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Cleopatra: A Life

Cleopatra: A Life

I picture myself at age eight, in a stiff wooden church pew, the family in a row starting with my slumped over father at the aisle, and ending with myself daydreaming.  I see a heaven up in the clouds with blue sky and gold everywhere and there’s the gates that look a lot like a picture I had just seen of the gates of Graceland.  Now I’m home (still the same age) and I’m going through my parent’s bookshelf and I see a book from the Tutankhamen exhibit that had come to Chicago sometime in the early 80’s, there’s a similar theme, lots of gold, white robes, and me with a dreamy thirty yard stare wondering why the world I’m living in doesn’t look exactly like this.

The story of Cleopatra may be one we think we’re all familiar with, but Stacey Schiff brings her to life in her biography of the Queen of Queens.  It’s not a new book, but while at Thanksgiving this year my mother and sister raved about Schiffs’ ‘The Witches: 1492’, and there seems to be a high demand on this book (I have it now and will review it as well!), so I thought I would delve into other, more available works of Stacey Schiff.  Schiff has written only five biographies starting with one that explored the author of The Little Prince, then moving onto a biography of Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov (which I’m also interested in).  Cleopatra is the fourth in line, and is mentioned in most lists of notable books of 2010.

Schiff allows me to return to my Egyptian daydream in Cleopatra.  It’s written in the style of a fiction story, with riveting and understandable character descriptions, a burning plot that has a great love story attached to it and at the center is the height of Hellenistic Egypt which remains stoically close to being the main character. A mix of Greece, Macedonia, Rome, and Northern Africa, Egypt was a Roman province that had enormous wealth.  Both in grain and gold, Cleopatra reigned over a fortune.  She was of Macedonian descent, coming from the Ptolomy family that had ruled Egypt since the death of Alexander the Great.  Cleopatra was highly educated in the Greek tradition and came from a sort of murderous family tradition; by the time she was officially queen she had killed both her brother and later one of her sisters.

Schiff tells the reader early on that most of the information known about Cleopatra comes from sources that wrote about her at least a hundred years after the fact.  And all of them are Roman.  There is no accurate bust of her done in a time when Caesar and Marc Antony had ones of themselves created, the only images remaining of her are on coins minted with a likeness.  The sources do say that the Egyptians themselves loved Cleopatra and saw her as a rebirth of Isis.  Cleopatra was a female ruler in a time when Rome was a heady macho society (eh-hem, gladiators?) she was rich, smart, what she looks like is debatable but she had two powerful Roman men at her feet, one who even killed himself rather than go without her.  Schiff paints a story that leaves me feeling like I’m dreaming of a heaven filled with figs, gold, and sacred bulls – I want to be on a houseboat on the Nile in like the year 46 B.C.E. Certainly not realistic for a next vacation, but with Stacey Schiff you can go there for just a few hours.

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