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CLEOPATRA by Stacy Schiff Kirkus Star

CLEOPATRA

A Life

By Stacy Schiff

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-316-00192-2
Publisher: Little, Brown

A Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer presents a swift, sympathetic life of one of history’s most maligned and legendary women.

New Yorker contributor Schiff (A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, 2005, etc.) acknowledges that our image of Cleopatra VII arrives through the distorted lenses of biased (male, Roman) history, romanticized and melodramatic stage productions and films and the distortion of time itself. Cleopatra, a suicide at 39—despite the legend of the asp bite, it was probably poison, writes the author—ruled for 22 years. During that time, she took into her bed some of the most powerful men in history (Julius Caesar, Mark Antony), maneuvered through a male world with intelligence, skill and sanguinary brutality, met and failed to charm Herod and bore children to both Caesar and Antony. Schiff reminds us that Cleopatra and her family were not related to the Egyptian pharaohs but descended from Ptolemy, a Macedonian general with Alexander the Great. She also reminds us that Caesar’s Rome was not the Rome of later glories and depravities. The Coliseum did not yet stand, nor did the Pantheon or any number of other Roman architectural marvels. Born in 69 BCE, Cleopatra entered a family for whom the word internecine was surely invented—killing family members standing in the way was routine, and Cleopatra was not above it. The young girl was intellectually quick, savvy and willing to learn, and she soon made her first significant conquest: Caesar. She came to Rome to see him, causing uproar, for Rome was an empire that had a gender test for human rights (women need not apply). Schiff notes that Caesar’s assassination was a political disaster for Cleopatra, but she quickly recovered, won Antony and enjoyed a number of amazingly powerful and profligate years before history and the forces of Octavian brought her down.

Successfully dissipating all the perfume, Schiff finds a remarkably complex woman—brutal and loving, dependent and independent, immensely strong but finally vulnerable.