Introduced by Lucy Hughes-Hallett
One of the most fascinating women in history, brilliantly re-examined in a stellar biography.
‘A goddess as a child, a queen at eighteen, a celebrity soon thereafter, she was an object of speculation and veneration, gossip and legend, even in her own time.’ Few historical figures can rival Cleopatra as an object of fantasy and myth. Here, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Stacy Schiff returns to the original sources to untangle legend from historical record. The result is a brilliant pairing of biographer and subject, already hailed as a classic in the making.
‘That summer she rallied a band of mercenaries, at a desert camp, under the glassy heat of the Syrian sun. She was twenty-one, an orphan and an exile. Already she had known both excessive good fortune and its flamboyant consort, calamity. She had spent a dusty summer raising an army. The women in her family were good at this’
The most famous of Egyptians, Cleopatra was in fact Greek: the product of a Macedonian dynasty who had been gifted Egypt by Alexander the Great. At 21, she was embroiled in a civil war against her 13-year-old brother-husband. She saved herself by appealing to Julius Caesar, who later fathered her child. As Schiff argues, this was no unequal alliance. The newly fledged dictator would have had much to learn from a refined and cultivated queen whose people considered her divine.
With luminous prose and outstanding research, Schiff immerses us in Cleopatra’s world. She notes the allure of Alexandria – ‘a scholar’s paradise with a quick business pulse’ – and of her palace: a place of astonishing luxury, where roses were trodden underfoot at banquets that lasted until dawn.
Coolly sceptical of Roman propaganda, Schiff provides the historical context for myths such as Cleopatra’s suicide-by-snake. She also notes the status of Cleopatra’s female compatriots, who unlike Roman matrons ‘owned vineyards, wineries, papyrus marshes, ships, perfume businesses … As much as one third of Ptolemaic Egypt may have been in female hands.’
This was an age of epic events and immense personalities – personalities that leap off the page in Schiff’s account. Mark Antony ‘had been a gifted school boy. He was in many ways still a school boy. He was also a gifted, straight-thinking strategist.’ Octavian, Cleopatra’s nemesis, ‘controlled the historical record every bit as firmly as he was said to have controlled his adolescent sexual urges’. Cleopatra herself emerges as a shrewd power-broker who drew on all her considerable gifts – not beauty but learning, charm and immense wealth – to protect her own empire against the might of Rome.
‘A formidable and spellbinding achievement’
A number one bestseller when it appeared in 2010, Cleopatra was published in 30 languages and won the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography. In this edition, a rich new selection of colour images display the opulence and abundance of Cleopatra’s world. In her introduction, historian Lucy Hughes-Hallett notes how every age has invented the Cleopatra it fears or desires. ‘Stacy Schiff’s book, robust, energetic and clear-sighted, presents a Cleopatra suited to our times.’
Stacy Schiff is a biographer, essayist and critic. Her books include the
Pulitzer Prize-winning Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov) (1999), the Pulitzer
Prize finalist Saint-Exupéry (1994), A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France,
and the Birth of America (2005) and, most recently, The Witches: Salem
1692 (2015). Cleopatra: A Life, her fourth book, was published in 2010.
Schiff has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, and was awarded a 2006 Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She has written for The New Yorker, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Boston Globe, among other publications.
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