Friday, July 29, 2011

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

Cleopatra may be the most famous woman in history, according to Stacy Schiff, author of Cleopatra: A Life, but little is certain about the character of the Egyptian queen. Schiff notes that we should think of Cleopatra as a Greek, for she was the last of the rulers descended from Alexander the Great. Though she was probably the richest, most powerful, and best educated woman of her time and is reported to have written many letters, none of her writings has survived to give us a true account of her thoughts and motives. She was also the subject of many paintings and statues, but again none survive. We only have Egyptian and Roman coins to show us her profile, and the coins are not flattering. She is to us a mystery about whom we want to know more. Through the ages, many writers have tried to oblige our curiosity, and we are left with legends that Schiff says are easy to dispute.

So what is left for a biography? Cleopatra was truly a central character in the struggle for control of the Roman Empire (as the men involved all wanted access to Cleopatra's wealth) and was profiled by numerous Roman historians. Schiff warns readers that to these ancient writers Cleopatra was always a foreigner and an enemy, and they had no sympathy for her. Through their books many of Cleopatra's actions are known, and from these, much can be inferred, the author asserts. It would be easier, however, if the accounts agreed and had Cleopatra acted in a more consistent manner.

The life of Cleopatra seems to be the glue that holds the book together, but Schiff seems to tell us more about Julius Caesar, Cicero, Mark Antony, and Octavian (later to call himself Augustus) than about the queen. We also learn a lot about lesser characters, such as Brutus, Herod, and Cleopatra's children. Luckily for me, I knew many of Schiff's characters by name already, which helped me follow the story. Someone without a previous introduction to Roman history may have more trouble. Some readers may also be put off by the lack of anyone to like or admire.

While listening to the audiobook nicely read by Robin Miles, I remembered reading the plays of Shakespeare and watching I Claudius on PBS. It was having these connections that made the book interesting to me.

Schiff, Stacy. Cleopatra: A Life. Hachette Audio, 2010. 12 discs. 14 hours 30 minutes. ISBN 9781607887010.

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