Monday, July 16, 2012

Book Review of Cleopatra: A Life

Cleopatra: A Life
Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
Stacy Schiff’s painstakingly researched account of Cleopatra and Roman and Egyptian life from 69 to 30 BC illuminates ancient history in a way that slashes long-held mysteries and art-invented stereotypes of the Egyptian queen. Drawing from writings of chroniclers of the day Cicero, Plutarch, Appian, Dio, Josephus, Lucan, and others, Schiff paints a picture of Alexandrian and Roman life, royal rivalries, abuses of power, conquest hunger, politically arranged marriages and murders, idol worship, luxuries and hardships, and personalities of key historical figures. Even some actual conversations are here recorded. The book also includes color photos of artifacts showing faces and maps that support the text. One is a stone carved to commemorate Cleopatra’s father, which she commissioned redone to commemorate her reign. In the caption, Schiff notes, “Given the turbulent times, reworking was a Ptolemaic stonecutter’s specialty.”

I found this book fascinating on many levels. Its historical significance is stunning. Each reader, I suppose, will find his own myths debunked. For example, I was surprised to learn the Rome I had believed so civilized was in fact quite disorganized and barbaric in those days. Here is a quote from page 108: “… Rome was squalid and shapeless, an oriental tangle of narrow, poorly ventilated streets and ceaseless, shutter-creaking commotion … Homes collapsed or were torn down regularly. … To be trampled by litters or splattered with mud constituted peripheral dangers. Pedestrians routinely crumpled into hidden hollows. Every window represented a potential assault.”

I also found barbaric specifics hard to stomach. People’s heads and hands regularly being chopped off and displayed is grisly stuff. People were torn limb from limb. Life was valued much less than was power. Man’s inhumanity to man in any era is painful for me to read about, as are duplicitous betrayals, changing loyalties, and constant wars. Reading about the lifestyles of the rich and famous is just plain boring for me. The first details of Alexandria’s splendors and sophistication (especially in educating Cleopatra) fascinated me, but decades of Cleopatra’s extravagances became tiresome. Still, it is the details that make this book historically important and a masterful presentation of complex personal (mainly Caesar, Mark Antony, Cleopatra) and national (Rome, Egypt, other countries, and empires) relationships.

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