Beverly Diehl's Reviews > Cleopatra

Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff
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Jul 09, 2013

really liked it
bookshelves: biography, history, non-fiction, egypt

When most people, including me, think of Cleopatra, we think of sex, snakes, Elizabeth Taylor, and, possibly, Shakespeare.

This author dissects the layers of myth and fictional invention to give us a glimpse of a powerful and brilliant ruler who inherited a country of tremendous resources, but also deeply in debt and disarray. Cleopatra managed to survive growing up a Ptolemy, which family dynamic was something like the Hunger Games of first century BC, full of incestuous marriage and murder.

While much of any biography filling in the gaps in what we know of Cleopatra has to be based on educated guesses, Schiff does a convincing job "selling" her version, and her style is light, readable and quite witty. Referring to the ruse by which Cleopatra had herself smuggled into Julius Caesar's presence via carpet or carpet sack:
Apollodorus came, Caesar saw, Cleopatra conquered…

She paints an extensive portrait of the world as it was in Cleopatra's time, the conflicts with Rome, the contrast between Alexandria - the New York of the ancient world, Rome, and the rest of Egypt, the staggering wealth of Egypt, the various Roman personalities who would have such a great impact on Cleopatra, both friends and foes.

She points out that for all the stories of Cleopatra as an accomplished seductress and manipulator of men, both of the two men she is accused of "seducing" had considerable sexual history long before they met her. Cleopatra is much more famous for the legend of suicide-by-asp (probably not true) than for ruling Egypt successfully for almost twenty years, or her command of nine languages, including Egyptian (she was the first Ptolemy to bother to learn it).

It has always been preferable to attribute a woman’s success to her beauty rather than brains. We seem convinced that men strategize while women scheme. Men are authoritative while women are shrill.

If you are curious about this period of history, or Cleopatra herself, this book is well worth the read.

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