Review: Cleopatra, a Life

Cleopatra, a Life by Stacy Schiff


For me, learning about history is the process of filling in the spotty list inside my head known as “the sequence of human events.” Context, as I’ve said before, is the one thing that I absolutely crave. While my circumstances are unusual, I think that most people lack context for Cleopatra. Contrasted against the surviving documents of Roman history, we have precious few from her own hand or her own land. This means that the record on Cleopatra has been written by that most pernicious kind of historian—crotchety old white dudes. They are not the kindest to powerful, intelligent, rich, or mixed race ladies in general, these generalized gentlemen, so when one woman is all of those things… Well, that’s when we get Liz Taylor.

Because of those missing documents, any biographer of Cleopatra attempting to correct this image has their work cut out for them. Coming off of her George Washington Book Prize-winning The Great Improvisation, Stacy Schiff steps down from an over-abundance of documentation on her subject to a handful of thin and contradictory pieces. From these pieces, she can sketch the broad outline of Cleopatra’s life, but her perspective is forcibly skewed. Schiff can speculate and ponder based on contemporary accounts of other people, but, at the end of the day, Cleopatra, a Life is still from a startlingly Roman perspective.

Obviously, Cleopatra’s life is centered around her relationship with the Roman Empire, both politically and personally. Rome’s intentions were a constant source of concern for the queen, from her need for Caesar in order to claim her throne to her major role in the Roman Civil War. And yet, I still felt odd when I read large passages where Cleopatra, whom Schiff has a fierce, broad admiration for, is quietly in the background, tending to Egypt. My own interest in Egyptology probably informs that, though. Since I’ve recently been acquainted with the territory Schiff is covering, even Egyptian bureaucracy is more fascinating. It’s necessary ground to cover, especially if you’re putting Cleopatra firmly in her historical context, but it’s still disappointing. In the last pages of the biography, Schiff reminds us that while “Cleopatra is said to have brought down the curtain on an age… from the Egyptian perspective Antony too could be said to have done so. It is easy to forget he was Cleopatra’s undoing every bit as much as she was his” (311). I would have adored a biography written wholly from that Egyptian perspective.

Still, what is there is fascinating stuff. In particular, Schiff brings Cleopatra’s Alexandria, now almost totally lost to us, to brilliant life. (Of course, I perk up when anything is compared to Versailles.) For me, knowing only of Cleopatra via pop cultural osmosis (a method of research that I don’t recommend), I was struck by all the mundane and obvious bits. Did you know that she struggled against her siblings—she had siblings?—for the Pharaonic throne? And that was her motivation for seeking out Caesar when she was practically a kid? Her ancient Egypt’s economy was more comparable to Soviet Russia? Octavian declared war on her? And he may have encouraged her suicide to avoid a possible negative reaction to seeing the Pharoah herself in chains in his victory? That with her defeat, Egypt would remain conquered until the twentieth century? It’s all of this that lets me glimpse flashes of her through the historical record. I just wish there was more.

In fact, I think this has given me an appetite for some lady-focused historical fiction about the Final War of the Roman Republic. You can’t do much better for a setting than the dying days of the Roman Republic, and there are so many interesting women that get glossed over. If there’s not enough information about Cleopatra VII Thea Philopator, you can imagine what there is on Arsinoë IV, her half-sister, or Charmion, the devoted servant who committed suicide with Cleopatra. (That wasn’t really a thing you did, according to Schiff, making her a bit of a hero.) There’s even plenty of material to work with on the Roman side, what with ambitious Fulvia and seemingly quiet Octavia, who raised her husband’s children with Cleopatra. I am always interested in stories from the perspective of women, but you cannot tell me that’s not grounds for an intriguing work right there. I will be taking recommendations.

Part of the reason I’m being drawn to nonfiction more and more is that even if the book itself isn’t fantastic, I still learn something. While I doubt I’ll look back on this book specifically, Cleopatra and Arsinoë are going to knocking around my head for quite some time.

Bottom line: Due to a frustrating lack of sources, Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra, a Life is forced to be more Roman-focused even as she’s trying to get to the truth beneath centuries of propaganda regarding Egypt’s last pharaoh. Still, for those who don’t know much about her, it’s a fine attempt at making the unruly sources outline a powerful woman’s life. If you’d like.

I bought this book at a used bookstore.

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