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30 Day Book Challenge: Favorite Non-Fiction Book

For most people with even the slightest interest in ancient history, Cleopatra is a fascinating example of a queen and seductress.  Most of what we know or believe we know today about Cleopatra, her life, struggles, and associations with other famous figures has changed dramatically over the course of two thousand years.  Stacy Schiff has developed a marvel of research and historical analysis in Cleopatra: A Life.  Although the text is non-fiction, it often times reads like prose, keeping the reader in a trance about various subjects relating to the life of the ancient queen.  In tracing the history, actors, and culture of much of the known ancient world, Schiff colorfully provides a picture akin to a painting or film of how Cleopatra lived, her education, finances, ambition, private life with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, and her political maneuvers.  Through this account, factors and ideas known to few, still today, are brought forth, and in the process a new version of Cleopatra lives for the masses.

From the start Schiff, a Pulitzer Prize Winning biographer,  begins her account of Cleopatra by recreating the scenes of her life with perfect detail and grace.  The reader soon comes to realize Schiff’s intentions for conveying her account of the life of one of the most famous and disputed women in history-she intends to show that there was much more to being the richest and most famous women of the ancient world than being, “a carnal sinner, (321)” as Dante would later refer to her.  Knowing that Cleopatra was privileged to receive the best education possible at the time, that she was educated in rhetoric, science, mathematics, and spoke nine languages, artfully constructs imagry of an extremely intelligent women.  In Schiff’s astute estimation, “Cleopatra unsettles more as a sage than as a seductress; it is less threatening to believe her fatally attractive than fatally intelligent (320).”  With this line of thinking, the reader is introduced to a woman who is, perhaps, the opposite of later interpretations by Shakespeare and in film.

Although Schiff points out that much of Cleopatra’s story still remains enigmatic, she provides insight into the lives of similar Egyptian kings and queens, educated Greeks, and Roman politics, in order to make educated guesses about her life and events that take place in it.  Despite impeccable factual historical knowledge on the part of Schiff, much of this biography is still filled with vague evidence from sources such as the Bible about the lives of others assumed to mirror Cleopatra’s, where written records, specifically about the queen are lacking.  What is more, many of the sources are from Roman enemies of Cleopatra, and are written years after the incidents took place in other regions of the world. Schiff points out, “For a woman who was to celebrated for her masterly manipulation of Rome, Cleopatra’s story would be entrusted primarily to that city’s historians; she effectively ceases to exist without a Roman in the room (142).”  Indeed, writers who lived in Rome and Greece such as Plutarch and Cicero are referred to on numerous occasions for evidence of Cleopatra’s whereabouts, motives, and faults.  Yet, due to a superlative writing style many “facts,” which may indeed possess wrongly interpreted or even fictive qualities are acceptable and fitting.

The reader is pulled deeply into the imagined world of Cleopatra, Caesar, Mark Antony, and her enemies in Rome and the East such as Octavian and Herod.  Explanations about the cultures, actions, and personalities of each historical character make clear ideas that are formerly unfamiliar most people.  That both Caesar and Antony depended upon her riches and political power to support their campaigns for military greatness, she has gone down in history as the 22nd richest person to ever live (105), makes her relationships with each less about sex and more about strategy and necessity.

The combination of testaments to Cleopatra’s history having been mythologized and altered each year after her death does not rewrite history or change some of what chroniclers of her life and times implied to be true.  History is written by the victors, and in the end, Cleopatra lost everything to Rome.  Still, with this biography, Schiff has created other possibilities for a woman time cannot forget.

Final Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

More information:

Books of the Times: The Woman Who Had Enthralled

Cleopatra: A Scientist, Not Seductress?

Film: Cleopatra (1963)