Schiff’s Backstage Tour of Cleopatra

Despite the unpleasant coating of the cover, akin to toad skin, I could not put down Stacy Schiff’s entertaining biography Cleopatra A Life. To avoid parting with the fascinating metropolis that was Alexandria, and the larger than life single-mother-queen-goddess of Egypt, I even began to read it out aloud to my children as a bedtime story. I was prepared to distort the history for young ears, but quickly found it to be a surmountable task as murderous plots and incest were celebrated more frequently than birthdays in Cleopatra’s inverted family.

I hope my children could piece together from the heavily censored bedtime version that not all princesses have to marry the prince charming or an over-weight man from the swamp. Even though Cleopatra was born a princess, she had to work and fight for her right to become and remain a queen. Cleopatra, who spoke fluently nine languages, was a highly intelligent and educated woman, which was a key to her success. The most important lesson to learn from Cleopatra’s story is that history is written with an agenda and should be viewed in context. Schiff succeeds to provide that context for past historians, and does not merely recount the different tales of Cleopatra we have come to cherish over the centuries.

Future historians might criticize Schiff for advancing her own agenda by casting Cleopatra as a modern Alexandrian woman in a dark contrast to the oppressed women of Rome, for stripping her of bewitching seductive powers and portraying her as an equal, if not superior, to the powerful men of her time. Schiff’s Cleopatra, a capable, wealthy sovereign, who captured all of Egypt and several Roman hearts with her mind rather than her looks, was a master of public relations and brand management. Schiff takes the reader to an exclusive backstage tour behind the scenes, restores the glory and in the end provides one final tribute to her subject: even Cleopatra’s demise emerges as a triumph.

Schiff’s Cleopatra brings to mind Mika Waltari’s Sinuhe, another modern albeit fictional Egyptian, who forces the reader to shed misconceptions about the ancient times. Waltari’s novel The Egyptian is so well grounded in the egyptology, that it is worth the read even for those who prefer non-fiction. I highly recommend both.

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