Cleopatra, a Life

CleopatraCleopatra by Stacy Schiff

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Eighty pages in, Cleopatra's secured Egypt's position as a protectorate of Rome. Perhaps not much else was possible, but who would rule Egypt was at issue, as she and her brother were fighting over it when Caesar arrived with an inadequate advance force and in need of an ally. That Cleopatra initiated negotiations by smuggling herself into the palace like Austin Powers to save the day is described as the masterstroke it was. Indeed, political dynamics dominate the book, and one is left only to imagine the daily ebb and flow of court intrigue. Schiff has "tried to pluck the gauze and melodrama" from the story, thusly: "In defiance of the male imagination, five centuries of art history, and two of the greatest plays in English literature, she would have been fully clothed, in a formfitting sleeveless long linen tunic."


Put away your libidos everybody, that's a different book. That Caesar got a child in her is mentioned once, about that abruptly, and all detail of the developing relationship is avoided, even deprecated. Oh, the stage is set well enough; with riotous skirmishes in the streets, the opulent barricaded palace sweltering with incense, ships afire in the docks, the brother and nominal consort walking the same halls playing a game of polite diplomacy while his engineers undermine the water supply, one can easily imagine a fantastic screenplay! But the script is absent and Schiff does not stoop to fabricate one. This is not historical fiction.

I sort of wish it were! Unfamiliar with the story, I'm finding enough drama in the bare historical facts to make up a pretty good soap opera in my head. There are vast differences between us and them. It's strange and wonderful to imagine a world so empty that a single city, Alexandria, held the keys to a nation. The Roman legions gouging the world, kings made before they're 20. This is Edgar Rice Burroughs steamy imagination, only for real. (...and you have to BYO lurid details. Maybe I should have another go at Salammb├┤?)

I think Schiff is working hard to overcome a stereogype of Cleopatra made of nothing BUT sex. Understandable but maybe unnecessary? I like to think that, with all the cultual, scientific & technological differences between us, history played out then with the same raw materials as now, and we are creatures of passion. If anything our modern world seems TOO sterile. On to act II we go!

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