Title: Cleopatra: A Life
Author: Stacy Schiff
Release Date: November 1, 2010
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Genre: Non-Fiction, History
Rating: 4 out of 5
In this new biography of Cleopatra, Stacy Schiff takes on the woman who has such a huge part in history and deconstructs the myths and legends surround her.
The woman we think of today when we hear the name “Cleopatra” is a product of legend, imagination, and hyperbole. Very little solid information about her has made it to present day, and even those sources cannot be fully trusted. It seems that everyone in the ancient world who mattered had an opinion about Cleopatra, and most of these people’s impressions of her were not positive. In this biography, Stacy Schiff attempts to go back to square one and look at the actual woman, rather than all drama that surrounded her in her time.
Schiff portrays Cleopatra as a woman who had more brains than beauty; her power was centered on her wit, charm, and ability to strategize, rather than on her seduction capabilities. Schiff contends that it was easier for the men of the time, whose records are the only ones we have, to portray her as a wanton, promiscuous woman rather than someone who had the capacity to think like the best men of the time. Indeed, Schiff makes a convincing case that Cleopatra did not have the renowned beauty that is ascribed to her today; she achieved what she did because she knew how to make the most of her gifts.
The difficulty with this book is one that is standard with any biography of Cleopatra – there is simply so little that is known about her that it’s hard to say anything definitive. It’s easy to interpret facts to suit a theory, and Schiff does a marvelous job with the little she has, but that doesn’t change the fact that much of it is conjecture. Schiff clearly did her research and she does take the time to present opposing arguments, something which I very much appreciated.
I absolutely adore the cover of Cleopatra: A Life; I think it is beautiful and eye-catching. However, I think it conveys an impression that this book is light and easy to read. That is definitely not the case. It is history; well-presented history, but history nonetheless. It has some dry spots and there is a lot of detail. If you’re solely familiar with books about history through historical fiction, this book might be a bit overwhelming. As I do enjoy reading books about history, I found it engaging, but there was a lot to take in.
Cleopatra: A Life is a well-researched and articulate account of a legendary woman. It succeeds in helping her off her pedestal and turning her into a real woman with strengths and weaknesses. This new look at Cleopatra is a must-read for fans of history. If you aren’t much of a history reader but this book intrigues you, try reading it slowly, chapter by chapter. It’s definitely worth a look if you’re interested in the subject.