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Historical Book Review for the Week:

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff


She has been preserved in history as the ultimate example of a seductress, a woman who used her charms and her looks to bamboozle powerful men to do her will and into her control.  In a fabulous phrasing, Stacy Schiff summarizes this characterizations up through the wonderful phrasing of “[she certainly] flings herself around more in the literature than she did in life”.

When the name Cleopatra is mentioned, nine times out of ten, it is in the context of her relationships with Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony as a side note to these monumental men and the Roman Empire their actions helped bring into the existence.  In comparison, the civilization of ancient Egypt was enduring  on memory and willpower alone; it should have likely ended with the death of Cleopatra’s father, he was a weak ruler who was far better suited to the death of a once great empire than his daughter.  She, on the other hand, was quite a remarkable ruler who overcame drought, Roman unrest, and four siblings (two of which she was bound to in order to rule) in order to allow the time of the pharaohs in Egypt to go out with a bang rather than simply fade into inexistence.

One thing that this book really manages to highlight is just how little is actually known about the last of the Egyptian pharaohs. Which is, if we’re entirely honest, kind of completely mental.  Very little record of her reign has been preserved in Egypt and, as a result, we are simply left with the records of the victors.  In this case, that is the Romans who, through their records, have helps to ensure that “we will remember that Cleopatra slept with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony long after we have forgotten what she accomplished in doing so, that she sustained a vast, rich, densely populated empire in its troubled twilight”.

One of the most interesting and frustrating aspects of written history is how it can be manipulated by the writer in order to present a view which fits within their own personal agenda.  Things can be added or omitted, wording and tone can alter the reader’s perspective or interpretation, they could be making everything up and, unless the material data says otherwise or a conflicting account exists to bring theirs into question, the reader may never be able to tell.  On a personal note, one of my interests in history is the role of women in it and, more specifically, how they are recorded and preserved within the historical record.  While this book is unable to provide a huge number of details about the last pharaoh’s life, it does do a remarkable job of highlighting how this remarkable woman has been preserved in history for qualities that have made her appear less dangerous and powerful that she actually was.  As the author states it, “citing her sexual prowess was evidently less discomfiting than acknowledging her intellectual gifts” “Cleopatra unsettles more as a sage than as seductress; it is less threatening to believe her fatally attractive than fatally intelligent”.


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