Book Review 2011 #5: Cleopatra

Another non fiction book, this time tackling the most famous woman in history.


Cleopatra is the most famous woman in history, and yet what we know about her is mostly incomplete or wrong, or based on movies (Elizabeth Taylor, anyone?), or just plain propaganda. Cleopatra has been used as an icon for many people, without a full understanding of who she was–and who she wasn’t. Her tangling with Julius Ceasar, and the succession struggle in the wake of her death ensured that she would be remembered forever, but it did also ensure she would be remembered in a distorted, incomplete way as well.
Stacy Schiff tries to sort it all out in her new biography of the last of the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt. Schiff is a former Pulitzer Prize winner who has done extensive research with the source documents (such as they are) to try and capture a portrait of not only Cleopatra but the world in which she lived.
The first part of the book tries to set the stage, describing the Alexandrian world that was the seat of power that Cleopatra lost, regained, and ultimately lost again. Schiff does a careful sorting of the sources, trying to find the real Cleopatra amongst the distortions, gaps and propaganda written into the accounts. Schiff is meticulous in telling us what we know, why we think we know it, and more importantly–what we don’t know. Schiff eschews outright invention, but she does make guesses and logical leaps as to Cleopatra’s nature and the nature of her actions, but at every step, she tells us on what sort of ground we are standing on.
Take Cleopatra’s appearance, for example. Aside from a visage on coins, we have no surviving portraits of the Queen at all. Schiff, however, is able to build up a picture of what she might have looked like based on scant information and reason. There is a strain of thought in some academic circles, for example, that Cleopatra must have had an African experience, given that she lived in Egypt. Especially given the inbred nature of the Ptolemies, Schiff believes otherwise, pointing out that given the Romans had written so scandalously of her, if she did have such features or ancestry, it would have been surely noted and denigrated by the Romans. And yet, amongst many of the charges and slander set against her, her appearance is NOT one of those things.
This sets the pattern for a fair amount of the book, sorting small gems of probable fact from a sea of dross. Schiff has done a lot of work in sorting through it all, and presenting a biography that is as reasonably readable for a non-expert in the field as you can ask. Schiff has written a biography of Cleopatra for everyone, not just those steeped in the Ancient World as I am.
Schiff’s style is a bit dry at first, but as she gets into the character of Cleopatra as opposed to just political events, her style opens out and we get a portrait of Cleopatra that reads like a character-driven novel rather than a biography from scattered sources. Schiff captures on the page the reasons why Cleopatra’s name is far more famous today than many other women from the ancient world. It is because of her connection to Rome, but its more than that. Cleopatra is a bundle of contradictions, a strong woman in a time when women did not generally rule, who managed to become a legend.
Do you know who Queen Zenobia was, without the benefit of a search engine, for instance?
I daresay that Schiff might get another Pulitzer prize nomination for this biography of Cleopatra. If you have any interest at all in the subject, this volume makes a fine introduction to one of the most fascinating and powerful women in history.
Strongly recommended.