Friday, January 21, 2011

Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff

Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff, is everything a biography should be. It is a fascinating, well-written, scholarly, insightful look at one of history's most compelling characters. It sorts the myth from the legend from the facts, and puts this remarkable woman firmly in context (the bridge between the Hellenistic world and the Roman world) and in perspective.

Making clear that the initial biographies of Cleopatra were written by the Romans who conquered her and Marc Anthony, this book does a superb job of showing Cleopatra as a strong, charismatic, and resourceful leader. The book is really divided into two parts--Cleopatra's rise to power and solidification of that power through her alliance with Julius Caesar, and her fall from power and the absorption of Egypt into the Roman Empire through her alliance with Marc Anthony. Despite structuring the book in this fashion, Schiff shows Cleopatra as completely her own person, mistress of her fate and more than willing to play the part of goddess incarnate.

Over the past few years, I have been reading up on the Roman Republic and Empire, so it was a real treat to learn about Alexandria, the one city that gave Rome an inferiority complex ~2000 years ago. Since virtually everything I know about ancient Egypt I learned from frequent viewings of The Ten Commandments when I was a kid, I also lapped up the info on the Ptolemaic dynasty and Egyptian culture and history, architecture, economics, foods, seasons, etc. Schiff painted a wonderfully rich and colorful picture of the pomp, luxury, ceremony, and atmosphere of Alexandria, circa 40 B.C.

I also loved hearing about Cleopatra's stormy relationship with King Herod of Judea (and how she became embroiled in his soap opera-esque family dramas), and other client kings, stories that only illustrated the guile, intelligence, and courage of Cleopatra.

Beginning to end, the book never dragged. This is a perfect example of why I love biography as a genre. Next on the list, Washington: A Life, by Ron Chernow.


  1. I am so happy to read this terrific review, as I just won the audio version this week on another blog. Looking forward to it.

    Hope you are having a nice weekend Jane.

  2. I completely missed the boat on this one. I just assumed from the start that this was historical fiction and that it might just be one that was heavy on the romance. I guess I should have stopped and read at least one of those blog posts. Glad I took the time to read yours; I knew you won't lead me astray!

  3. I'll look out for this one, it sounds perfect! (especially since I said I'd try and read more history this year)

  4. My book group read this because one of our members went to HS with the author. We were planning to go hear her lecture but it took us longer to read than expected. I did enjoy it, however.

    1. I did really like this book. I also started the audio of Schiff's novel, The Witches, about the Salem witch trials but never finished it. I found it so sad, I couldn't bear to hear how those women were persecuted.