Friday, June 29, 2012

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

     Cleopatra has been a household name for centuries.  The notorious Queen of Egypt has been immortalized by tales of her beauty, cunning, and sexual presence.  Even Mr. William Shakespeare deemed her worthy of starring in one of his most famous plays, Antony and Cleopatra.  But more than two thousand years after her reign, we still do not have a complete biographical portrait of the Queen of the Nile.  As Stacy Schiff points out, most firsthand accounts of Cleopatra are incomplete or bias, as they were mostly written by her enemies.  But Schiff is not a Pulitzer Prize winning biographer for no reason.  In her recent biography of Cleopatra, we have a more comprehensive understanding of Cleopatra's life than ever before.  Very few (if any) primary sources regarding the famous Queen of Egypt survive, but Schiff compiled hundreds of sources from ancient Rome, Egypt, and Greece to provide a much clearer picture of what Cleopatra's existence was actually like.

     The woman we know today as Cleopatra was actually born Cleopatra VII Philopater.  In a nation constantly on the brink of civil war, Cleopatra offered strength, leadership, and hope for unification and peace.  After all, her people knew her as the first pharaoh who bothered to learn their language.  Depending on who you asked, Cleopatra might have been described as a goddess, a leader, a traitor, or a whore.  Even so, the world knew her name, and we've never forgotten it or her influence.

     As a work of biographical research, Cleopatra is impressive - the book is thorough, well-organized, and as comprehensive as it can possibly be.  But as a work of literature, I found Cleopatra to be slow, overwhelming, and dull.  Perhaps if you have a thorough working knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman history then it would be an entertaining read, but for those of us who are not historians, the book feels like homework - after all, the notes, bibliography, and index combined are half as long as the text itself.  As much as I appreciate and respect Stacy Schiff's level of research and the amount of time she dedicated to writing this book, I was disappointed by how very little I enjoyed the reading experience.  I think I spent just as much time looking up the names of obscure historians, philosophers, and political figures as I did reading the text.  I didn't expect this book to be much of a page turner, but I did think it would be a little more engrossing.  This is not our best book club choice by any means.  However, if you have a personal or professional interest in Cleopatra or ancient Rome, Greece, or Egypt, Cleopatra might be just the thing for you.

     This is one of those books that I'm glad I read (for educational purposes), but I'm also glad it's over.  But again, I do want to reiterate the admiration and reverence I have for Stacy Schiff and her ability to turn one of the most mysterious and elusive women in the world into a humanized, well-balanced and better-understood historical figure.

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