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Review: Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff

Cleopatra: A Life
by Stacy Schiff

Just the whisper of the pharoah's name conjures up mystery. We remember as a beautiful enchantress; a clever woman who seduced not one, but two of Rome's greatest generals. She's been painted as a wanton, hedonistic queen who dissolved a priceless pearl in her wine to impress Mark Antony. But though many stories have been recorded about Cleopatra since her reign over two thousand years ago, how many of them are true? Behind the myths and the legends, what was Cleopatra VII, the last pharaoh of Egypt, really like?

This was the question that Stacy Schiff tackled in her biography of Cleopatra. As she reminds readers early on, we don't even know what Cleopatra really looked like. Her Egyptian images are highly stylized; the only confirmed portraits that we have of Cleopatra are from her coins. This has led to a variety of speculations, like the ever-popular Was Cleopatra Black? debate.

The woman shown here is equally difficult to pin down. If Cleopatra wrote an account of her life, it is long gone. She does show up in contemporary Roman propaganda, but the claims made there are dubious and were created with a clear agenda. Schiff wades through these accounts and does her best to determine fact from fiction. The stripped down account relies a lot on suppositions of what Cleopatra 'may have seen' or 'must have done'. There aren't any dramatic new revelations, or wildly exciting theories about her life. It's just the bare facts, as best as can be determined by surviving historic documents.

In order to truly understand Cleopatra's world, the great titans from Rome must be explored, too. There are many pages dedicated to the triumphs and tragedies in the lives of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and other Romans who interacted with Cleopatra. These profiles, interesting in their own right, drive home the point that so little is known about the Egyptian queen. If you took out the menfolk populating the book's pages, it would shrink a third or perhaps even by half.

4 out of 5 stars

To read more about Cleopatra, buy it or add it to your wishlist click here.

Peeking into the archives...today in:
2011: A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby
2010: Discussion Question: Favorite Opening Line
2009: Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin
2008: RuneWarriors by James Jennewein and Tom S. Parker


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