Title: Cleopatra: A Life
Author: Stacy Schiff
One Sentence Summary: The Cleopatra of pop culture is very different from the Cleopatra of history, who we don’t actually know that much about.
One Sentence Review: After a dense first few chapters, Cleopatra becomes an absorbing look at a woman remembered more often for the things that she wasn’t than for the things that she was.
Why I Read It: This book was shortlisted for the Indie Lit Awards in nonfiction, and I am a judge for that panel. Opinions expressed in this review are my own, and don’t reflect the thoughts of the panel or reflect our ratings of the book.
Long Review: When I think Cleopatra, I inevitably think Elizabeth Taylor, 1963, seducing Richard Burton as Marc Antony with thickly-painted eyes and gold-plaited braids. The Cleopatra of popular culture is a seductress, temptress, and sometimes savvy politician who ruled Egypt at a time of expanding Roman power. If popular memory is to be believed, Cleopatra slept her way to the top, then killed herself with a snake (how does that even make sense!) when her lover abandoned her to an advancing, hostile Roman army.
Stacy Schiff’s autobiography of Cleopatra tries to dispel these rumors, to go back to the very limited historical record from that time and see what we actually know about this young, Egyptian queen. Using accounts from male Romans historians at the time and shortly after, Schiff explores those author’s motivations and biases when writing about Cleopatra to see what truth she can find.
Cleopatra’s story is a fascinating one, in spite of the things that we don’t know about her. Even the Roman historians who wrote about her fell into traps of melodrama and sexism when trying to tell her story, although I guess that second part is to be expected. As Schiff explains midway through the book,
For a women who was to be celebrated for her masterly manipulation of Rome, Cleopatra’s story would be entrusted primarily to that city’s historians; she effectively ceases to exist without a Roman in the room.
For the early years of Cleopatra’s life, there isn’t much to go on, which makes the first few chapters of Cleopatra more full of more speculation than narrative. While interesting, these chapters could also be hard to read — it took me quite a few pages to really get into the flow and story of this book.
But once I did, right around the time Cleopatra heads to Rome after giving birth to her son with Cesar, I found Schiff’s commentary and research quite fascinating. I think the story picks up at this point because there’s finally a record of Cleopatra — the Romans are in the room with her — and so the story gets some momentum. At the same time, Cleopatra starts to come into her political power, using both her intelligence and seductiveness to win over her political opponents.
It feels really weird to say this, but in some ways Cleopatra’s story is almost more interesting when it’s mostly fiction. I know, that sounds like blasphemy to say, especially from me, but it’s one of the notes I took early in the story that’s stuck with me. Certainly, I’m glad to know the truth about Cleopatra — or at least as much truth as we can glean from a spotty historical record — but sometimes the fiction of a story has a glamor that is hard to beat.
If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!