Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

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Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Laura Bailey
Reviewed by Laura Bailey
Summary: Cleopatra is a richly written biography, gleaming with the decadence of Alexandria and drawing together a huge amount of research to delve into the mystery of Cleopatra. This book is a must read for those with a desire to discover the truth about the woman who is arguably the most famous queen who ever lived.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: July 2011
Publisher: Virgin Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-0753539569

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Stacey Schiff's biography starts more of less from Cleopatra's infamous meeting with Caesar, where she sneaks into his rooms in a sack. This is one of the most popular images of Cleopatra in the public consciousness and Schiff happily refutes the image of her emerging as a well polished seductress, pointing out that anyone who had been carried in a sack for a considerable period of time will more likely be fairly dishevelled. Schiff takes us through from this moment up to Cleopatra's much dramatised death, and beyond, to the end of the Ptolemaic dynasty.

One of the things that comes across best in this biography is Cleopatra's obvious intelligence, her incredible political skills and, more than anything else, her carefully studied charisma. Schiff shows us how it was almost entirely her ability to charm people that kept Cleopatra on her throne and made her arguably the most famous monarch of all time. The picture she paints of Cleopatra is very much human, in contrast to the demonised images of her as a siren, alluring and heartless, which have staked their claim on her memory since her death.

Cleopatra's political ambitions led her to bear the children of the two most important men of her era, Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony. One of the great unanswerable mysteries being whether the conception of these children were as purely political acts or whether she felt genuine affection for their fathers. As Schiff points out it is perhaps these mysteries that surround Cleopatra, the fact that the images we have of her are diametrically opposed, the Roman version and the Greek version of events, that keep her a perpetual point of interest so long after her death.

The writing itself is seductive and sensuous, in particular it is the descriptions of the city of Alexandria which leap off the page to intoxicate the reader with the heady scents of the city's splendour. Schiff really captures the decadent lifestyle of the Hellenistic monarch and has left me with a desire to read more into the period and the characters in Cleopatra's life, surely a compliment for any biographer.

This is definitely the kind of book you will want to re-read. The writing is so densely packed with rich detail that it is impossible to take it all in the first time round. There is an impressive amount of research on display here. As much as the author reiterates that in places there is little solid information to go on, the work never feels patchy, often we are presented with multiple accounts, with the acknowledgement that we will never know which, if any are true. When Schiff can find no direct source about Cleopatra herself she uses information that is generally applicable to the time to fill in the gaps, for example, although there is little information available specifically about Cleopatra's childhood Schiff surmises based on what Ptolemaic children probably would have experienced.

I did get slightly confused between the people in the book, although this was always going to be an inevitable difficulty, which Schiff does try to address at the beginning of the book by explaining what names she will be using for the main characters. History, popular media, and themselves have given the main Roman warriors in this novel many names, and those with little prior knowledge of them may get a bit lost at times.

The book manages to be both academic and accessible. There are both footnotes and endnotes, yet Schiff manages to keep the text itself clear of superscript numbers, which makes for a much easier read. The footnotes are linked in by stars in the text and provide additional information without overloading. Included in the first few pages of the book are maps of what the area would have looked like in Cleopatra's time which I did find myself turning back to study. Also, there are two sets of pictures inside the book, including photographs and descriptions of artefacts which are perfectly placed to provide a background to the text that has gone before and also to provide visuals of the descriptions Schiff makes of them in the text.

Stacey Schiff is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Cleopatra lives up to her reputation. This is definitely a book that I will be picking up again, and therefore I would recommend this book as a buy. I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: If you liked Cleopatra then you could try Hand of Isis by Jo Graham, historical fiction about Cleopatra's reign. Alternatively for a biography of another of history's most powerful queens, try Becoming Queen by Kate Williams, about the life of Queen Victoria. If you'd like more fiction from Schiff, we can recommend The Witches: Salem 1692.

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