Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

Title: Cleopatra: A Life
Author: Stacy Schiff
Publisher: Little Brown & Co.
Pages: 368
Rating: 4/5 Stars

I don't read a lot of nonfiction, but I'd heard so many interesting things about Cleopatra: A Life that I decided I had to give it a shot. I'm quite glad I did.

To the victor go the spoils...and also the scribes who write the history. I've been aware for a long time that history is subjective and the myth of Cleopatra VII clearly illustrates that. Most of what is known about her life is written from the perspective of a patriarchal Roman society that feared the intelligent, independent woman and thus painted her as the beautiful, seductive, devious creature she's known as today.

Stacy Schiff does a remarkable job in sifting through the known record, not just on Cleopatra's life, but also on the culture and people of the era in which she lived. The result is perhaps less romantic than Shakespeare's version of events, but no less dynamic or enthralling.

If you're looking for 'truth', Cleopatra: A Life may frustrate you. The truth about the last Queen of Egypt has been lost to the centuries and buried beneath the sensationalized accounts of her exploits - often written by those who were hostile toward her. What you will get is a carefully weighed narrative that deconstructs the patriarchal viewpoint of Cicero, Plutarch, Dio, etc. in order to present a more balanced and realistic picture of a woman born to be a queen.

Schiff champions Cleopatra with common sense and an amazing understanding of the era in which she lived, often at the amusing (at least to me) expense of her detractors. To some, the bias may be annoying, but in my opinion, after two-thousand years of being annointed the 'wickedest woman in the world' I'd say it's about time someone championed her. Schiff's Cleopatra is a strong-willed, well-educated, ambitious and enthralling woman who's greatest skill is not her feminine wiles, but her ability to read people and manipulate them to serve her agenda. She is a consummate politician...which is why it makes perfect sense that the Roman society that defeated her has had to reduce her to little more than a whore.

I liked Stacy Schiff's writing style very much and if she happens to write about another figure or historical era that I'm interested in, I will definitely read it.

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