Wednesday, 31 August 2011

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

Cleopatra VII, Queen of Egypt. Everyone knows who she is, and everyone knows her story. Or at least what we know of her story in the forms it has come down to us. My first experience of her life was through Shakespeare, presumably as was many others. Although I knew of her before, I was profoundly affected by Antony and Cleopatra, and although I’ve only read it and studied it once, the sadness and melancholy I took away from that play has never really left me. However, Shakespeare was writing fiction, for entertainment purposes, and although I was aware at the time of reading it he stuck relatively closely to his sources, I want to know about her life, who she was, the world she lived in, and what really happened during the thirty-nine years of her life.

This book goes some way to answering those questions; however it is also brutally honest in its assertion that we will never truly know and much of what we ‘know’ is only speculation and even guesswork. That didn’t make this book any less fascinating though. At its essence it could be said that this book was 300 pages of possibilities, yet instead of detracting from its brilliance, this only seemed to add to its appeal.

Reading history is something of a return to an old love for me, and the whole process of accumulating, analysing and assessing evidence is something I have simply got out of the habit of doing. Not so for Stacy Schiff though. In the very first chapter she states

“History is written not only by posterity, but for posterity as well. Our most comprehensive sources never met Cleopatra. Plutarch was born seventy-six years after she died. Appian wrote at a remove of more than a century; Dio of well over two. Cleopatra’s story differs from most women’s stories in that the men who shaped it-for their own reasons-enlarged rather than erased her role. Her relationship with Mark Antony was the longest of her life, but her relationship with his rival, Augustus, was the most enduring. To Rome, to enhance the glory, he delivered up the tabloid version of an Egyptian queen, insatiable, treacherous, bloodthirsty, power-crazed. He magnified Cleopatra to hyperbolic proportions so as to do the same with his victory-and to smuggle his real enemy, his former brother-in-law out of the picture. The end result is a nineteenth century British life of Napoleon, or a twentieth-century history of America, were it to have been written by Chairman Mao.”

In terms of historical analysis, this quotation contains the two themes that crop up constantly throughout the narrative. That of the unreliability of the major sources, due to both their distance from the events they are writing about, and their bias to Rome, and also Cleopatra’s gender and her posthumous manipulation because of it being a major stumbling block to knowing many true facts. Time and time again throughout this book, it is mentioned that the sources put a roman or male spin on things, or disagree vehemently on an event. It is an incredibly honest book, in that it frequently says we don’t know, or can never know because the evidence just doesn’t exist. In contrast though, the author is never afraid to give her own opinion on what she considers to be likely, unlikely or downright impossible. Overall, it made a refreshing balance of honesty, possibility and opinion.

The quotation also highlights one of my favourite aspects of this book. The last line is just one example of Schiff’s writing that made this book so readable and accessible. In this case it is about the story as a whole, but it is frequently used about specific events or people, using a comparison from much more modern times to illuminate a situation that is totally alien to modern readers due of the complete difference in attitudes to life. It’s a brilliant technique, and used to great effect to explain complex situations in few words.

Obviously, a life of Cleopatra is difficult to write without some background into the period she lived in, and Schiff doesn’t skimp on this either. Both Egypt and Rome are detailed fully, and particularly in the passages about Egypt, the luxury and opulence almost comes off the page, as well as the violence and brutality of the era. Mothers killing children, siblings killing each other, as well as marrying each other. It’s all there, but it all serves a purpose of placing this mythical queen in her proper context, and attempting to separate her from her fictional creation.

Context is a vital part of this book. I felt that although it became clear fairly early on in the book that I was not going to find a ‘true’ life of Cleopatra, I did get an incredibly detailed account of the world she lived in, and the persona she created for herself. It would be incredibly difficult to understand her actions fully without the in depth knowledge of the previously mentioned murder and incest, as well as her association with Isis, with which she persisted throughout her life. And this context was done so well!

So although it is still three hundred pages of possibilities, it is also three hundred pages of brilliance. Although, at the end of it, there are still no definite conclusions to how Cleopatra lived or died, it is informative all the way through. For me, it’s brilliance stems from its de-bunking of myths, its in depth analysis and comparison of various sources and its honesty and integrity, in admitting that there are some things we will just never know, whilst still not being afraid to offer an opinion. I think that is one of the reasons I loved this book so much. It managed to create a life for Cleopatra, which seemed believable, without ever losing sight of the fact that it is just a creation. What I loved about it is the same as what disappointed me, as I still don’t know exactly what sort of life she led, but I do know a lot more about the world she lived in. I do however know why I’ll never know, and somehow that’s enough!