sets out to set the record straight and in so doing gives us a
scenic view of a memorable time in history with marvelous
characters (Pompey, Cleopatra, Caesar, Mark Antony, Octavian) and
fascinating places (Alexandria, Rome). Octavian, who
defeated Cleopatra, and his followers emphasized her seductiveness,
this siren from the East. Roman historians didn’t quite know
what to do with this clever Egyptian woman (in fact the Ptolemies
were Macedonian Greek in origin).
women, Euripedes had warned hundreds of years earlier, were
Almost all we know about the Egyptian queen comes from Roman
writers, including Plutarch (who became a Roman citizen), and most of it is not flattering.
Schiff notes that
her sexual prowess was evidently less discomfiting than
acknowledging her intellectual gifts.”
And nothing in Cleopatra's own words remain except possibly a
decree signed with a single word: ginesthoi (‘Let it be
was the intellectual nexus of its time, with its great library:
patron saint was Aristotle, whose school and library stood as its
model, and who had-not incidentally-taught both Alexander the
Great and his childhood friend, Ptolemy 1.”
Cleopatra was given a classical Greek education, Homer her Bible,
a particularly literary education with an emphasis on the art of
rhetoric; she also knew her Herodotus and Thucydides, the
her actual beauty, it is said, was not in itself so remarkable
that none could be compared with her, or that no one could see her
without being struck by it, but the contact of her presence, if
you lived with her, was irresistible; the attraction of her
person, joining with the charm of her conversation, and the
character that attended all she said or did, was something
brilliantly educated and beguiling; the Romans turned her into
something demonic, capable of undermining a man.
before Caesar, 1866, Jean-Léon Gérôme,
us she was probably ‘honey-skinned,’ small and lithe, and
“unsettled Rome on any number of counts: she was female and
“richer than any man in Rome.”
relationship with Caesar was of her own choosing, not something
done at the bidding of a male relative. This was uncomfortable in
a Rome where
“...for the most part Roman women were for horse trading...”
detest the queen.'
And Schiff delightfully takes him on:
women who had better libraries than he did offended him on three
It was also
that women reigned supreme in Egypt, whereas in Rome they were
secondary. Something to do with the cult of Isis perhaps.
Cleopatra associated herself with the goddess (the great deity who
was said to have invented both the Egyptian and the Greek
alphabet, fused the two cultures, was earth mother but also
heavens and of war).
'She in th’habiliments of the goddess Isis that day appeared...'
gave audience to the people under the name of the New Isis.'
1533-34, Michelangelo, Uffizi Gallery, Florence
What we do
know is that Cleopatra managed to captivate Caesar (a skilled
conversationalist, the ruler of the Roman Empire, a man
turned out a text on Latin while traveling from Gaul, a long poem
en route to Spain.”)
And then ensorcell Antony (the eloquent
hero, the senior statesman,"
was to meet Antony in the time of life when women's beauty is most
splendid, and their intellects are in full maturity.'
Schiff’s book attempts to remove all the accretions of myth, then
there is always Shakespeare to recapture the magic, put on the
barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Burned on the water:
the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumèd, that
winds were lovesick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
water which they beat to follow faster,
amorous of their strokes.
Life, Stacy Schiff
Cleopatra, William Shakespeare
on Charlie Rose,
discussing the book
the Lipstick Effect, and Shakespeare,
Gustave Moreau's Cleopatra