Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff


I began this book knowing little about Cleopatra — I didn't even see the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton extravaganza — so I had lots to learn.  Stacy Schiff's book tells what little is reliably known about her, while evaluating some of the less likely stories about her.  It's good to remember that the history of a woman who was a lover of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony and eventually defeated by Octavian was written much later by Romans. 

She was the last of the Ptolemy family to rule in Egypt; the Ptolemaic kingdom ruled Egypt from 332 BC to 30 BC and should not be confused with the mathematician Ptolemy who lived from 90 to 168 AD .  These Greeks preferred not to marry outside the family; their close relationships did not deter them from murdering one another with amazing frequency.  

At that time in Egypt women were in a surprising situation — they could divorce and receive alimony, they were educated, and they could become queen.  Cleopatra received a rigorous education and began learning Homer before she could read; Homer's work was the bible of the day.  She was unusual in that she was the only Ptolemy to learn Egyptian.   The breadth of her knowledge is impressive:  she knew that the earth is spherical and revolved around the sun, she knew the value of pi, the behavior of linear perspective, and the latitude of Marseilles.

At the time Caesar arrived in Alexandria, her brother/husband with whom she nominally ruled jointly, was on the verge of eliminating her.  She managed to get herself into Caesar's presence and the two eventually became lovers and she had a son by him.  It is at this point in the story we learn of an interesting practice of the day:  fried mouse was used for teething babies, not sure just how this worked or how you prepare fried mouse.

Eventually Caesar returned to Rome and she followed later where she was his guest.  As the richest woman in the world she and Egypt's wealth were welcome additions to the Rome's acquisitions.  She was in the city at the time of the ides of March events and saw the comet which appeared after Caesar's death.  Her position was quite uncertain and she returned quickly to Alexandria and during the years of Rome's civil war, she backed one, then another while effectively ruling Egypt.

She and Mark Antony became lovers and had children together when Mark Antony was one of the triumvirate along with Octavian; had he been more attentive to the state matters, perhaps he would not have been outsmarted by Octavian.  He committed suicide after losing the Battle of Actium and Octavian managed to capture Cleopatra.  Nine days later she killed herself by poison rather than be taken to Rome to be paraded in the streets by Octavian (who became Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus). 

Octavian conveyed the impression that she had killed herself with an asp; it is unlikely that this woman who experimented with poisons would have killed herself with a convulsive poison rather than a narcotic one.  

Iconography aside, it is easy to see what someone is trying to communicate when he pairs a lady with a snake.  Alexander the Great's mother, as murderous and maniacal a Macedonia princess who ever lived, kept serpents as pets.  She used them to terrify men.  Before her came Eve, Medusa, and Electra. When a woman teams up with a snake, a moral storm threatens somewhere. 

 This thoroughly readable account of Cleopatra remained fascinating from beginning to end.

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