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Cleopatra: A Life

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Most Helpful Favorable Review

39 out of 45 people found this review helpful.

Beautifully researched and historically accurate

Full disclosure: My Ph.D. dissertation (Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, 1976) was an examination of the persona of Cleopatra in the plays in English about her from 1592 to 1898, including the famous plays by Shakespeare, Dryden, and Shaw. While Stacy Schiff ...
Full disclosure: My Ph.D. dissertation (Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, 1976) was an examination of the persona of Cleopatra in the plays in English about her from 1592 to 1898, including the famous plays by Shakespeare, Dryden, and Shaw. While Stacy Schiff uses the same resources I did-primarily the Roman and early Christian propagandists-she also has the advantage of books published as recently as 2008. The level of her scholarship is one thing that makes this book so good. It includes maps of Alexandria and the Mediterranean world in Cleopatra's day, extensive notes, and color plates of statues and coins that show us what the queen may have looked like. Some years ago there was a movement to reclaim ancient Egypt's people and civilization for sub-Saharan Africa. It's possible that the pyramid builders were black Africans, but Cleopatra was no more Egyptian, Schiff writes, than Elizabeth Taylor. The queen was Macedonian Greek. The founder of the Ptolemaic Dynasty was a childhood friend of Alexander the so-called Great and founder of the great city of Alexandria (which is now mostly under water). The Ptolemies engaged not only in patricide, matricide, fratricide, and sororicide, but also in incest; in the opening chapters of Cleopatra, Schiff untangles the history and shenanigans of this dynasty, which puts the Borgias to shame, and describes its long and troubled relationship with the Roman Republic. Cleopatra is most famous, of course, for her love affairs with two of the most famous and more or less noblest Romans. Julius Caesar put her back on her throne in about 48 BCE after she'd been exiled by her brother (Ptolemy XIII) and his henchmen. She was in Rome in 44 when Caesar was assassinated and sailed home to Alexandria soon after the Ides of March. She probably met Mark Antony in Rome, but she didn't engage his interest until after he and Octavian (Caesar's heir) had dispatched Brutus and Cassius at Philippi in Asia Minor. Antony now summoned the queen to Tarsus. The events of the final years of Cleopatra's life, from the Donations of Alexandria (late 34) until her death in 30, were enormously complex. Schiff meticulously combs through the ancient sources to distinguish Roman propaganda from history. At the Donations, Antony gave Cleopatra the title Queen of Kings, promoted Caesarion to King of Kings, and gave their three children lands from Parthia (now northern Iran) to Cyrenaica (now Libya). To say the Donations angered Octavian is a vast understatement; the Roman civil war blazed up again and was not quenched until, following the battle of Actium in 31 from which the queen so famously sailed away, the Romans invaded Egypt and Antony and Cleopatra both killed themselves. With the death of the richest woman in the world, Octavian had no more competition. He renamed himself Augustus and founded the Roman Empire. Quill says: After you've read this beautifully researched and historically accurate biography, have some fun. Rent the bloated 1963 Elizabeth Taylor movie. Play film critic. Comment on the historical errors, the anachronisms, and the utter nonsense.

posted by FeatheredQuillBookReviews on November 17, 2010

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Most Helpful Critical Review

52 out of 56 people found this review helpful.

Not enough information to qualify as biography

"Cleopatra: A Life" is not scholarly enough to qualify as a biography--there simply isn't enough information extant about Cleopatra to fill a 300+ page book. All her sources wrote well past Cleopatra's time, or were Roman enemies. Schiff acknowledges the almost total la...
"Cleopatra: A Life" is not scholarly enough to qualify as a biography--there simply isn't enough information extant about Cleopatra to fill a 300+ page book. All her sources wrote well past Cleopatra's time, or were Roman enemies. Schiff acknowledges the almost total lack of reliable information right from the start, but can't quite overcome the enormity of that obstacle. Her prose is often stilted as she fills pages with everything but Cleopatra's life. We learn what her education probably consisted of, what the people of Alexandria ate and therefore what Cleopatra probably ate; she fills page after page with sentences beginning with "she probably", "she may have," "she might have," "we can guess she..." This becomes both frustrating and tedious to read. The first half of the book deals with all but the last years of Cleopatra's life, the ten years with Antony, but as there is next to nothing known of these years, there's next to no substance being covered here. Schiff gives a lively picture of Alexandria, and a great deal of time is spent reading Cicero's denunciations of Cleopatra, but there's nothing new, nothing of very great interest, very little "biography." The second half of the book is about the years with Antony, and is dedicated to the exploration of that most intriguing of relationships, though Schiff doesn't seem to subscribe to the idea of theirs being a great romance. She doesn't really seem to have a point of view about many things, including the source of Cleopatra's great power over two of the greatest men of her age. Instead, she presents various accounts about all the major events of the last ten years of Cleopatra's life, during which she was Antony's faithful lover and mother to three children by him in addition to her son, Caesarion, by Julius Caesar (his only son and only living child), and Antony's eldest children by an early marriage. The details of their life together-as much as can be known-are covered well, and the tension mounts as they plummet headlong into war and the final, fatal, showdown with Octavian. All of this is well-written and interesting to read; clearly, when Ms. Schiff has something to write about, she writes well. And this is a story worth telling-- whether Cleopatra and Antony partnered out of passion, or politics, or both, it is certainly one of the great couplings of all time. The bewildering and disastrous Battle of Actium, Cleopatra's building of her own Mausoleum, Antony's botched suicide and subsequent death in Cleopatra's arms are the stuff of high opera. Octavian's cold, ruthless gamesmanship versus Cleopatra's determined, intelligent survivalism made for a dramatic end-game, regardless of the veracity of the varying accounts (poison or an unlikely, very handy, cobra? Cleopatra's suicide or murder by Octavian?). In the end the book is neither scholarly enough to qualify as a biography, nor well-enough presented to qualify as a good read. Schiff reads no Greek or Latin, and does not appear to have traveled to any of the areas she's written about or visited museums to talk with scholars or to see artifacts that may have helped her to get a real handle on her subject. There is no new information, and Schiff gets a bit side-tracked by her irritation with Liz Taylor for having played Cleopatra on screen, hardly an important detail for a serious biographer. There seems to be a great deal of effort going into promoting this book, but it just isn't a very creditable effort.

posted by TracyHodson on November 20, 2010

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