Monday, December 07, 2015

Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff

   Seems like most of my recent books have been histories of one sort or another.  Some are based on a lot of writing from the main characters to give an up-close look at what happened.  The better ones give context to understand why they felt and acted that way.  On occasion the author will really get into the characters and tell us what they were thinking and feeling, even if it's not supported by documentation.  And then there's this book.
   Cleopatra lived in the century just prior to the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.  She was not Egyptian in one sense because her ancestors descended from the family associated with Alexander the Great from modern day Greece.  That family, the Ptolomies, ruled for about 300 years and were as nasty a group of people as you'd want to meet.  This particular Cleopatra (there were six or seven, or not) was the last and most famous, what with plays, movies and a great deal of writing about here.  However, none of it is based on her writings or those most close to her.
   She lived in Alexandria most of the time.  It was famous for its light house, its massive library, and its great  beauty.  That's not today's Alexandria, because the old one drowned in the Mediterranean after a huge earthquake, to include the light house, the library, and most of the beautiful architecture.
   That left Ms. Schiff to rely on mostly Roman writing, which is unfortunate since those famous writers had axes to grind to remain in favor with whomever was in power at the time.  Think of trying to write about President Obama 2000 years from now if your only source was Fox News and Rush Limbaugh.  Make him a woman to boot and you're about there.
   The book ends up being a wonderful source for understanding the political currents of that century when Rome was coming out of a 400 year republic of a sort and moving into monarchies/ dictatorships.  However, Ms. Schiff fiercely defends Cleopatra to the point of distraction against probably unfair characterizations by the Roman writers and uses a whole lot of well-researched speculation about most everything that happened.  It's unavoidable, but tedious.
   Since I knew almost nothing about Cleopatra and what Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony had to do with it, as well as the dynamics of first century BC Rome, the book was worthwhile on those counts.  If you like most recent Pulitzer Prize-winning books, than you'll probably like this one.

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