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Historian presents a factual story of Cleopatra

book“Times are bad. Children no longer obey their parents, and everyone is writing a book.”

— Cicero, 106 B.C.

Stacy Schiff, a Pulitzer prize-winning historian and a guest editorialist for the New York Times, has written a fascinating historical biography of one of “the most alluring and elusive women in recorded history” — Cleopatra VII.

She was the last of a long list of Egyptian queens and pharaohs who lived in luxury, controlled a fabulous kingdom and murdered their enemies (including their own family) with impunity, a descendant of the Ptolemaic dynasty that ruled Egypt from the death of Alexander the Great (305 B. C.) until 30 B. C. It is a period of excessive cruelty and creativity and embodies a time when knowledge (the Alexandrian library was the greatest in the world), wealth and power co-existed, all of which made Alexandria “the greatest city on earth.”

According to Schiff, Cleopatra has been ill-served by everyone from “the lilac-eyed Elizabeth Taylor” to a host of historians, including Dellius, Plancus and Josephus, none of which knew their subject personally but readily accepted the wildly improbable stories that were repeated at the time, reports of Bacchanalian orgies and banquets that gave new meaning to the word gluttony.

Perhaps the Queen’s greatest enemy was the philosopher and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero, who developed a reputation for his scathing attacks on his enemies. (He appears to be a kind of Roman Walter Winchell.) Cicero devoted an amazing amount of time and talent (in both writing and oratory) to ridiculing Cleopatra and Mark Antony. Much of Rome and Egypt lived in fear of this noted senator’s witty diatribes on everything from bad taste in clothing to social misconduct of the rich and famous. As a result, Antony finally ordered his murder and requested that Cicero’s hands (which has written so many insults and lies) be returned to him. Antony’s wife, Flavia, demanded Cicero’s head and took pleasure in piercing the dead orator’s tongue with a pin.

Essentially, Schiff corrects the errors of Cleopatra’s detractors by painstaking research. She reveals that her subject spoke nine languages fluently and surrounded herself with hundreds of advisors, philosophers, poets and musicians. During her reign, the streets of Alexandria and the public buildings were encased in semi-precious stones with the city’s main thoroughfare (40 feet wide) guarded by a phalanx of elaborately carved sphinxes. The Alexandrian library contained 500,000 scrolls — the works of the world’s greatest thinkers and philosophers. All of the Greek arts flourished in Alexandria and Cleopatra, like the average citizen of her day, could quote passages from Homer’s “Iliad” and eagerly participated in debates on questions such as “Can Medea’s murder of her children be justified?” The city contained more than 400 theaters and the works of the Greeks, from Sophocles to Sappho, were popular with the local citizens. Due to mutually beneficial trade agreements with India, Egypt teemed with foreign wines, spices and silks.

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Schiff provides fascinating insights into the most famous/infamous tales about the Egyptian queen. Did the 17-year-old queen smuggle herself into Julius Caesar’s presence wrapped in a rug? Yes, she did, although the actual event may have lacked the dramatic trappings of the movies, she succeeded in her purpose: to seduce Egypt’s conquerer and become the mother of his child. Frequently, the author’s research reveals excesses that are grander and more fantastic than anything described by her critics. She and Julius Caesar did make an astonishing journey up the Nile in a 300-foot royal barge that included a gym, a library, a garden, a grotto, a lecture hall, copper baths and an aquarium. The luxury of this incredible journey is verified right down to the menu and the wine list.

The heart of this fatal drama concerns the astonishing events which occur after Julius Caesar’s assassination. When Cleopatra finds herself playing host to a second conquerer, Antony. Thus begins a love story that inspired hundreds of poets and playwrights, including Shakespeare and Bernard Shaw. Is it true? How much of it is either the posturing of two egomaniacs or the creation of Greek and Egyptian gossipmongers who bear a remarkable resemblance to modern-day tabloids? Schiff provides proof that, despite political intrigue and the shifting loyalties of the Ptolemaic rulers and the Romans, beneath the rants and theatrical posing, the passion was real.

At the time that Antony met Cleopatra, he was the darling of the Roman senate. He had married wealth and was the acknowledged “adopted son of Julius Caesar.” After Caesar’s death, Antony was committed to tracking all of the assassins who fled like a covey of quail to a dozen cities. He was also on the fast track to becoming Caesar’s successor. According to the writers, orators and sculptors of the time, Antony was strikingly handsome (he was in his 50s) and possessed a frank and open nature that made him loved by both the Roman populace and his own soldiers. However, his devotion to Cleopatra cost him his future, and made him a “traitor” to Rome. After he “abandoned” Rome, he quickly passed from being “a mortal god” to an object of contempt. After Octavian, Caesar’s “true son,” denounced him as a besotted and foolish man who had allowed himself to be enslaved by a woman (unforgivable in a Roman), his fate was sealed.

Schiff develops the idea that Rome (the West) and Egypt (The East) were direct opposites in geography, climate, morals and temperament. From the beginning, many Romans found Egypt to be a land of hedonists and degenerates. In like manner, Egyptians viewed Rome as a fascist state ruled by moralistic kill-joys who were obsessed with conquest and power. Conflict was inevitable.

However, Schiff finds yet another reason to admire Cleopatra. She was unique for her age — a powerful, intelligent woman capable of ruling a 300-year-old dynasty. She successfully held her own against assassins, generals and world leaders, such as Herod, the murderous “client king” of Judea, and defied Rome who denounced her as Caesar’s concubine.

What about the fabled end of these star-crossed lovers? When the triumphant Octavian arrives in Alexandria prepared to march Antony and Cleopatra in chains through the streets (although he dreamed of executing Antony), did he succeed? No, he didn’t, and it frustrated him considerably. The final suicides of these two lovers differs slightly from the popular tale (no poisoned asp), but it remains a moving and poignant conclusion to one of the world’s most memorable love stories.

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