth in wheat, glass, papyrus, linen, oils, shipping, and trade. The splendor of her palace; her capital, Alexandria; her wardrobe; and her court easily put to shame the best efforts of Rome, a rustic provincial town by comparison.
Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff (2010) 432 pages ★★★★★
The truth about Cleopatra weighed in the balance
Strictly speaking, Schiff’s life of Cleopatra is a work of historiography, an inquiry into the validity of the sources of historical information. In telling the story of this truly astonishing woman, she examines contrasting accounts written both by contemporaries and later historians and weighs their claims in the light of available evidence. In lesser hands, the book would languish in tiresome scholarship. Schiff succeeds admirably in holding the reader’s attention, even introducing an undercurrent of tension and suspense as the story rushes toward its inevitable end with Cleopatra’s dramatic suicide, ending the Ptolemy dynasty. She was the last of the Pharaohs.
Schiff sums up her story as the book comes to a close: “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. Her career began with one brazen act and ended with another.” With Cleopatra’s death and the subsequent accession of Augustus to the Roman throne, the ancient world became history and the modern era began.
About the author
Stacy Schiff is the author of five acclaimed biographies, winning the Pulitzer Prize and numerous other book awards. Her subjects have included Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Adams as well as Cleopatra. She won the Pulitzer for her biography of Vera Nabokov, the wife and muse of the Nobel Prize-winning author Vladimir Nabokov. She has also written essays and articles for The New York Times and other leading publications. Schiff was born in 1961 and attended Phillips Andover Academy and Williams College. She lives in New York City.
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