Stacy Schiff: Cleopatra: A Life
Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra:
A Life was one of 2010’s most-hyped books. The reason for all of the
excitement was twofold: first, Schiff is a respected Pulitzer Prize-winning
historian and author. Secondly; and more importantly, the choice of Cleopatra
for a subject is bound to be an instant hit, as the ancient Egyptian queen’s
story is shrouded in intrigue and mystery.
Cleopatra has been a favourite subject in literature
and popular culture since the first century BC, but readers expecting a
dramatic tale of romance and betrayal should beware; Schiff’s rendering of
Cleopatra’s life is geared towards correcting the rampant misconceptions about
the queen, piled up by centuries of irresponsible historians and overeager
writers and commentators, including the likes of Cicero and Shakespeare.
Far from being an easy (or, for that matter,
entertaining) read, Cleopatra: A Life is
hard-core historical account that is heavy on facts, sources and chronologies with
meticulous attention to detail. Much of the 304-page book is occupied with analyses
of contradictory sources in an attempt to piece together what is probably true,
and what is most likely false, about Cleopatra’s life.
While Schiff’s effort is an admirable work of
painstaking historical research, her storytelling leaves a lot to be desired in
Cleopatra: A Life. The book’s highly
academic content and choppy, jargon-heavy writing style makes it a difficult,
and often boring, read; despite the valuable content.
That being said, the content is a truly remarkable
feat of intensive research on Schiff’s part. The author has delved into every
ancient and contemporary source imaginable; and even spent time conducting on-site
research in Alexandria
in order to faithfully reconstruct the Mediterranean world during Cleopatra’s
Context is paramount in this work: the reader absorbs
the events as they happened, while gaining insight into small but important
details such as how Romans viewed Greeks during this time, what languages
royalty spoke, and the differences in the treatment of women between Rome and Alexandria.
The book’s descriptions of Alexandria’s
bounty, Rome’s rough edges and everything in
between are marvellous, as are the explanations of the Ptolemaic rulers,
ancient Egyptian religious life, and the ins and outs of the Roman
Empire during this period.
Schiff’s portrayal of Alexandria leaves the impression of a city
largely unrecognisable today, and casts light on a period in history that has
been obscured by inaccurate portrayals and the spin of popular culture. Schiff
is to be applauded for finally providing history buffs with an accurate
portrayal of Cleopatra’s life based on available facts, and crafted with a
historian’s understanding of the value of sources and a strong sense of
Creating work on Cleopatra that is both factual and
boring is a doubly difficult feat. Schiff is to be applauded for her work, but a
more fluid and entertaining writing style would only enhance the book’s content
and make it more accessible to a wider audience of readers.