A Review of Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
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Title: Cleopatra: A Life
Written by: Stacy Schiff
Publisher: Little, Brown
Her palace shimmered with onyx, garnet, and gold, but was richer still in political and sexual intrigue. Above all else, Cleopatra was a shrewd strategist and an ingenious negotiator. Though her life spanned fewer than forty years, it reshaped the contours of the ancient world.
She was married twice, each time to a brother. She waged a brutal civil war against the first when both were teenagers. She poisoned the second. Ultimately she dispensed with an ambitious sister as well; incest and assassination were family specialties. Cleopatra appears to have had sex with only two men. They happen, however, to have been Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, among the most prominent Romans of the day. Both were married to other women. Cleopatra had a child with Caesar and – after his murder – three more with his protégé. Already she was the wealthiest ruler in the Mediterranean; the relationship with Antony confirmed her status as the most influential woman of the age. The two would together attempt to forge a new empire, in an alliance that spelled their ends. Cleopatra has lodged herself in our imaginations ever since.
Famous long before she was notorious, Cleopatra has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons. Shakespeare and Shaw put words into her mouth. Michelangelo, Tiepolo, and Elizabeth Taylor put a face to her name. Along the way, Cleopatra's supple personality and the drama of her circumstances have been lost. In a masterly return to the classical sources, Stacy Schiff here boldly separates fact from fiction to rescue the magnetic queen whose death ushered in a new world order. Rich in detail, epic in scope, Schiff's is a luminous, deeply original reconstruction of a dazzling life.
Reading this book, it is obvious that it is geared towards the general public and not towards the serious historian. This is not a groundbreaking work, nor a particularly scholarly work. This is not a book that will be cited in future scholarship. It is equally obvious that Schiff is not a specialist in this area of history. Of course this is not necessarily a bad thing. Except in some areas she makes claims that strain credulity, given some of the well-known personalities and events she is describing, as her speculating on Cleopatra's influence on Julius Caesar, one of the most brilliant strategists, politicians, writers and orators in all of Roman history, in pacifying Egypt. And some of her assertions are simply so speculative as to be essentially worthless, such as her claim that Cleopatra had only had sex with Caesar and Antony. There is simply no way to know that, or even much basis to make such a claim. Or even a real reason to make that claim. It adds nothing to the tale she is trying to relate.
Schiff's real goal in this book is to "rescue" Cleopatra's image from male-dominated viewpoints, both in classical literature and in the popular imagination. This is a laudable goal; Cleopatra probably has gotten short shrift throughout history. And certainly, her personal life has received less attention than her professional one. And her reputation has largely been set first by hostile Roman writers, and then those using these hostile writings as the only real sources available. However, in this Schiff both overshoots and misses the mark at times. There is far too much we do not know about her. And so the true nature of her relationships is impossible to know. It is impossible to know how besotted Antony was with her, to what extent she seduced him, and how much that the passion between them led Antony to make the series of truly disastrous decisions that ended up costing both of them their lives. Similarly, Schiff would have been better served to focus more on Cleopatra's actual ability to rule her people and in how she dealt with other (as in, not Roman) rulers. We see glimpses, but only fleeting ones. But again, much of this is due to the fact that Egypt simply had no tradition of history, as had developed in Rome and Greece. So in this, Schiff is limited by her sources
For the most part, the book is well-written. The only time when the prose becomes difficult to follow is when she gives background in Cleopatra's family. The lack of a timeline, and the lack of the author's familiarity with the subject, can make the book fairly confusing to follow in these parts.
To a general audience, not intimately familiar with the ins and outs of politics in late Republican Rome, there is much to recommend in this book. Schiff does know how to tell a story, and this is a good story to tell. And while the book has some definite faults, it is an interesting read. There is nothing really groundbreaking from a scholarship standpoint here, but this is a good general interest book into the era. Just do not expect to really get to know Cleopatra as well as advertised.
Review by: Gregory Huber
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