Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

Cleopatra is probably one name of which no one would ever claim he never hears. It has never occurred to me before that a woman has ever made that distinction in the world where men's domination is strong. After 2000 years—Cleopatra died only one generation before Christ—her name is still many times repeated by poets, historians; in literature, in movies, and I think in many other aspects. She is the Queen of Egypt. But after her, many queens have also reigned. What made her so enigmatic? When she died, Cleopatra ruled over so many lands and nations—the widest a queen has ever ruled. That made her so powerful. But I believe, the fact that we never know much about her, has also raised her values. Cleopatra is a myth, legend. At this point, Stacy Schiff tries to break the myths, and bring us the real person in this book.
I have put high expectation on this book when I bought it. I wanted to know the real character and qualities of Cleopatra, other than what was depicting by Elisabeth Taylor in the movie or in Shakespeare's plays. But somehow, I was quite disappointed. It's not entirely Ms. Schiff's fault, maybe. Apparently, there were not much facts about Cleopatra's deeds on which one could base upon. Many historians have written about her, of course. She was the mother of Julius Caesar's and Marc Antony's children! No foreigners have ever set so important role in Ancient Rome when it was a dominant ruling nation like Cleopatra. We are talking about the Western world! However, most of what Plutarch or Livy or Dellius wrote were either bias or only suggestions. I believe the misogynistic culture of Rome was the culprit here. Hence, there was almost not accurate account of Cleopatra's real .... in her world.

From what I read, I could gather that Cleopatra:
  • was the last Ptolemaic clan, which was full of incest and mayhem.
    Cleopatra in coin (the most accurate
    picture of her)
  • was really a Greek-Macedonian, not originally an Egyptian.
  • loved pearls, used to wear it abundantly, even also on her hair.
  • was not very pretty woman (far from Elizabeth Taylor!), but she possessed a charisma; she was attractive in her high intelligence, her ambition, her enthusiastic speech, and self-possessing manner.
  • was great in politics and governing a nation. She brought Egypt to be a great nation before it was finally annexed to Rome after her defeat and death.
  • took care of people's, and that's why was loved by them.
  • ruled by herself (a woman at that era!) and played great role in Western world. She was more than capable in military stuffs, leading a great army, controlling currency, and was great in diplomacy. She was really Caesar's equal.

While people portray Julius Caesar as warrior or mighty King, we tend to see Cleopatra as an exotic woman who used her sexual appeal as weapon. While we take Caesar's conquest over Western world as great, people believe that Cleopatra became Queen of Egypt through cunning and seduction. This was how men--Octavian most of all, and the Roman historians—has misled us. Worst of all, those papyruses in the magnificent Alexandria—which might have kept facts about Cleopatra's deeds—had been destroyed. So, now all we have about her is just myths—most of all the wrong ones.

This book would have been interesting. However, Schiff seems to be drifting too much to Rome's histories and chief actors in it. I understand that it might be because there were poor materials to build the life of Cleopatra, but still… She also put suggestions in rather disproportionate amount (compared to facts) to my taste. Add that with rather bad Indonesian translation, which made my reading quite tedious. I was really glad when it's over!

My rating: 3/5

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