Cleopatra: A Life
By Stacy Schiff
Little, Brown & Company
She’s been portrayed as a seductress, a whore, a queen, a brilliant woman, a trailblazer, and was even played by Elizabeth Taylor in a role she’ll always be remembered for. But who was the woman we know as Cleopatra? Accounts of her life vary so greatly I believe what I personally know about her is probably based more on a pop culture standard than on reality. Reading about her makes me wonder how a woman so smart — she was an extremely well-educated woman for her time able to speak several languages — could manage to both get herself into and out of trouble so many times. Cleopatra managed to rule a kingdom, make it prosper, and seduce two Roman rulers without an uprising occurring in Egypt during her reign. By any standard, she deserves a place in history.
Unfortunately, and I’ve encountered this before in reading about ancient women, her story is told by men and through the men in her life which means a good portion of the book is set aside for Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. Frankly, they both played such enormous roles in her life that it would be impossible to exclude either in the telling of her story, but many recorders of history, mostly Roman men, preferred to write her life story as one of luck, scandal, sheer bravado, sheer stupidity (depending on who is doing the writing), and in some cases, slightly in wonder of her. Cicero ’s take on Cleopatra is infuriating but he’s no fan of women in general and there was no expectation that he would treat Cleopatra, even though a queen in her own right, with anything nearing awe or even dignity. Granted, many of her acts — her first appearance before Julius Caesar she is smuggled into his presence in a burlap bag — aren’t so regal. Her trip to Rome to visit Caesar is though and that’s where this book shines.
Schiff takes a story about a woman we know and strips away many of the generalizations about her and presents someone still recognizable but also intriguing. She starts off with her education which is amazing for the time period considering most women, and definitely most Roman women, were never educated at all. She could speak several languages which made beguiling audiences and male rules rather easy. She created a currency system with denominations and managed a vast wealth without losing it to the men in her life. Egypt prospered with her as queen and she built what some consider wonders of the ancient world. Sadly, none survive to this day and most likely collapsed in a giant earthquake and now rest underwater leaving readers to imagine what an amazing site Alexandria must have been in her day.
Cleopatra in many ways helped to create the image of her that we have today. Inscriptions and temple carvings still exist of her and her children in Egypt and she was a master of managing her image. Her identity with the goddess Isis and the luxurious ways in which she inhabited her life would cause anyone to be impressed, especially a general like Marc Antony who was easily impressed, had little to no money, and couldn’t manage it when he did happen to get it. He was also a womanizer and easily taken in by Cleopatra and the impressive world of her Egypt.
I realize this isn’t necessarily helpful as a review and I haven’t told you much in general about the book itself. Sometimes I admit to having trouble reviewing non-fiction books since there isn’t a plot to follow but if anyone’s life would read like a novel, it would be Cleopatra’s.
If you’re looking for some good non-fiction, pick this one up. You’ll walk away fascinated and full of facts you’ll want to spout off to everyone you meet.
5 thoughts on “Review – Cleopatra: A Life”
I was so excited to read this one that I bought it as soon as it came out but of course I then but it aside and never read it. Hopefully soon!
Great review–I’ve seen other bloggers speak positively of this one, too. I completely agree with your point about female historical figures being defined by the males who surround them, and it’s a breath of fresh air to see a more feminist take instead!
There’s definitely a more feminist take in the one. You still have a few moments when you want the author to get back to Cleopatra but that happens with any book like this.
Great review. I will have to look it up