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Cleopatra, A Life by Stacy Schiff: A Review


Schiff diffuses the mystery surrounding the enigmatic Egyptian queen and last Pharaoh of Egypt, Cleopatra. Often portrayed as a femme fatal who slept her way to success, Cleopatra is portrayed here as an intelligent, shrewd political dealmaker. Yes, she had wealth and power, but this biography focuses on her intellect and ability to unite her people.


The book taught me a great deal. Alexandria, the leading cultural and educational center in ancient Egypt, had boundlessly resourceful people, hydraulic lifts and coin-operated machines. Intellectualism and sensuality turned it into the Paris of the ancient world. The Nile, thought to have magical powers, was rumored to flow with gold. The propensity for marriage within a family and murder of one’s brother or son was a revelation. Cleopatra indeed wore pearls (the diamonds of her day). People ate with their fingers. The research and detail are impressive.


The relationship between twenty-year-old Cleopatra and fifty-two year old Caesar is particularly interesting. Caesar admired her talent and intellect. Never in Rome would he have found “a woman who raised an army, lent a fleet, controlled a currency.” When she bore his son, she secured diplomacy with Rome, secured the respect of priests, and heightened her “divinity.”


The second half of the book deals with her affair with Marc Antony. Much time is devoted to determining if this was a relationship of passion or political advantage.


Source material about Cleopatra is scarce and Schiff admits this. She fills in much detail about the period of Cleopatra’s reign, but what really happened in the queen’s life is lacking. The book is dense in detail, but more is about the period in which she lived. “She may have,” “there is reason to believe that,” are repeated endlessly. Still, Schiff tries to demystify an elusive, misunderstood regent and give us the best construct of Cleopatra as possible. Can we really know this woman? The cover art, with Cleopatra’s face looking away from us, gives us the answer.


Reviewed by Holly Weiss, author of Crestmont