Wednesday, April 6, 2011


She was not beautiful, but she acted as though she were.  She was proud, shrewd, courageous,  supremely intelligent.  She was a murderess.  She was a seductress....or was she?

This biography of Cleopatra by Pulitzer Prize winner Stacy Schiff is a fascinating book about one of the most fascinating women in history.   I knew very little of Cleopatra before I started it except for the popular legends made famous by Shakespeare and Liz Taylor.  I came away very impressed by her.

This book is not a beach read.  It is a scholarly work and sometimes hard going.  Since I had no background in the history of that period, I found my self going back often to try to figure out all the family and political connections.  It was a grim time, murders and assassinations were commonplace, treachery seemed to be expected of one's "friends" and allies, family loyalties were paper-thin.  People murdered their sons, mothers, siblings.  Among the Ptolemies, incestuous relationships were so common that I gave up trying to figure out who was somebody's cousin or uncle or grandfather.  In fact, I gave up on the Ptolemies early on, there was no end to them!  Cleopatra's brother, and husband until she had him murdered, was Ptolemy XIV.  Cleopatra was Cleopatra VII. 

There are interesting views of the life of Alexandria and Rome as lived by the powerful.  The Ptolemies were almost unfathomably wealthy and did not hesitate to display it.  No expense was spared for the pageants, feasts, festivals and other activities with which they amused themselves.  The royal barges, the sumptuous palaces, the rich tapestries, gold table settings, the strings of pearls which Cleopatra liked to wear in her wonder Hollywood loved this stuff!   Not to mention her relationship with the two most powerful men of the period.

Her life was short. She was only 40 when she committed suicide  (almost certainly not by an asp bite) after the collapse of her world.  But she  left enough myth and mystery to engage the world for over 2000 years.  She may have been the "wickedest woman in history" but she was also one of the most interesting and intriguing. 

A very good book, but not light reading. 

Cleopatra          Stace Schiff        Little, Brown and Company

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