Cleopatra: A Life

In her biography, Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff clearly confirms that Cleopatra was no Elizabeth Taylor, but the Egyptian queen made up for what she lacked in beauty with shrewd intelligence and cunning intuition to get what she wanted – a diva after all.

Cleopatra: A Life is compelling and well-researched – with over 60 pages of notes and references – as well as a surprisingly easy read.   From teenage queen to the mother of Julius Caesar’s son, and finally to her torrid relationship with Mark Antony, Cleopatra is a competent ruler who successfully used her facility with languages, her grounding in Greek learning,  with her power and influence to protect and embellish her own holdings – for over two decades – longer than her ancestor, Alexander the Great.

By modern standards the civilizations in 50 B. C. were barbaric – intermarrying, killing off relatives to maintain power and land – not to mention the severed heads on display. Rome was all-powerful, always looking for another conquest,  and Alexander the Great’s progeny in Egypt, with the largest library in the world and excessive wealth, was on Rome’s wish list.  Cleopatra “made Rome feel uncouth, insecure, and poor…”

Despite Schiff’s overly precise description of the display of wealth in Cleopatra’s lavish entertaining – details worthy of a scriptwriter – she provides an amazing clarification of how it all really went down – before Hollywood.   You will gain a new respect for Cleopatra as a clever strategist and brilliant politician – not the “whore queen” labeled by prolific Roman writers – but certainly a queen to beware and a woman to know.

“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, in the name of a proud and cultivated dynasty… and was a remarkably capable queen, canny and opportunistic in the extreme, a strategist of the first rank…incomparable…”