"Cleopatra: A Life" by Stacy Schiff

Pros: Easy to read and follow along; good examination and analysis of ancient sources.
Cons: The footnotes were slightly confusing; it took me a minute to realize that they weren’t alluded to in the text but included in the back numbered by what page they appeared on.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

 

Cleopatra has had numerous biographers through the ages, from Romans to modern historians, and yet how much have we really examined these accounts to try and distill the true queen of Egypt from these accounts? Was she a brazen seductress, or was she a brilliant politician, scholar, and linguist? Ms. Schiff not only brings Cleopatra back to life in Cleopatra: A Life, but examines and explains historical accounts in a way that gives the reader a much greater insight into who Cleopatra might really have been and what her real political goals were.

Because Cleopatra is such a passion of mine, I’ve read several biographies of hers throughout the years. Stacy Schiff was able to bring her to life in a way that I’ve never seen before. Her prose is easy to read and follow, which makes the book feel much more accessible, even to those who haven’t spent over ten years reading about the queen. My husband even got sucked into it within the first few pages. She also deftly inserts small pieces of dry humor, which helped me to not only connect to the book, but to the author as well. It felt as if we were having a conversation together.

Just as the material concerning Cleopatra is easy to understand, so is the background information that contextualizes understanding her actions and motives. Instead of long passages concerned with setting up connections, Ms. Schiff weaves both context and Cleopatra’s decisions and actions together to make sense of the complex politics of Cleopatra’s world. I found myself gaining a much better understanding of motive and connection from this book than I have from any other biography I’ve read so far.

Ms. Schiff is also unafraid to point out where and why ancient sources could show a great degree of bias in one direction or another. For example, I hadn’t realized to this point just how close the historian Josephus was not only to Herod but to Rome as well, which could go a long way towards explaining the venom he seems to have towards Cleopatra. Even Plutarch and Dio aren’t safe from Schiff’s scrutinizing eye, leaving the reader with alternate perspectives to the Roman propaganda which has survived the centuries. This isn’t a biography that simply praises the queen either; Ms. Schiff is unafraid to admit ignorance to Cleopatra’s motives or point out possible errors in judgment.

The one negative about this book, which drove me crazy, was the fact that notes aren’t referenced in the text itself. Instead they are numbered in the back according to the page that they are on. I quickly got tired of flipping back and forth every page or two to check for references and just gave up on them. It was too difficult to keep up with the narrative and the notes. Other readers who spend more time with non-fiction and academic sources may not be as bothered with it, but the seeming disconnect bothered me.

If you’re interested in a well-researched, fairly balanced perspective on the life of a woman who was so much more than history has remembered her as, then this book is definitely worth the read. It is extremely accessible, both well-researched and well explained, and there is a good deal to be learned. As I was reading, I found myself revising ideas that I’ve held for years about Cleopatra’s personal motives and ideals. It’s an insightful look into the life of a powerful, well-educated woman who would probably be just as formidable now as she was back then.

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