Jan 7, 2013

Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff

This much-lauded biography is exceptionally well-written, but in the end it isn't really a biography. As Schiff takes care to note, we know almost nothing about Cleopatra. History has left us none of her extant writing or speaking, many statues that are assumed to be Cleopatra cannot be said with certainty to be her, and everything written about her shortly after her death or even during her life is by propogandists from the other side. Cleopatra's life must be figured from the holes and shadows, pried away from hyperbole and melodrama. Aside from some few coins minted by her and bearing her likeness, we know for sure almost nothing about her.

So Schiff does her best, and instead of a true biography of a person, we have a biography of her time and the people who surrounded her. Schiff uses what we know of Egypt, Rome, and the Ptolemaic dynasty to make well-educated best guesses, and does a great job doing so. Given this, there is much more to be learned about Ceasar, Antony, and Octavian (Augustus) than there is about Cleopatra, and there are a few sections which don't even mention her for several pages. Perhaps I'm being snobbish, since I was educated in history and am already familiar with the story of Octavian and Antony, but I found those sections to be boring. I understand why Schiff included them, but they could have been shortened. I was always waiting expectantly to return to Cleopatra, which didn't happen often enough. That being said, the book is an excellent effort, very well-written and researched and very engaging to read. Schiff has presented us more with historiography than history, the development and aggrandizement of an archetype that has persisted already more than two thousand years, and that in and of itself is an interesting topic. Perhaps one day we will learn more about Cleopatra, if Alexandria ever emerges from the sand, but for now, Schiff's biography does her a great justice.

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