Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

“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, gossip and legend, even in her own time. At the height of her power she controlled virtually the entire eastern Mediterranean coast, the last great kingdom of any Egyptian ruler. For a fleeting moment she held the fate of the Western world in her hands…She has lodged herself in our imaginations ever since. Many people have spoken for her, including the greatest playwrights and poets; we have been putting words into her mouth for two thousand years. In one of the busiest afterlives in history, she has gone on to become an asteroid, a video game, a cliche, a cigarette, a slot machine, a strip club, a synonym for Elizabeth Taylor. Shakespeare attested to Cleopatra’s infinite variety. He had no idea.”

I know very litte about Cleopatra – I haven’t even seen the Elizbeth Taylor movie, actually. What I knew about her before reading this book came almost entirely from that Young Royals diary series aimed at fifth-grade girls. I rememeber the Cleopatra book being one of my favorites, mostly because its version of Cleopatra had a pet leopard. Sadly, this is apparently not true. Also according to the book, Cleopatra’s sister Berenice tried to take the throne from her father, so he had her executed and put her head on a platter. This is mostly true.

The problem with writing about Cleopatra’s life, as Schiff points out, is that there are very few primary sources on her. Most of the people whose writings about her survive, like Dio and Plutarch, weren’t even alive when she was, and they were working off of rumors and gossip rather than facts. What Schiff is trying to do with this book is examine what we know about Cleopatra, look at the rumors and stories, and try to sort out the fiction from the fact while at the same time trying to create a picture of Cleopatra as a person.

Schiff is doing the best with the information available – sometimes if she doesn’t have the specific details about an event, she’ll make an informed guess at what it might have been like. For instance, she has no idea what kind of  banquet Cleopatra threw for Caesar once, so instead Schiff describes typical grand banquets of the time so we can at least imagine what Cleopatra’s might have looked like. She also spends a lot of time setting up the world Cleopatra lived in, which you might find boring but I quite enjoyed. The descriptions of Alexandria at its prime and Rome before it was a world power are really good, and I liked the extra detail and background these descriptions provided.

For the most part, I felt that the book succeeded as a historical study. Schiff did a very good job presenting Cleopatra as a person, and at the very least I walked away from this book with a clear picture of who Cleopatra was as a ruler. This history and research seem sound, as far as my lack of ancient Egypt knowledge goes, although it would have been nice if Schiff had spent a little more time explaining where she’s getting all her quotes and examining where they come from. (Allison Weir has spoiled me, unfortunately.)

“It has always been preferable to attribute a woman’s success to her beauty rather than her brains, to reduce her to the sum of her sex life. Against a powerful echantress there is no contest. …Cleopatra unsettles more as sage than seductress; it is less threatening to believe her fatally attractive than fatally intelligent. (Menander’s fourth-century adage – “A man who teaches a woman to write should recognize that he is providing poison to an asp” – was still being copied out by schoolchildren hundreds of years after her death.)It also makes a better story.”

Verdict: four out of five stars

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