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Review: Cleopatra, Stacy Schiff

Cleopatra is a legend.  Her name is synonymous with sex appeal, with beauty, with Egyptian history.  But we know so little about who she was and what she was like – the only verifiable image we have of her is on coins.  So much of Egyptian history has been overlaid with Roman interpretations, with medieval interpretations, and even with Victorian and twentieth century interpretations that it’s nearly impossible to tell how things might actually have happened.  With her new biography of this historical icon, Stacy Schiff attempts to peel back the layers – not to pass judgement or say decisively how things may have been, but to give us an idea of what Cleopatra’s world was like without our many different lenses of bias.

Like many people, I’ve known for my entire life it seems who Cleopatra was and who she slept with.  I’ve read books about her, about Julius Caesar, and even one about her children, who never attained her level of incredible fame and renown.  But Schiff is right in that all of those have layers upon layers of bias stacked on top of them.  It is nearly an impossible task for a modern person to separate out who Cleopatra genuinely was from who we believe her to be.  There are so many alternate stories and, as with all history, nothing is set in stone anyway.  Schiff uses contemporary sources to tease out the truth in many cases and to explain where we don’t actually know the truth (quite a frequent occurrence) in others.  We don’t know what she looks like.  We have virtually nothing she wrote.  As a person, Cleopatra is all smoke and mirrors, especially when you consider that many of the people who wrote about her were judgemental Romans.

What I’d have to say I most liked was that Schiff confidently dispelled the notion that Cleopatra got all of her power, wealth, and fame from pure sex appeal.  It’s common to dismiss Cleopatra; we are far too quick to assume that she was simply a phenomenal lover, to ignore her own deeds in favor of those of the men she associated with.  It’s true that she seems to have been charismatic and people were drawn to her; Julius Caesar and Mark Antony are only the two most famous examples.  But she was powerful and she did rule over a largely peaceful kingdom.  She may well have had feminine appeal, but just because she used that to her advantage in many cases didn’t mean she cold-heartedly seduced men.  She killed her brothers, but virtually all of the Egyptian pharaohs before her killed parents, siblings, and even children.  Why is it different for a woman, particularly such a famous one?

I also genuinely loved the historical background that Schiff included. In order to elucidate parts of Cleopatra’s life that are undocumented, she inserts historical facts to provide incredibly descriptive pictures that brought Rome, Egypt, and particularly Alexandria to vivid, brilliant life.  I’ve never been the world’s biggest fan of ancient history, but Schiff made me doubt myself and wonder why I didn’t like it before.  More than anything I was amazed by how much was the  same then as now; we tend to think that people in history lacked so much that we presently have but this book proves that it just isn’t true.

For those who aren’t quite as excited by history as I am, I think this book may move quite slowly.  I read it for an online book club and I don’t think many of the other members were loving it as much as I was while I was reading it (we haven’t discussed it yet, so I may be wrong).  Since Cleopatra has left so few remnants of herself, it’s hard to empathize with her and feel for the woman she was, which may make this a difficult choice for those who are used to biographies full of quotes and intimate details.  However, as someone who simply can’t get enough of history, I can say that Cleopatra was a wonderful book and I devoured it.  If you’re at all interested in Cleopatra, I highly recommend this book to you.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free to review from Amazon Vine.

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