Monday, 10 October 2011
Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
The basic premise of the book is that Cleopatra has had somewhat of a bad rep over the years. Far from being a scheming, adulterous seductress who destroyed Mark Anthony, Schiff portrays her instead as a woman who was always ready to make the most of her situation, using her considerable ambition, intellect and wit. Schiff argues that it was easier for history (and her Roman biographers) to dismiss her as lustful rather than acknowledge that she, a woman, was capable of using her intellect to persuade men and influence events.
Given the lack of primary sources and historical record about Cleopatra's life, Schiff's account is mainly in the business of providing context and details about Alexandria and Rome at the time. The civil war between Octavian and Mark Anthony is also extensively explained. As someone who loves all of the little details and quirky facts (did you know Cleopatra was the only Ptolemaic ruler to bother to learn Egyptian? Or that Cleopatra had such a monopoly on Egypt's produce that she forced farmers to sell to her at 50% tax and then sold on for an astounding 300% profit, making her worth $98bn in today's money?), I appreciated all the context and back story. If you want to read only about her life, the detail might be off-putting.
I did enjoy Schiff's writing. It remained lively throughout, and I could tell the amount of research and passion that had gone into the book from the way it was written. Schiff was telling a story rather than providing a dry account of facts, and sometime she had so much she wanted to tell us that she had to use footnotes. I did find that the account of the Roman civil war dragged a bit when Cleopatra wasn't involved and no battles were taking place, but I could see the relevance to Cleopatra's story.
To be honest, there wasn't anything I didn't like about this book. I thought it was a prime example of good, engaging non-fiction writing that will appeal to a wide audience while still satisying history buffs.
Verdict: Engaging biography of Cleopatra that attempts to separate myth from fact.
Score: 5 out of 5