Book Review: Cleopatra: A Life

Stacy Schiff
Little Brown, 2010
384 pages
hard cover


Full disclosure up front. I like history. I minored in ancient and classical history as an undergrad. (Well, we didn't have "minors." We had "secondary concentrations," but it's the same idea.) So this book might not be everybody's cup of tea, but if you like history—or are at least curious about it—but find a lot of the texts dry and lacking in flavor, try this one. Assuming you're at all interested in Cleopatra, of course.

People have been fascinated with Cleopatra VII for centuries. Hell, they were fascinated with her when she was alive, much less afterward. And for all that—all that people think they know, all that people believe to be true about her—we actually know very little. The asp, for example? No one knows for sure, but it's highly unlikely Cleopatra died of a snakebite.

It was nice of Schiff to write this book. In my mind, it's kind of a service. To put in plainer English the truths, to parse out what has been said and the biases involved, the political spins, etc.—this book works as a nice summary for all that. Saves one the work of reading Dio and Plutarch and trying to cut through their agenda. Octavian (aka Augustus) won, after all, which means he and his had the final word. Those words weren't always flattering, nevermind true. Schiff does a nice job of picking them apart.

Still and all, much of Cleopatra's life, what she said or did and why, continues to be a mystery. Conjecture at best. Which is probably why people continue to be fascinated. Tragic love story? Political thriller? All these elements contribute to the lore of Cleopatra, a lore that has been fodder for innumerable books (fiction and non), movies and television mini-series. And will for a long time yet. Even now there is discussion of bringing Schiff's book to the big screen, rumors of having Angelina Jolie play the title role. What other larger-than-life character could any actress aspire to? Cleopatra might define the actress--look at the late Liz Taylor--but she herself refuses to be conscribed.

Though Schiff does a fine job of trying.

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