Book Review: Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

What little most of us know of Cleopatra has come to us through fiction and Hollywood production. Oddly enough, the “truth” about her comes from a variety of sources that have varying levels of reliability and often contradict each other. In this, she will always be a bit of a mystery, her life and motives open to interpretation. But for a story that is far more complex and engaging than simply the tale of a seductress who charmed two of the most recognized men of the Roman Empire (Julius Caesar, Mark Antony), I must highly recommend Cleopatra: A Life by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff.

Last summer Cleopatra graced the pages of National Geographic and I was compelled to find the traveling Cleopatra museum exhibit’s nearest stop (Milwaukee!). And as way leads on to way, someone reading my blog post on the matter, recommended the book.

The critical words of Cicero and Octavius, historians such as Plutarch, Dio, Appian, and Josephus – just a few of the sources drawn upon for the book – all have their own takes on the woman and the events that surrounded her. And as everyone writes with their biases and to audiences with their own political inclinations, even what has been written must be judged carefully. Cleopatra has been viewed as a scandalous woman using sex as a weapon to manipulate powerful men who play victims in the story; even some of her contemporaries believed this (as they had to for they were writing for Romans, and how else does one explain how “superior” Roman men end up sharing the wealth and glory with not just a non-Roman, but (gasp) a woman!)

Cleopatra: A Life, however, is a more complex portrait of a clever, powerful woman who reinstates herself as the leader of Egypt after being driven out of Alexandria by her brother, Ptolemy XIII. There’s plenty of plotting, deal making, murder, war, and incestual royal marriages. She was multi-lingual, the first Ptolemaic ruler to actually speak the language of the people she ruled. Some may think of her as the woman who brought the end to the Egyptian empire. But in reality that empire had already come apart, and for her brief life and times as a ruler, Cleopatra brought it back to its glory until its demise at the hands of the Romans. (No small opponent. And even that turning point in history could have gone quite a different direction had Antony been victorious over his rival Octavius.)

Schiff makes it clear what is certain, likely, possible, or simply unknowable. She tells Cleopatra’s story with the pacing and excitement of a plot-driven page turner, and engages the reader with wit and playfulness, a clever turn of phrase, or even an ironic statement or three. This is hard to do as we all know how the story ends. Or we think we do, anyway.

Along the way we also get an enlightening comparison of the Hellenic Egyptian empire and its culture (most notably its attitudes toward and treatment of women) with that of the Romans (the Empire of Testosterone). Plus, the stories of Cleopatra’s two famous Roman consorts get a strong telling.

You don’t have to be a history buff to enjoy a book like this. Schiff is a great storyteller, and Cleopatra is a subject we can’t seem to get enough of.

One of my Favorite Reads of 2011!

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