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Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff

Title: Cleopatra: A Life
Author: Stacy Schiff
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 400 pages
Genre: biography
New or Re-Read? New!
Rating: 4 stars

This is a very strong biography, and Schiff does an admirable job rescuing Cleopatra’s reputation from the vagaries of history. Her story as the world commonly knows it is one of erasure and revision. The men who wrote her earliest biographies were not only men but her enemies, Romans eager to blame her for the downfall of the Republic.

Unfortunately, just due to the fragmented nature of the historical record, that means Schiff does spend a lot of time defining her subject in the negative — talking about Cleopatra by talking about who and what Cleopatra wasn’t. And that does become tedious in places. I can’t blame Schiff for this — it’s the nature of the beast, and as someone who spends most of her life with her head in the 16th century, I know how many frustrations there are when it comes to trying to circle in on what the truth might’ve been. It does, however, make for a bit of roundabout reading. She also has to spend a lot of time on Caesar and Antony’s lives, despite her frequent assertions that Cleopatra wasn’t defined solely by her relationships with them. I don’t know that there’s a way around that — her readers need to know the political entanglements of the time, and those entanglements were largely engineered by those specific men — but it is a bit of an odd juxtaposition with her intended goal.

I like the book best when it’s extrapolating Cleopatra’s probable life based on what we do know about the culture of the time, about Alexandria, about other leaders of her ilk. Those are the passages that come most to life and which show Cleopatra nearer to who she probably was: a clever, resourceful woman holding onto her survival — and that of her country — with both hands. Schiff spends considerable time on Cleopatra’s likely education, on the social culture of Alexandria, and on the conflicts between the native Egyptians and the Greek immigrants. That structure created a fascinating dichotomy both within Alexandria and between Alexandria and the rest of Greece; I enjoyed learning more about how Cleopatra, grateful to the native Egyptians from her period of exile, worked further towards ingratiating herself towards them and towards improving their lives than had previous Ptolemies. She learned their language, adopted their religion, took part in their rituals, all to a far greater degree than anyone else in her dynasty had. It made her unpopular with the Alexandrians — a new level of political turmoil to add to the swirling charybdis Cleopatra had to negotiate — but it gave her a lot of support in other ways and from other quadrants.

Another fascinating political narrative is that of the East. So often, Rome in this period overshadows the history of what was going on elsewhere, which is a shame, because the machinations of Parthians, Armenians, Anatolians, Judaeans, Nabataeans, and other peoples of Mesopotamia, the Arabian peninsula, and the eastern Mediterranean are well-worth consideration. Cleopatra’s ongoing feud with Herod — as well as the complex and murderous dynamics of his family, to which Schiff devotes some time — is a narrative all in itself, and one which directly refutes claims that Cleopatra seduced every man who dropped into her path.

I also like this book because of the ways in which it remains so relevant. The shaming of women’s sexuality, the body-policing, the castigation of an independent woman, the naked fear of a woman in power — these things still resonate so clearly. The vitriolic criticisms of Cicero would not be out of place in conservative mouths today. As Schiff deftly notes:

It has always been preferable to attribute a woman’s success to her beauty rather than to her brains, to reduce her to the sum of her sex life. Against a powerful enchantress there is no contest. Against a woman who ensnares a man in the coils of her serpentine intelligence — her ropes of pearls — there should, at least, be some kind of antidote. Cleopatra unsettles more as sage than as seductress; it is less threatening to believe her threateningly attractive than fatally intelligent.

This is still true. So much about modern culture imbues women with the idea that they are only worth as much as their body, that their sexuality and ability to bear children defines them — the source of all virtue and all vice, depending on how it’s used. And, of course, men get to decide whether you’ve used it properly or not, now as then; modern women are subject to the same binary judgment as Cleopatra was, cast as the vile, ambitious seductress opposite proper, devoted, modest Octavia. In that way, this book is importantly feminist; we need more of this version of history in the world.

I’ve seen a lot of criticism about this book being dry and boring — and, well, it is a non-fictionalized history. There’s a lot of difference between this book and, say, Hand of Isis, Lily of the Nile, or even the particularly dense Masters of Rome series. But one should not be judged by the other’s standards. Cleopatra: A Life is a bit dry in some places, perhaps, but definitely not boring. It is a comprehensive and engaging biography which clears away the accumulated detritus of centuries’ worth of defamation. Well worth the read.


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