Monday 10 October 2011

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

Most of us live out peaceful, boring, uneventful lives that start and end in obscurity and make no mark on history.  But even by the standards of historical figures, Cleopatra had an amazingly eventful and important life - she had children with two of the most powerful Romans, ruled Egypt single-handedly and with her suicide the ancient era was said to be over.  In Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff seeks to separate the fact from the myth and provide an unbiased account of what we actually know about Cleopatra and what we can reasonably deduce.

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.
Source: Owned
Score: 5 out of 5


  1. You make this sound very interesting to someone who doesn't read a lot of non-fiction.

  2. Thanks for the review. I didn't realize it was non-fiction.

  3. I also really enjoyed this book. I don't buy a lot of non-fiction before reading, and even then mostly at second-hand shops, but this book I had to have upon sight. I was always fascinated by Cleopatra.

  4. I also thought it was a great read (my thoughts: I did however found the first part a bit lacking. As you mentioned mostly because of lack of resources. It was frustrating to read so many “maybe”, “we can guess…” and “prob­a­bly” in a history book.

  5. Non fiction is fine by me and you give it full marks so its good for me as well.

  6. J.L. Campbell, I think it's a good choice for someone who doesn't read much non-fiction as it's not at all dry. You should give it a go :)

    Beachreader, although in some ways it straddles the fence between fiction and non-fiction, it's definitely a serious history book.

    Bookishhobbit, glad you enjoyed it too. I used to read almost 50% non-fiction but that's dropped a lot since I started blogging as I keep seeing so many great fiction books reviewed!

    Man of la Book, thanks for linking to your review, I'm off to read it next. The maybe's didn't bother me too much, I think Schiff did the best she could in the circumstances.

    Mystica, I do hope you enjoy it :)

  7. This sounds really interesting, I've read two fiction novels about her and didn't really love either of them, so maybe this is more likely to be what I'm looking for.