Cleopatra's bad reputation was known throughout the Roman Empire even during her lifetime. Accusations of her seductiveness only escalated after her suicide. Two thousand years later, that's what most people think about when they hear her name.
The truth is both less and more sensational. Although she was married twice to younger brothers, she probably had only two lovers: Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. She was protective of her four half-Roman children and was brutally decisive in defending her throne from her siblings. She was the richest ruler in the Mediterranean and likely one of the most educated.
Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra cuts through centuries of romance and slander to present the Egyptian queen in as true a light as possible. That quest to understand and know Cleopatra requires side trips into Greek and Roman history and peeks at the lives of Caesar, Pompey, Octavian, and others.
Although I am not an expert on all things Roman, I have had a long-term interest in the time period covered in the biography (roughly the last half century B.C.E.). The immensity of the story and the repercussions of each relationship, betrayal, battle, murder, and birth make it difficult to find a straight line through Cleopatra's tale. Schiff wisely doesn't attempt to create one, instead presenting information as and when needed to understand Cleopatra's actions and mind-set. This approach worked well for me, but I wonder how a reader new to the era would fare.
The concept of spoilers doesn't quite apply to nonfiction, but I do not want to reveal everything that was new to me. Instead, I share one aspect of Cleopatra's influence that I was unaware of. Although Octavian plundered her treasury and could barely mention her by name in the years after Actium, he was too afraid of losing Egyptian wheat to wipe out all traces of her power and popularity. The riches he brought back to Rome coupled with Cleopatra's own story set off a period of Egyptomania in the empire. Along with it, came a "golden age of women," in which "high-born [Roman] wives and sisters suddenly enjoyed a role in public life."
No wonder men tried to bury Cleopatra's intelligence and political savvy beneath a veil of adultery.
I both read a print copy and listened to the unabridged audio edition (Hachette Audio) of Cleopatra. I often like to have both media available for nonfiction so I can review names and dates when I need to and so I don't miss out on the illustrations.
The narrator was Robin Miles, who is an award-winning professional. Unfortunately, I felt that Miles overenunciated, making the reading a bit stilted. In addition, pauses seemed to come at odd moments, further breaking the flow of the text. Regardless, these problems were not enough to make me stop listening nor should they discourage you from giving the audio a try. I suggest that you listen to a sample of the reading before committing.
Finally I'd like to say bravo to Hachette for including a CD that contains all the illustrations (maps and photographs) that appear in the print version of the book. What a great treat for listeners. I wish every nonfiction audio publisher would do the same.
Cleopatra was an Indie Next pick for November 2010 and appears on the New York Times's best of 2010 list. To learn more about Schiff, visit her website.
Published by Little, Brown, 2010
Source: Review (print & audio) (see review policy)
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