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Sunday, 10 April 2011

Books - Cleopatra - a Life by Stacy Schiff

Star rating – 9/10

To win one Pulitzer Prize is impressive enough, but to win it twice for nonfiction works on completely unrelated subjects, and to be shortlisted for a third, makes for a considerable feat. Stacy Schiff has achieved just that, and her latest winner, ‘Cleopatra – A Life’ is testament to her extraordinary skills of getting under the skin of a subject and presenting it to the world is a completely fascinating new way.

Before I read this book my knowledge of the famous Egyptian queen was limited to the epic film with the sadly late Elizabeth Taylor in the starring role, and to Shakespeare’s version of events, most recently enacted wonderfully by Kim Cattrall in Liverpool. (I hasten to add that I have never seen Amanda Barry and Sid James in the Carry On version – and absolutely do not intend to).

Here Schiff makes Cleopatra come to life in a vivid and enthralling way, reading between the lines of history, and adding her own intelligent and completely plausible take on this wonderful story. Cleopatra was born into the dynasty of the Ptolemies, where there was a tradition of inter family marriages and incest as a concept just didn’t exist. She was a clever girl, who was the first in her family to even bother to learn to speak the native Egyptian language of the seven million people that they ruled under. So there were early signs there of both intelligence and political astuteness.

She managed the amazing feat of being the lover and bearing children for both Julius Caesar, and then later the dashing Mark Anthony too. At aged just twenty two, she must have realised that to have a child with Caesar would secure her county’s future for a considerable time, and it surely did. Schiff argues that she was not an amazing beauty, as we have come to picture with the Taylor/Burton version of events, but rather she was a complete charmer, and used her alluring character to attract men in a way that was quite something to behold.

And not just a relatively pretty face, she is reputed to have practiced alchemy, and to have found a cure for Caesar’s baldness too – although as it included burnt mice, burnt horses teeth, bear’s grease, and deer marrow, it is easy to see why it didn’t really catch on.

She was a rich and powerful woman in her own right, but she sought political alliances with Rome, and after Caesars’s death, had her heart, or more realistically her head, set on the dashing Mark Anthony. He had a reputation for being something of a bad boy – on one occasion apparently attaching lions to his chariot for a jaunt around Rome just for a laugh. But he stood no chance against the guile and charm of Cleo – she certainly knew how to make an entrance in her golden and jewelled barge. They soon became lovers, and seem to have stayed in love with each other – admittedly through various arguments and spats – until their tragic demise.

Schiff gives brilliant detail that makes this story come alive. It is a great read, and a very well argued work. She debunks many myths, and puts so much detail into the narrative that it is baffling just how much research it must have taken to complete this work. If you want a dazzling tale of power, lust, love and tragedy – then look no further.

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