This book was recommended to me by a friend whose opinion I trust. When it first arrived I will admit to doubts. The cover looks like a `chick lit' version of the supposedly passionate love affairs of a beautiful ancient queen, and nothing like an academic book of any weight. On opening it, however, I found not only some beautiful photographic illustrations, but also a Selected Bibliography. A good start.
It got better. Schiff manages to be both readable and accurate. She tells the story in the third person, but from Cleopatra's point of view. For the reader this could be an eye opener. Cleopatra is one of those historic characters everybody knows about, either from Shakespeare or from the famous (infamous?) film with Elizabeth Taylor. She was a stunningly beautiful Egyptian queen who had passionate love affairs with both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Or was she? Schiff sets the record straight. Her Cleopatra is a fiercely intelligent, politically astute queen fighting for her throne and her people, at a time of huge turmoil. The major power, Rome, was in the throes of a civil war, and in order to survive, Cleopatra had to choose sides not once, but twice. The first time was easy; she was fighting for her own throne and Caesar appeared in Egypt at just the right time to come to her aid. Schiff does a very good job of explaining the complexities of the Egyptian system, including the fact that Cleopatra, being a Ptolemy, is Greek, not actually Egyptian. Schiff also explains how `love' was probably not a motivation on either side; they both had something to gain. Caesar had his army, and Cleopatra had the money, something Caesar needed desperately. A match made in heaven one might say. After the death of Caesar the second choice was a little more difficult. Mark Antony or Octavian? At the time Mark Antony was the stronger of the two. Cleopatra could not have known how politically astute Octavian was, at least as good as she was, and how haphazard Mark Antony could be. He chose with his heart, Octavian always with his head. Schiff manages to make this clear. Also the fact that Cleopatra had given birth to Caesar's only son, Caesarion, a potential, and very dangerous, rival to Octavian. Schiff does make clear, however, that the nail in the coffin of Mark Antony, and by association Cleopatra, was her very un-Romanness. Cleopatra's death is full of romantic myth, which Schiff brushes aside. The asp probably didn't exist. As for her suicide, it was definitely a suicide, but how much Octavian `engineered' it is a subject of much debate. Schiff describes both sides, and leaves the reader to make up their own mind. This is not a light read, but it is an enjoyable one. Schiff uses her sources well, and throws light on a turbulent time, and a fascinating and intelligent woman.