What do you know about Cleopatra? I didn’t know much. When some people started complaining a few months ago that a Black actress was portraying the Egyptian queen in a Netflix film, I was surprised: I assumed she really was Black, or at least non-white.
Now I know more. Recently I listened to the audio version of Stacy Schiff’s acclaimed 2010 book “Cleopatra: A Life.” And no, Cleopatra wasn’t Black. For about 300 years, Egypt had been ruled by the Ptolemy family, who were Greeks from Macedonia. One of the qualities that made Cleopatra a more successful ruler than most of her Ptolemaic predecessors was that she actually immersed herself in Egyptian culture, which helped boost her popularity.
Schiff warns us toward the beginning that we don’t actually know that much about Cleopatra. But she brilliantly writes around those gaps, telling us about the political and social milieu of that time and offering informed speculation from various points of view. She also goes into great detail about the Roman wars that defined that time — how Julius Caesar came to power and then, after his assassination, how his nephew Octavian prevailed over Mark Antony. If you’re hazy on all this, as I was, you’ll learn a lot.
One aspect of that period that really stands out is the sheer brutality. Every few minutes (or pages), it seems, someone is being assassinated or executed, usually by beheading. The Ptolemaic dynasty was defined by brothers marrying sisters, which only seems to have worsened the homicidal palace intrigue. Schiff tells us that, far from wallowing in the tragedy of Cleopatra’s suicide, we should appreciate the fact that she was one of the few royals of her day who had the luxury of exiting the stage on her own terms.
A few tidbits I found interesting was that Cleopatra was not considered a great beauty — that reputation was invented several centuries later. She was, according to the sources Schiff consulted, conventionally attractive and highly intelligent. But to illustrate Schiff’s point, Octavian attempted to lure Mark Antony away from Cleopatra’s side by marrying him off to his sister Octavia, who apparently really was a ravishing beauty.
Also: In legend, Cleopatra committed suicide through an asp bite. But Schiff finds that she most likely used poison, a subject to which she devoted quite a bit of research, experimenting on hapless prisoners.
More broadly, Schiff reminds us that, in Cleopatra’s time, Egypt was an ancient civilization that had seen better days. Indeed, in another book I recommend, “1177 B.C.,” an exploration of the end of the Bronze Age by Eric H. Cline, Egypt is portrayed even then as decadent and decaying in comparison with its previous glories.
So there are two recommendations for your long car rides or walks. You really can’t go wrong with either.