Week 45–Cleopatra: A Life

Look! A book that’s not fiction! I think it’s been several months since I read/wrote about anything that’s not fiction.  That’s just what I’m into. But after reading Cleopatra’s Daughter, I was really curious about Cleopatra herself.  She’s a woman who has become a legend, immortalized on the stage by Shakespeare and the screen by Elizabeth Taylor.  One thinks they know the facts about her life: her great love affair with Antony, her suicide by asp, etc.  But this biography breaks down the legend and separates fact from fiction.

Cleopatra is a woman reputed for her sexuality and her beauty.  What most don’t realize is that she was not a tremendous beauty, and her success with both Julius Caesar and Marc Antony have more to do with her intellect and cunning than with her sexual allure.  In fact, what Stacy Schiff emphasizes constantly through the book is that there are enormous holes in the facts researches have about Cleopatra’s life.  Much of this is due to the biased nature of her early biographers. Everyone in the ancient world had a very strong opinion about such a powerful woman monarch ruling alone, and many men portrayed her as a seductress and a tramp.  Her sexual appetite is blown entirely into the unrealistic and improbable as a way to slur her memory.  What these biographers didn’t realize, however, was that this would only serve to increase the alluring mystery of the woman.

The truth: Cleopatra was a wily and crafty woman of state, fearless and bold in advancing her interests and the interests of her kingdom.  The unfortunate fact for her is that she ruled as the Egyptian heyday was dying, and was the victim of an overly-ambitious Roman ruler.  But she was the confident queen of a city rich in both culture and capital.  Though her life has been fictionalized and exaggerated, she is nonetheless a fascinating and powerful woman.

Schiff is a fantastic biographer, both in her research and her writing.  Being a biography, it naturally took me longer to get through. It is material that doesn’t move quite as quickly or hold quite as much suspense, nor are there pages full of dialogue to make the reading go faster. In that regard, it dragged a bit. But it’s still a fantastic book. Schiff’s voice is professional and unbiased, and does honor to her subject by remaining neutral.  She tells Cleopatra’s story (to the best of her knowledge, though she admits to the gaps in even her research), in a confident and engaging way, making the reading of this biography almost as pleasant as reading fiction.

This book was highly recommended to me, and I’m going pass that recommendation on.  Anyone interested in history or feminism or both should read it.

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