Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Review: Cleopatra: A Life ~ by Stacy Schiff

cleopatra hard cover

Review by John for: Cleopatra: A Life ~  by Stacy Schiff (2010)

A groundbreaking attempt to piece together the true life of Cleopatra – one of the most famous and misunderstood characters of all time.

About:  Pretty much everyone has a common view of Cleopatra – what she was, what she did and how she did it. She is undoubtedly one of the most famous characters in all history. But there is the rub; famous she may be but there are absolutely no contemporary written accounts of her available. During her lifetime Egyptian civilization was some three thousand years old, but to all intents and purposes her lifetime was prehistory.

The story of Cleopatra we’ve all come to know is based mainly on Roman accounts that started to appear over one hundred years after she died, which presents two problems. Firstly, the Roman historians that created those initial accounts really do not warrant the description of “historians” – they are more storytellers, poets and PR workers, very heavily influenced by politics and the audiences they were writing for. Secondly, the “history” and stories are all written by Cleopatra’s enemies. The inevitable result is a lopsided and highly stylized account of her life, which likely bore only a passing resemblance to reality.

Stacy Schiff embarked on a worthy cause – trying to construct a more realistic biography by going back to the closest thing we have to original source materials, and then using research, logic, anthropology and psychology to strip away the mythology and nonsense. What was Cleopatra really like? What did she do and what were her motivations?

Even stripped of the sensationalized aspects of her life, it makes for a fascinating biography. She was an immensely intelligent and hard-working woman; she spoke nine languages; she was an astute and capable leader; despite Egypt having to play second fiddle to Rome she ruled a vast and rich empire; she strengthened Alexandria’s position as the intellectual capital of the world; she was charismatic; she had relationships with (and children by) two of Rome’s most famous and powerful leaders. That she achieved as much as she did in a world that was totally dominated by men is quite remarkable.

John’s Thoughts:  I was really looking forward to reading this book. I’ve always liked history and find the Egyptian, Greek and Roman civilizations fascinating. In Cleopatra we have a singular figure who brings together those three civilizations - she was part of the Ptolemaic dynasty, descended from Alexander the Great and schooled by Greek tutors; she became the Pharaoh of Egypt and ruled the country for some twenty years; and her life and destiny (and the destiny of Egypt) were inextricably linked to the fortunes of the Roman Empire. Also, however sensationalized her story has become, at its heart was someone who must have been quite remarkable.

I did find the book interesting and educational. Very clearly Schiff is presenting her personal views on Cleopatra’s life and I’m sure many will quibble with some of her conclusions, but it’s quite evident that she has done a huge amount of research and has worked hard to construct a realistic and plausible picture of Cleopatra. Is it factual history? Probably not, but given the paucity of factual material she has to work with I think she’s made an admirable effort. She certainly does us a great favor by helping to banish thoughts and images of Elizabeth Taylor, and replace them with a much more considered, nuanced, realistic and three-dimensional view.

One big issue surrounding Cleopatra is her sex, her sexuality and the extent to which she used it to help achieve her goals. Above all other elements of her story, this is the one area which has clearly become the most sensationalized. While in Egyptian society women had a lot of power, in Roman society they did not. Roman leaders and politicians would have had a hard time handling a strong queen and it’s quite easy to see how Roman “historians” would have played to that issue and dramatically distorted the picture of Cleopatra. And yet the fact remains that Cleopatra did have children that were fathered by Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony, and she clearly used those relationships to help bolster both her own personal position and Egypt’s position in a world increasingly dominated by Rome. I do like the way that Schiff reconstructs Cleopatra and positions those relationships within a much broader and more nuanced picture of the fascinating queen.

So what was it about the book that I wasn’t too crazy about? This is one tough book to read! The way that Schiff structures her sentences and syntax is overly complex and just doesn’t flow. I don’t think I’ve ever had to re-read sentences and paragraphs as much as this with any other book. There is also an odd sequencing to the book, and it sometimes jumps around a bit, which doesn’t help the flow. The fact that I stuck at it and pushed on through to the end is testament to the fact that this is actually a great story and an interesting read.

Overall I’d rate this book 3 stars; if the writing style had been easier to handle it would have been 4. If you’re interested in classical history or fascinated by Cleopatra, this one is definitely for you.

Little, Brown and Company, November 2010.

This book was borrowed from our local library. Thanks for reading.


Donna (Bites) said...

Great review! Cleopatra was such an amazing women and used what she had to her advantage. And she had a lot. I had a lot of the same issues with the writing although you put it far more eloquently. I just found it a slow read but when it comes to Cleopatra, is would have to have been pretty bad for me to stop.

John D said...

Hi Donna,

Many thanks for stopping by and for the nice comments.

I'm glad I wasn't the only one who struggled a bit with the style. But what a story!


nrlymrtl said...

I listened to the audio version of this book last fall and found it quite good. Lots of incredible facts about Cleopatra's time. I look forward to more from this author, especially if the library picks up the audio versions.

John D said...

Hi "Nrlymrtl",

I'd be curious to hear this book in audio - I wonder if it was still difficult to absorb or if they'd straightened out the wording a bit.

I've shied away from audio books so far, but Shellie loves them. Do you find audio books easy to absorb when (like this one) they are so full of information?



ChristasBooks said...

Thanks for this review. I was wondering whether or not I should pick up this review. I'm really interested in Cleopatra's life but I have a hard time focusing on biography unless they're written in a certain narrative style (I'm picky I know) and I'm not sure this would cut it.

John D said...

Hi Christa,

I suspect the style of this book would not float your boat. Had the subject matter been any less memorable and intriguing, I would have given up after a chapter or two. Even then, had I not been very interested in this period of history I would have probably have given up after three of four chapters.

All credit to the author for doing the hard work, but I wish they'd brought somebody else in to help with the writing and editing.

Thanks for stopping by and commenting. Cheers,


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