Book Review “Cleopatra: A Life”

In her book Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff describes in great detail the tense events taking place in ancient Egypt before and after Cleopatra’s reign as Queen. Schiff is an acclaimed nonfiction author. She has won the coveted Pulitzer Prize and has written plenty of historical books, essays, and columns featuring historical women such as: Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov): Portrait of a Marriage, Indelible Portraits of Women’s Lives, and The Witches: Salem, 1692.

Schiff is nondiscriminatory as she presents her subjects and information, digging though what primary sources have stood the test of time. Most of those very sources being biased themselves, written by prominent Roman men who viewed women as mere ‘horses’ to trade and strengthen alliances (679). This book not only details the life of Cleopatra, but also includes many key players such as: Julius Caesar, Pompey the Great, Cicero, Mark Antony, and Octavian. It also analyzes what may have been their motivation at the time and recounting how those actions played out and effected the ancient world.

Everything from economy to major political struggles, disputes, gods, and more. Schiff’s book contains a broad range of information and she conveys the material to the best of her ability. Whatever is unknown to Schiff is stated as such but with a theory attached based off of the knowledge from that time period. The book is not completely in chronological order, but progresses the story in a pleasing way while still unraveling the changes as they happen. Schiff uses a compelling writing style to engrosses the reader, and not a single sentence is boring.

A celebrity or ‘wonton seductress’ Cleopatra was surely one of the most famous women in the ancient world. However, Schiff writes her book in order capture what Cleopatra really was, “A capable, clear-eyed sovereign… ” (7). Cleopatra had an important role and should have been remembered for so much more than her sex appeal. She was a goddess. At least, she was in the eyes of her people.

Cleopatra was exceedingly intelligent. Schiff notes that she was: “…versed in politics, diplomacy, and governance; fluent in nine languages; silver-touched and charismatic…” (16). She had qualities that could be alluring to a powerful Roman emperor, and her relationship with both Caesar and Antony may have been more of a strategy than a blooming romance. “We do not know if Cleopatra loved either Antony or Caesar, but we do know that she got each to do her bidding” (11). The young queen, who’s country was at war, formed an alliance with Caesar that secured her place on the Egyptian throne unchallenged. Something Auletes, her father, had tried for years to assure.

Later, now with her former lover Caesars death, she was able to form another critical alliance in order to maintain her place on the throne. She accomplished this by influencing Antony. Schiff writes that: “Having established herself as a sovereign, having flaunted her wealth, she assumed the role of boon companion” (274). Cleopatra had charmed Antony, putting on an appealing facade that suited his taste. In turn Antony did whatever Cleopatra commanded. Such as vouching for Caesarion’s divinity and putting to death Cleopatra’s younger sister, Arsione, after she made a claim to the throne. With Antonys support, Schiff points that Cleopatra “…ruled unchallenged, and unchallenged had weathered sever political and economic storms” (284).

Gods were a large part of the Egyptian culture and Cleopatra did everything in her power to appear as the goddess Isis to support her claim to the throne . Using her son Caesarion, fathered by Caesar, Cleopatra “ordered coins struck on which he is depicted as Horus, Isis’s infant son” (148). This image was convenient because it also could be read as Aphrodite with Eros. Her identity with Isis with was further reinforced when she dressed up on ceremonial occasions. Not only did establishing herself as Isis increase her clout with the priests, who helped her stay in power, it also reinforced the idea that royalty was divine. By using religion Cleopatra fortified her position as queen.

Schiff’s work is well-written, detailed, and thorough. It shows the real Cleopatra, clearing many misconceptions anyone may or may not have. Instead of a ‘wonton seductress’, it shows that Cleopatra was an intelligent, strategic, and resilient ruler. Anyone who wishes to understand Cleopatra, in this way, and the details of ancient Egypt during her lifetime will find this book intriguing. Being an unbiased review of one of the most famous women in history, it is well worth the read.

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