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Review: Cleopatra, A Life

In the middle of 2020, when I found myself with ample free time, I went down a rabbit hole of learning all I could about Cleopatra (as well as ancient Egypt in general) via YouTube. I was able to find tidbits, but a lot of the videos regurgitated the same facts about the larger-than-life last pharaoh of Egypt. Many would claim that she was a highly sexualized woman who used the art of seduction to gain power.

But is that really all there is to Cleopatra?

Synopsis:

Her palace shimmered with onyx, garnets, and gold, but was richer still in political and sexual intrigue. Above all else, Cleopatra was a shrewd strategist and an ingenious negotiator.

Though her life spanned fewer than forty years, it reshaped the contours of the ancient world. She was married twice, each time to a brother. She waged a brutal civil war against the first when both were teenagers. She poisoned the second. Ultimately she dispensed with an ambitious sister as well; incest and assassination were family specialties. Cleopatra appears to have had sex with only two men. They happen, however, to have been Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, among the most prominent Romans of the day. Both were married to other women. Cleopatra had a child with Caesar and–after his murder–three more with his protégé. Already she was the wealthiest ruler in the Mediterranean; the relationship with Antony confirmed her status as the most influential woman of the age. The two would together attempt to forge a new empire, in an alliance that spelled their ends. Cleopatra has lodged herself in our imaginations ever since.

Famous long before she was notorious, Cleopatra has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons. Shakespeare and Shaw put words in her mouth. Michelangelo, Tiepolo, and Elizabeth Taylor put a face to her name. Along the way, Cleopatra’s supple personality and the drama of her circumstances have been lost. In a masterly return to the classical sources, Stacy Schiff here boldly separates fact from fiction to rescue the magnetic queen whose death ushered in a new world order. Rich in detail, epic in scope, Schiff ‘s is a luminous, deeply original reconstruction of a dazzling life.

Review

The book by Stacy Schiff, Cleopatra: A Life, starts off, in my opinion, a bit clunky. Schiff starts the narration with an overview of Cleopatra VII’s teenage life, introducing family members and family history in a span of just a few pages. There were a lot of names, a lot of backstories, and a lot of webs to unweave very quickly.

But soon enough, the book sails off down the Nile in a much better rhythm as we start to enter her reign and relationship with Julius Ceasar. Full disclosure – I was never great with history, and timelines always screwed me up. So to read the accounts of Cleopatra and to see it include such names such as Alexander the Great (from whom she is a descendent of) and Ceasar really helped me put things in perspective.

Cleopatra had a life full of events. Being a person of noble birth, she was brought up being tutored by the best teachers in Alexandria. She was smart in many ways – she knew multiple languages and was the first Ptolemy to have learned the Egyptian language, she can recite history and poetry alike, and she knew how to work an audience. In Egypt, where women were treated with nearly equal regards, she was revered. However, in the nearby Rome, smart women were something to be suspicious of.

And since the winners are usually those who write the history books, there are many that think the reason Cleopatra has had such a scandal attached to her name is because a lot of the accounts regarding her person was written by Romans at the time.

However, there seems to be so much more to Cleopatra and Schiff was able to dissect a lot of it.

It took me longer than I intended to finish this book, and I do think it has to do with Schiff’s writing style. Some parts felt overwhelming in a way that I needed to take breaks more often than I normally do. But, I am very glad to have finished the book. I felt like I was able to grasp so much more of what Cleopatra had to deal with.

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