Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff

Read it.

Should I end the post with that?

No surprise here, since I am a girl — I’ve always loved Cleopatra.  I never knew much about her — Queen of Egypt, lover of Caesar and Mark Antony, asp death — but it never really mattered.  What’s there to know?  It looked about like this in my mind:

Cleopatra asp-ires to become dead.

Apparently it looked that way to the creators of Rome on HBO — which, despite any contradictions this book may have revealed for me in that show’s character development, I still love. I think to most of the world she looks like the picture to the right — a desirous Elizabeth Taylor, haunting the dreams of defenseless Richard Burton, while Rex Harrison presumably is off speaking a song somewhere.

Poor Debbie Reynolds.

But it turns out, according to Stacy Schiff, who rambled through mountains upon mountains for research for this book, that her story was (surprise!) not really like either of these pictures.  It’s a perfect case of history being written by the winners — in this case, Caesar Augustus, a gem of a guy, who took over after Julius Caesar was, shall we say, “removed from office.”  Cleopatra was a ruler of a country, the wealthiest individual of her time, and she was highly educated.  She was probably not a sexual demon hell-bent on ruining the lives of two pure and blameless men.  According to Plutarch and Dio, if you read between the lines — which, in Schiff’s book, it quickly becomes apparent is necessary to actually find out anything about Cleopatra — she wasn’t even that pretty.  Most of her charms came from her ability to judge a person and to use her voice and tone diplomatically, not from sexual acumen.

The book reveals all sorts of untold turns and descriptions of a queen who was royal in her own right, regardless of Caesar or Antony.  She was considered and worshiped as a goddess in Egypt.  She inherited a kingdom that was soon to fall, despite all that she might do to save it.  By the end of the book, I was totally on Schiff’s page.  Cleopatra was amazing — it’s a shame that we let her memory continue to live on built on the shame the Romans created for her.

The end of the book is pretty emotional, too.  I did not expect to feel as much sympathy for Antony as I did by the end, but the poor guy.  He made several mistakes, sure, but towards the end, people kept on deserting him, leaving his camp for Octavian’s, until all he had left were a few servants to help him commit suicide.  And then, after he stabbed himself but missed his heart, they left or killed themselves rather than help him end his life.  The scene Schiff describes of Antony’s death is heartbreaking.  I was reading it during a journal time for one of my English classes, and I will admit that even in the presence of adolescents, I teared up a bit.

All told, the image of Cleopatra that I’m left with looks exactly like the book cover:

Perfect. This looks like the Cleopatra I know now.

Proud, elegant, rich, powerful, and always looking towards the future of her country and her family.  After I would finish reading a chapter, I’d just look at this cover for awhile.  Her diadem, the pearls, the hair…it’s all perfect.  This is a woman who rules a nation and makes no apologies to anyone — even though it meant they would sully her reputation for two-thousand years.

It was also interesting to be reading this book while history continues to be made in Egypt.  I still don’t know much about the current situation, or their recent political scene, but it was fascinating to be reading about the seizure of Alexandria by Octavian and then come across news pieces like this… Looking at the ancient world and the current world together always boggles the mind.  What would Cleopatra think of her country today?  I don’t know.  But I do know what she thought of her country when she ruled — it was worth dying for.

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