Monday, December 3, 2012

Book Report: Cleopatra: A Life

I'll admit it. Most of what I thought I knew about Cleopatra came from HBO's Rome and that time I tried to watch the Elizabeth Taylor/ Richard Burton Cleopatra but fell asleep. I'm not sorry. It was soooo long. So, no surprise that I subscribed to the Egyptian temptress/would be world conquerer/destroyer of men/death by asp biography of Cleopatra. Happily, Stacy Schiff disabused me of that silliness in her Cleopatra: A Life...

While I can't say that Schiff's book provides a definite answer to every question--there are very few historical certainties when it comes to Cleopatra, as she left no documents or self-generated records--she does an admirable job providing context and mining historical accounts for clues. Most of what we assume about Cleopatra's life came from men writing long after she'd died, men with certain agendas, men from whom Shakespeare borrowed heavily. Oh, Shakespeare.

A couple things I learned: The Cleopatra we all know wasn't the first or only Cleopatra--it was a family name. Also, she wasn't Egyptian--she was Macedonian Greek. Most of her relatives never bothered to learn the language (Egyptian) of the people they ruled, but this Cleopatra did. Her family, the Ptolemies, had no real claim to the throne of Egypt other than the fact that their original patriarch claimed kin to Alexander the Great (who was basically hailed as a god) and took over once Alexander died. He was, in fact, one of Alexander's generals. And then there's the asp to the breast. Never happened. Cleopatra was under lock and key by Octavian's soldiers at the time of her suicide, which was most likely conducted through poison. Good to know, right?

I won't go into all the sordid details, of which there are plenty (decapitations, assassinations, betrayals, Roman drunkenness, rumors of incest...). Still, I'd recommend this book for more than just a wanton glut on ancient Egyptian gossip. Cleopatra was an impressive woman, an intelligent and shrewd ruler, a good mother, one of the wealthiest individuals of her age, and beloved of Caesar and Marc Antony. She was also, through some strategic rituals and appearances, considered almost a deity herself--a marriage between the blood of Alexander the Great and the goddess Isis. Unfortunately she would suffer, for the very same reasons, at the hands of an Octavian-controlled Rome that feared her power, envied her wealth, and denounced her lifestyle. Classic dude in power scenario.

That's why Cleopatra is kicking off December. This month's edition of Book Reports is all about the ladies. The historical ladies. I'm prepared to have my long-held assumptions annihilated. Won't that be fun?

1. Julie Kravets by Marley Kate: Vice Style, via Fashioning; 2. Montaza Palace Lighthouse, via Pixdaus; 3. Alexandria Sunset, by York Tyke; 4. Gold flatware, via Design in Bloom; 5. Gold pebble dishes, by Canvas; 6. Roman couch and footstool, via The Metropolitan Museum of Art; 7. Sylvia Geersen by Troy Jensen, via Being Cleopatra; 8. Siren's Song Halo, by BHLDN; 9. Elie Tahari scrollwork sandals, via The Cut; 10. Mural of Isis in the tomb of Seti I, via Wikipedia; 11. Egyptian Hieroglyphics replica, by Dave Kav, via Flickr; 12. Fresh figs by Elizabeth Germain, via Whole Living.

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