I bought this book.
My rating for Cleopatra: A Life – 4
“Cleopatra: A Life” by Stacy Schiff (Website | Twitter | Facebook) is a Pulitzer winning biography of the famous Egyptian Queen. This is a well researched and dense book –it is not easy to read.
In “Cleopatra: A Life” Stacy Schiff tries to reconstruct the biography of the of the most fascinating woman in history. History has remembered Cleopatra as a queen of great beauty who trapped in her tangled web to of the most powerful Romans in history.
Ms. Schiff tells us right off the bat to hedge our bets and forget what we know. There are simply very little primary sources about this fascinating woman, much of it has been lost and the rest has been written by her enemies. It is a travesty of history that we know so little of the last Pharaoh of Egypt, who also happened to be one of the wealthiest women of all times (and certainly the wealthiest person on earth during her reign).
It was disappointing to learn that there are very few primary sources and that Ms. Schiff based her research, amazing and detailed as it is, on mostly three secondary sources, Appian, Lucius Cassius Dio Cocceianus and Plutarch – all Roman, were not of the same generation and contradict one another. Even Julius Caesar bearly mentions Cleopatra in his writing.
Other then Cleopatra’s profile on coins, we don’t even have a picture of the queen.
Lack of primary sources is certainly a huge obstacle to overcome in a serious history book and Ms. Schiff does her best, unfortunately the first 150 pages (or so) are filled with “maybe”, “we can guess…” and “probably”. For me that was very frustrating and tedious as the book is very detailed in every aspect of the Alexandrian life – but not so much on Cleopatra’s early life.
The book becomes fascinating when Julius Caesar enters the picture, but really – what doesn’t?
However, the real story gets rolling when Mark Anthony meets Cleopatra. The intriguing relationship between the world’s most riches person and the world’s most honored solider gets a whole new perspective from Ms. Schiff. The author didn’t really believe that there was a great romance between Cleopatra and Anthony – but they used one another (money for protection) and she does bring very persuasive analysis to bring the reader to at least consider, if not agree, with her point of view.
The details of Anthony and Cleopatra’s life together are much more fascinating and exciting than the “maybes” and “probablys” of the first half of the book. The final chapters, which details the showdown between Octavian and Antony are an absolute joy to read.
This is a serious history book written by a superb historian and not a light read – consider that before purchasing. An excellent book not for those just interested in Cleopatra but also in Roman history in general.
Stacy Schiff provides a new insight into the life of history’s most elusive famous person. Cleopatra is portrayed as an intelligent, educated power broker who knew how to persuade kings to come to her side and her people to support her. This biography tries to separate the woman from the myth.
Zohar – Man of la Book
- Stacy Schiff On Jon Stewart: What Did Cleopatra Look Like? (VIDEO) (huffingtonpost.com)
- Stacy Schiff can’t help adding to myth in Cleopatra: A Life. (slate.com)
- VIDEO: Cleopatra re-examined by modern biographer (cbc.ca)
- Interview with Stacy Schiff, author of ‘Cleopatra’ (sfgate.com)