Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff

I picked up Cleopatra: A Life, mostly inspired by the Globe and Mail review, but also because I have a deep deep love for Liz Taylor's depiction of the Queen in the classic 1963 film. Stacy Schiff, in her new biography of the Queen, references Taylor's "limpid lilac eyes", and says that the image of Cleoptara has been overwhelmed by Hollywood's imagining (Crazy, huh? What an accusation). Specifically Schiff speaks about our traditional view of Cleopatra as a sexy, seducing man-eater. Her book, which is as much a telling of the time and about the political figures around her as it is about it's main subject, renders this woman as intellectually and politically saavy. But also a lover of the land she ruled. And compared to her family line, a breath of fresh air as a monarch. During her reign, Egypt saw a time of economic prosperity not seen in generations; Cleopatra managed the details of her land's commerce on a day-to-day basis very well. She lived and partied lavishly, but never raped her land for it's resources. Instead she was shrewd, as in most aspects of her life, and reaped the benefits.

What director Joseph Mankiewicz absolutely had right about the Queen is her deep love of lavish displays. She wore jewelry everywhere, pearls in her hair, and perfumed every part of her body as well as anything she sat on or touched. But all of the opulence also politically advantaged her. Cleopatra dressed symbolically because she knew her people respected a truly mysterious symbol. She became synonymous with the image of Isis into her adulthood, sitting next to her son, who would then be seen as the god Horus. I'm pretty sure she won over both Caesar and Anthony with her charm mostly, but also with the suggestion that she might actually be a half-god. She also claimed descent from Alexander the Great, and both men had a mancrush on this early conquerer. Both men also aspired secretly (or not so subtley) to godhood, so Cleopatra spoke to a few of their political desires.

There is not a lot of source material about the Queen and I truly enjoyed the depiction's from Cicero. His juvenile vindicitveness is hilarious and possibly mostly to blame for the Queen's notoriety, "Cicero was accustomed to being the most articulate person in the room. It was annoying that Cleopatra shared his sardonic wit. And was it really necessary for her to act regally?" Schiff asserts that even during her time, Cleopatra was the victim of gossip which eventually overwhelmed any actual truth about the woman.

But even without much source material on Cleopatra particularly, I was amazed by Schiff's ability to create this woman's life in vivid colours. The part about Cleopatra stealing herself into her own palace in a sack, hoping to speak with Caesar directly (her brother was poisoning his ear against her) was riveting. Schiff gives all this background history about Caesar explaining exactly why the leader would have been so impressed with her political deftness and bravery. Actually the whole book more or less reads like fiction, without fabricating any details. Schiff is a fabulous biographer and writer.

Although I have to admit that when I finished it, I was up for a Liz Taylor/Cleopatra rewatch!

Cleopatra: A Life Stacy Schiff Little, Brown and Company 2010 $33.99