David Jacobs's Reviews > Cleopatra: A Life

Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff
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Jan 26, 11


Stacy Schiff has crafted, somehow, a new angle on one of the world's oldest great stories. By focusing on the first degree sources we have from the period (mostly from Roman scholars & historians, since Alexandria was destroyed by earthquakes), Schiff at once claims expertise but only in a context that is also accessible to the reader. At times Schiff's explanation of the sources and the perceived motivations of their authors feels plodding, but the framing of these sources is essential to Schiff's project. Some classicists (most significantly Mary Beard in the New York Review of Books) have been catty about the book, passing it off as lightweight or finding nits in the text. This makes me only want to love it more.

Even with thin sourcing and scrubbed of the orientalism and oversexualized mythologies, Cleopatra's life story is incredible. The last quarter of the book dedicated to Rome's war on Egypt and Cleopatra's eventual suicide is taut storytelling, not just "classicism for amateurs."

Here's one of my favorite passages from the book, about a fishing trip that Cleopatra and Antony took during a time of relative peace and prosperity in their lives.


Appian has Antony exclusively in the company of Cleopatra, “to whom his sojourn in Alexandria was wholly devoted.” He sees in her a poor influence. Antony “was often disarmed by Cleopatra, subdued by her spells, and persuaded to drop from his hands great undertakings and necessary campaigns, only to roam about and play with her on the sea-shores.” More likely the opposite was true. And while Cleopatra focused exclusively and intently on her guest, she did so without sacrificing her competitive spirit, her sense of humor, or her agenda. Here are the two on an Alexandrian afternoon, relaxing on the river or on Lake Mareotis in a fishing boat, surrounded by attendants. Mark Antony is frustrated. He commands whole armies but on this occasion somehow cannot coax a single fish from the teeming, famously fertile Egyptian waters. He is all the more mortified as Cleopatra stands beside him. Romance or no, to prove so incompetent in her presence is a torture. Antony does what any self-respecting angler would: Secretly he orders his servants to dive into the water and fasten a series of precaught fish to his hook. One after another he reels these catches in, a little too triumphantly, a little too regularly; he is an impulsive man with something to prove, never particularly good at limits. Cleopatra rarely misses a trick and does not miss this one. She feigns admiration. Her lover is a most dexterous man! Later that afternoon she sings his praises to her friends, whom she invites to witness his prowess for themselves.

A great fleet accordingly heads out the following day. At its outset Cleopatra issues a few furtive orders of her own. Antony puts out his line, to instantaneous results. He senses a great weight and reels in his catch, to peals of laughter: From the Nile he extracts a salted, imported Black Sea herring. She is no scold, having instead mastered that formula for which every parent, coach, and chief executive searches: She has ambition, and no trouble encouraging the same in others. “Leave the fishing rod, General, to us,” Cleopatra admonishes, before the assembled company. “Your prey,” she reminds Antony, “are cities, kingdoms, and continents.”
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message 1: by Brian (new)

Brian Brilliant, David!!!!!!!!!


David Jacobs Brian wrote: "Brilliant, David!!!!!!!!!"

So sweet! Thank you!


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