I can’t remember the last time I read an honest to God biography, so either it’s been a really long time or whatever it was was so unmemorable that my brain has erased it from my memory banks. Last autobiography? Easy: Benjamin Franklin. And I read memoirs all the time. But biographies, man, they’re a different beast. Especially the ones whose brave soul authors are hell bent on cataloguing every last verifiable moment possible of people who lived thousands of years ago. Stacy Schiff is one such soul, and Cleopatra, last Queen of Egypt, her muse.
There are two ways to evaluate this book. The first is one of which I am not capable: as a scholar who is familiar with other previously existing works of scholarship and research on Cleopatra and the last years of the Ptolemaic Dynasty. I was vaguely familiar with the story of Cleopatra when I started this book — although I was apparently even more ignorant about her than I realized, seeing as how I didn’t even know she had children, let alone had children fathered by two of the greatest men of the age, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Other reviews I’ve read imply that Schiff covers nothing new in her presentation/analysis of the known facts about Cleopatra’s life, or that said interpretations are also erroneous. I have no basis with which to judge her on this.
Instead, I will make do with what I’ve got and evaluate Cleopatra: A Life as a layperson previously unfamiliar with the subject matter. Looked at from that perspective, I’d say Schiff succeeds. She takes us from the hazy matter of Cleopatra’s birth (historians are not entirely sure who her mother was, for example) through her adolescence, where she was raised with brothers and sisters in a family not un-accustomed to murder and inter-marriage, all the way up to the ramifications of her death. The text is chock full of wonderful details, and Schiff does an excellent job placing all of Cleopatra’s actions within the context of her culture (and often cultures that clashed with her own, most often the Romans). She is also careful to acknowledge places where the historical record has blanks. In those instances, she either makes educated guesses (always letting us know that’s what they are), or, to paraphrase something I said in a Goodreads status update, in lieu of more concrete evidence of Cleopatra’s life, Schiff provides us with such detail of her surroundings that you can place her there in your imaginations.
My only real complaint is that, especially at the beginning, she just kind of jumps in to the material and hops from place to place with some unclear transitions. I was often confused as to what point in history she was talking about, but this problem soon disappeared after about the first chapter. All in all, though, this was a really good read that manages to accomplish it’s main goal. I felt it was important to Schiff that she try to redirect the cultural conversation about Cleopatra and turn her back from a woman who used her sexuality to manipulate men, to a competent and beloved ruler who presided over one of the greatest kingdoms in the ancient world.
I would also recommend the audiobook. Robin Miles is a veteran theater actor and her voice was a nice vehicle for Schiff’s words. In fact, this might be how I read biographies in the future as sometimes it’s hard without a narrative to interest me emotionally to pick books like this up, even though I enjoy them while I’m reading.