Sunday, January 16, 2011

Book review: Cleopatra: A Life

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

I remember well the day in tenth grade that I learned about Cleopatra; the idea of someone hiding herself inside a bundle of carpets in order to sneak in and present herself to Caesar seemed magical and mysterious, not like it was a story about a real person. The details about her barge, her parties, her seduction of Mark Antony and her death seem (still) almost too good to be history. It wasn't a leap to see them in the lush scenes depicted in HBO's Rome. I was unsure how her biography would read, but I found myself spellbound. Even though I knew the story already, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and there was plenty of new detail to devour.

Throughout the book, the author repeats the refrain that what we don't know about Cleopatra is almost as interesting as what we do know. There are conflicting accounts from even the earliest sources, and Octavian's desire to see her name smeared in the public mind meant that even initial accounts were scrubbed of many details involving her political intelligence and influence. These were replaced with archetypal images of her as a siren or a harlot. One of the things I like best about this book is that it doesn't assert a pretense of the correct storyline. At times, Schiff shows us two possibilites, or what might have been possible, given Cleopatra's family history, stature, or even the customs or geography at the time.

The various possibilities don't detract from the narrative, though. It reads like a story first and and foremost. Commentary is sprinkled throughout and it gave me an interesting mix of academic and the gossipy. Make no mistake, Cleopatra's life was one heck of a soap opera. But intermixed therein are many important political details and a lot of Mediterranean shenanigans that involve most of the "biggies" of her time. I know this was a good book because it inspired curiosity--a lot of googling, a desire to read more books on the subject. It made me want to watch Rome again (and consequently I felt that it was extremely helpful to have the image of HBO actors firmly implanted in my head--I had no trouble distinguishing any of the major players), and it made me want to pick up Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, which I haven't yet read.

My recommendation: Read this book!


  1. I'm so glad you reviewed this book. When I saw that you were reading it, I couldn't wait for the critique. I've been itching to get it. Thanks Heather!

  2. I really want to read this now! I've been searching for a good book, so thanks for the recommendation!

  3. Sounds fantastic. I'll definitely put this on my Amazon wish list!

  4. This is the second rec I've seen for this book in the blogosphere...Must pick it up!