Monday, January 10, 2011

REVIEW: Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff

Odds are when you think of Cleopatra VII, the first image that pops into your mind is this:

A dolled up Liz Taylor as the sultry Cleopatra who uses her feminine wiles to seduce the two greatest Romans of the time.

In Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff paints a picture of a much different Cleopatra than the movies would have us believe. Cleopatra was born into the Ptolemaic Dynasty which had ruled Egypt for over 250 years-since the time of Alexander the Great. Apparently it was all about keeping it in the family since it was common for brothers and sisters to marry and rule together. As the biography opens we meet a teenaged Cleopatra. Her aging father named her co-regent toward the end of his reign which he lost and regained due to his subjects unhappiness with his taxing them to pay large bribes to the Romans to ensure he kept his throne. His intent was to have Cleopatra and her brother Ptolemy XIII rule Egypt together. As I read along, it became apparent that this family did not like having to share power with each other which led to many murders in the 275 years they reigned. As expected, soon after the death of Ptolemy XII war broke out between Cleopatra and her brother/husband. Taking refuge in the desert with her Army, she famously smuggled herself into the palace to meet with Caesar by hiding in a rug. They soon became lovers, a union which produced a son.

When Caesar was murdered by his fellow Romans, Cleopatra knew she had a decision to make: who should she back in Rome to keep Egypt safe? Eventually she would decide her wisest course of action was to support Mark Antony against Octavian-a move that would prove to be unwise.

The first thing I look for in a non-fiction book is whether or not it reads like a textbook. I can never get into a book that reads sentence followed by notation all the way through. I find it distracting. Fortunately, this book did not read like a textbook at all. It was interesting, informative, and easy to follow. It was also evident that it was well researched given that there was a lot of information about the conflicts Cleopatra faced as a ruler. Schiff does an excellent job of dispelling the notion that Cleopatra seduced to get her way. She may have turned on the charm but she was also one smart cookie. During her time Egypt was the richest country in the world despite her father repeatedly draining the treasury during his reign. As Schiff points out, many of the accounts of the Egyptian ruler were made well after her death and by people who sought to paint a negative picture of her. I thought the author did a decent job of taking all accounts into consideration in trying to paint the most accurate picture of Cleopatra that she could. It can't have been easy considering how long ago she lived and how little historical documentation from her time exists. Concerning the end of her life, Schiff puts forth some ideas about how the Queen really met her end that were quite different than any I have read before. There where also a few tidbits that I probably should have known but had no clue, most notably that the Ptolemy's were Greek-not Egyptian, and that Cleopatra VII was really the 6th Cleopatra (I guess counting was not a strong suit).

Overall I enjoyed this account of Cleopatra's life. I would have liked to read a little more about her girlhood as the book shifted focus pretty quickly to her teenage years but I understand this route was probably taken due to a lack of credible resources. Also, when the book was discussing the parts of Cleopatra's life that dealt with Caesar and Mark Antony it seemed like the focus was more on them than on Cleopatra. Obviously we have to know what was going on in Rome as it impacted Egypt, but at times accounts of Caesar/Mark Antony's doings would go on for several pages, then be followed by a much briefer synopsis of how Cleopatra was handling the situation. I would have preferred the focus stay on her. I think a fascinating topic for a biography would be to chronicle the entire Ptolemaic dynasty. This is a ruthless, back stabbing, power hungry family that would give several of the most notorious families in history a run for their money.

I received this book as part of an ARC tour from CrazyBookTours


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  2. This book has been getting a lot of attention and I really appreciate this thoughtful in depth review. I don't read very many nonfiction biographies, but this one intrigues me. I may get to it yet.