Monday, September 5, 2011

Cleopatra: A Life

Cleopatra: If it be love indeed, tell me how much.—from Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, Act 1, Scene 1 
 Among the most famous women to have lived, Cleopatra VII ruled Egypt for twenty-two years. She lost a kingdom once, regained it, nearly lost it again, amassed an empire, lost it all. A goddess as a child, a queen at eighteen, a celebrity soon thereafter, she was an object of speculation and veneration, of gossip and legend, even in her own time....Shakespeare attested to Cleopatra's infinite variety. He had no idea.Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff, p.1

In Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff sifts through the ancient texts to draw a coherent picture of the last sovereign of Egypt, who ranks among the outstanding individuals of any place or time. As in the case of other famous queens known for their beauty and personality, such as Mary Stuart and Marie-Antoinette, the emphasis in the past accounts of Cleopatra's life have been upon her seductive abilities and romantic escapades. In Schiff's retelling, the focus is on the Queen of Egypt's very real political acumen, acquired while still a child, as well as her ability to govern a vast realm, while standing up to a new empire. Her beauty lay not so much in her physical appearance as in her charm, especially her melodious voice and scintillating intelligence and wit. Cleopatra protected her people from famine, which was no small achievement in those days. She kept her capital city Alexandria a center of culture; it was the Paris of antiquity. Moreover, she held the Romans at bay for twenty-two years. As Marie Arana writes in her Washington Post review:
Schiff is especially skilled at limning the social contours of the story. The Romans were warriors, hooked on conquest, hard on women. To make wealth they needed to build empire. The Egyptians of Alexandria, on the other hand, were cultured, inventive, masters of the intellect. They built a vast library to prove it. They were astronomers for centuries before Rome even existed. Theirs was a city of mechanical marvels, and it boasted among its novelties "automatic doors and hydraulic lifts, hidden treadmills and coin-operated machines." But Alexandria was also a paradise of perfumes, a repository of the arts, an agricultural wonder -- a center that could feed and amuse its people in equal measure. If Cleopatra had needed to, she single-handedly could have fed all of Rome.
The image of Cleopatra as wanton vixen was created by the Romans but given her family history they had a lot of material from which to draw. Cleopatra was a member of the Greek Ptolemy dynasty, descended from one of Alexander the Great's generals. The Ptolemies had ruled Egypt for three hundred years. While they had never, until Cleopatra's time, fully taken to the Egyptian language and religion, they did adopt the Egyptian practice of marrying close relatives, which many scholars believe contributed to both the decay and corruption of the dynasty. With the on-going incest being accompanied by murder, they had generations of assassinations of family members by other family members, so that it is amazing that the Ptolemy dynasty went on for as long as it did. Having such relatives gave Cleopatra a bad name from the moment she was born; the fact that she later had her two brothers and younger sister assassinated when they became too disagreeable only added to the existing infamy.

One positive aspect of Cleopatra's murderous and inbred clan, other than being generous with their amassed wealth, was an emphasis on learning. Cleopatra received the best education available in the known world at the time. Her inherent thirst for knowledge made her enthusiastic for her own enlightenment. Among the nine languages she spoke was an ancient Egyptian dialect that sounded like the squeaking of bats. Cleopatra was fascinated with the native culture of her people. She even embraced their religion, visited their shrines and forged ties with the priestly caste. As Schiff explains:
In this she continued the work of her father. Even while abroad he had distinguished himself as a prolific builder of temples and had cultivated his relations with the Egyptian clergy. They were central to order amid the native populace, also intimately engaged in matters of state. As the temples stood at the center of both religious and commercial life....Priests functioned as lawyers and notaries, the temples as manufacturing centers, cultural institutions and economic hubs. You might visit one to work up a contract, or consult a doctor, or borrow a sack of grain.....The temples lent money, even, on occasion, to Ptolemies. (p.88)
Cleopatra managed to escape any incestuous relationships, other than the pretense of being "married" to her brothers. Rather than being given over to lewdness and unbridled pleasure she was probably still a virgin when she first slept with Julius Caesar, Schiff maintains. Caesar, and after his death, Mark Antony, were each regarded as a husband by Cleopatra under Egyptian law, despite the fact that they had wives back in Rome. Cleopatra had a son by Caesar and three children, two sons and a daughter, by Antony. It is emphasized that both of Cleopatra's Roman consorts were men of authority whose alliances with the Queen increased their power while gaining for Cleopatra the Roman backing needed to maintain her country's autonomy. In each lover's case, however, particularly in Antony's, the relationship with the Queen of Egypt contributed to their fall.

How Antony and Cleopatra ultimately destroyed one another is a matter for tragic bewilderment. In enhancing their mutual glory they also canceled out their individual strengths. Cleopatra seemed not quite so astute when it came to Antony and Antony let go of his Roman discipline when living with Cleopatra. While their final resting places are shrouded in mystery what we do know to be true about their deaths is unutterably sad. Cleopatra used theatrics right up to the end and was found thus:
Cleopatra lay on a golden couch....Majestically and meticulously arrayed...she gripped in her hands the crook and flail. She was perfectly composed and completely dead....Charmion [her maid] was clumsily attempting to arrange the diadem around Cleopatra's forehead. Angrily one of Octavian's men exploded: "A fine deed this, Charmion!" She had the energy to offer a parting shot. With a tartness that would have made her mistress proud, she managed: "It is indeed most fine, and befitting the descendant of so many kings," before collapsing in a heap, at her queen's side. (Schiff's Cleopatra, p.285)
One item I disagree with in the biography is the following statement (in bold): "A great deal that Cleopatra knew would be forgotten for fifteen hundred years. A very different kind of woman, the Virgin Mary, would subsume Isis as entirely as Elizabeth Taylor has subsumed Cleopatra." ( Ibid., p.301) To suggest that devotion to the Mother of Christ has any connection with the worship of the Egyptian goddess Isis, with whom Cleopatra liked to identify herself, is to ignore basic Judeo-Christian history. All one has to do is read the Old Testament to see how the Kings of Israel and Judah honored their mothers and set them at the throne's right hand (Psalm 45:9); the honor given to the Virgin Mother comes straight from Jewish tradition and has nothing to do with Isis. (1 Kings 2:19) 

In spite of the occasional odd statement, Cleopatra is an entertaining and informative read, rich with descriptions about the splendor that was Alexandria, particularly Cleopatra's palace, long submerged under the sea. Cleopatra would not disappear, however; she would continue to haunt and fascinate generations to come. Although Antony's and Cleopatra's is one of the most famous love stories, in Schiff's book we realize that much that we thought was about love and romance was really about politics and power. With the deaths of Cleopatra and Antony, Octavius obtained complete mastery of Rome as Caesar Augustus. An age ended as a new age began; all was in place for the coming of the Redeemer.

Cleopatra by John William Waterhouse
Caesar meets Cleopatra
The 1963 film
Share

1 comment:

Helen Davis said...

I didnt rely on this biography as I did my research before it came out.