"All books are either dreams or swords,/You can cut, or you can drug, with words." - Amy Lowell, 'Sword Blades and Poppy Seed'

Monday, June 27, 2011


Schiff, Stacy. Cleopatra: A Life. New York: Little, Brown, 2010. 368 pages.

"Her palace shimmered with onyx, garnet, and gold, but was richer still in political and sexual intrigue. Above all else, Cleopatra was a shrewd strategist and an ingenious negotiator. Though her life spanned fewer than forty years, it reshaped the contours of the ancient world....Famous long before she was notorious, Cleopatra has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons....Along the way, Cleopatra's supple personality and the drama of her circumstances have been lost. In a masterly return to the classical sources, Stacy Shiff here boldly separates fact from fiction to rescue the magnetic queen whose death ushered in a new world order." (description from book jacket)

Overall Review: **** (out of five)

  • Excellent Scholarship. Shiff not only did extensive primary source research, she takes advantage of her subject matter to explain something of the difficulties of doing primary research, during the ancient period particularly.  And though I have a background in history, I believe that she explains it well enough for a non-historian to both understand it and find it interesting.  Which beings us to...
  • Engaging Writing. Well-researched history doesn't have to be boring, and Shiff's masterful writing proves it.  She weaves a compelling narrative of a period of time about which many people don't truly know that much.  Popular history often leaves something to be desired in scholarly rigor, and academic history is often depressingly dry.  Shiff neatly balances the two, creating a scholarly work that is eminently readable.
  • Non-Fiction. Shif's book suffers from all of the drawbacks of non-fiction work, such as lack of dialogue and the sort of fast pace found in fiction.  It is also much more scholarly than most popular history, and Shiff deals at length with the methods and practices of historical research.  Readers who are simply interested in the story itself may find some of her method discussions to be tedious.

I picked up this book both because I hadn't read any good history since graduating college, and because Cleopatra has always been one of my favorite historical figures.  She was a woman who successfully ruled a powerful and prosperous country during an era of male dominance.  Also, her family was the definition of dysfunctional (there was an exhibit about Cleopatra at the Field Museum in Chicago a few years back, and they had her family tree up on one wall. It bore an uncanny resemblance to a spider's web).  Reading Shiff's book was a treat because she shows a Cleopatra that is much more than a woman who had affairs with Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. 

Shiff's Cleopatra was a shrewd ruler competing in an era of cut-throat international politics.  Though two powerful Romans were her lovers, Cleopatra was less than popular outside of Egypt.  She was also less than popular in her own family, surviving civil war with one brother and coup d'etat attempts by both of her sisters.  Before exploring Cleopatra's life, Shiff paints an image of the tribulations in the Ptolmeic dynasty that shaped both the Egypt and the political culture Cleopatra inherited.  This sets up both the situation in Egypt and the relationship of Egypt with other major players, most importantly Rome.

As someone with training in historical research, I found Shiff's discussions of the inherent difficulties of primary sources for the ancient world fascinating.  She also did an excellent job justifying the conclusions she drew from the sources, as well as explaining that there are some areas where historians simply cannot form conclusions because the necessary sources do not exist.  As Cleopatra herself was fairly silent in history, Shiff often looked at Cleopatra through the eyes of her more vocal contemporaries.  One such was Cicero, who hated Cleopatra for three reasons: she was a woman, she was an Easterner, and (most importantly), she had a better library than he did.

I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to start reading non-fiction, because it is both well-written and well-researched.  But people who do not usually like to read non-fiction should not be deceived: this is not a rip-roaring tale of sex and death (though it has both).  It is a serious work of history, even though Shiff seems to have much more fun with her topic than some historians.  All in all, a worth-while and education read.

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