By Jim Fraiser
Having eagerly consumed the myths of Hollywood, rapaciously swallowed the lies of ancient world propagandists, and endured the force-feeding of falsehoods heaped upon us by high school textbooks, we may be excused for not always welcoming the truths of history with open arms and minds.
This is especially the case with history’s most famous alleged femme fatale, Egyptian Queen Cleopatra, whom we wish to remember as the ultimate sex goddess, as portrayed on film by Elizabeth Taylor and Paulette Goddard. But Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Stacy Schiff will not have it so in her “Cleopatra: A Life,” easily one of the most sumptuous and entertaining histories of the season.
Schiff enlists luminous prose and meticulous research to excavate the last Pharaoh of Egypt and final Ptolemaic ruler from the sexist, Roman-driven distortions that have buried Cleopatra for the last 2,000 years. Along the way, Schiff reveals that Cleopatra was Greek, not Egyptian, had a net worth before her death of about $95.7 billion American dollars and first came to Caesar nestled in a sack, not rolled in a rug, as did the late, great Ms. Taylor. Nevertheless, everyone from Plutarch to Shakespeare “saddled Cleopatra with the vices of other miscreants,” no doubt because she “hailed from the land of sex and excess,” so “Caesar became history, Cleopatra legend.”
On the audio book, actress/reader Robin Miles provides the essential voice for this bio, sonorous, confiding, at times sensuous, but often stilted to emphasize fact over myth. Schiff and Miles present a queen more the shifty leader of a diverse and often fickle population than a seductress, who used her brains, power, wealth and yes, sex appeal, to ally herself with Caesar to secure her throne and to draw Antony into her scheme to dominate the Occidental world.
She almost succeeded, Schiff notes, but failed for reasons most historians miss. While she is wrongly faulted for inducing Antony to fight on sea at fatally decisive Actium, she only deserved blame for imperiously inserting herself into his war camp to the consternation of his generals and soldiers, thereby reducing their desire to fight for Antony. Her fall, like her rise and reign, was one of the most spectacular in history, and Schiff details every single aspect, from her presumed education as a youth to her likely death by poison (not the asp or cobra as Octavian would have us believe).
While the dearth of reliable historical material frequently requires Schiff to hypothesize rather than recount, and her biographer’s lack of professional familiarity with Cleopatra’s world led to mistakes such as exclaiming that a Greek goddess, rather than Helen of Troy, rose from a legendary egg, such inevitable miscues are excusable. Schiff cleverly introduces us to the brilliant woman who spoke eight languages, proved as beloved of her countrymen as she was despised by the Romans, and who fashioned exotic Alexandria into the art, cultural and commercial center of the world before handing it in death to Octavian as the wealthiest Roman province.
“Cleopatra: A Life,” by Stacy Schiff, is easily one of the decade’s most readable histories as penned by one of the world’s most accomplished biographers.
Jim Fraiser is a federal administrative law judge in Tupelo, an avid reader of the poetry and prose of antiquity, and the author of 14 books, including the forthcoming (Spring 2012) “The Garden District of New Orleans” and “The Majesty of Mobile.”