Abby Lyn's Reviews > Cleopatra: A Life

Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff
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's review
Sep 10, 2011

really liked it

I have always found that biographies can either be dry and dull, or absorbing and rich. I have attempted to read biographies about Cleopatra before, but just never seemed to get past the first few chapters, usually revolving around the confusingly incestuous Ptolomy family tree. I have been looking for a more reader friendly description of Cleopatra's life, along the lines of biographies I have loved (for example, Pernoud & Clin's Joan of Arc: Her Story, or Stuart's Rose of Martinique, both gripping accounts of the lives of strong and legendary women). In this, Schiff's Cleopatra delivered. Her writing is extraordinarily vivid and descriptive, and she expertly teases out the biased political motives of those ancient historians who provide us with what scant documented knowledge we have about the Egyptian queen's incredible life. This biography is not flawless; having had so little to work with (Cleopatra herself only provided a single written word that survives), Schiff fills the book with a lot of subjective phrases. Cleopatra "could have", "might have", "probably" did this or that. Some of the descriptions of life in Alexandria, from the tutoring Cleopatra "would likely" have received to the celebratory banquets she "must have" put forth, can be plodding and overlong. For those of us who simply love learning more about everyday life in the ancient world, this type of information is interesting in and of itself, but it doesn't tell us much about Cleopatra herself. I believe Schiff did as much as she could given the historical record, but so much of this remarkable ruler is left unclear - what exactly were her motives? Whom did she truly love, if either of the two men in her life? We can't possibly know for sure, as Schiff admits, and therefore it is fitting that the woman on the cover of this paperback is facing away from us. Despite this luscious biography, Cleopatra remains to the modern world a stranger in the dark. 4.5 stars.

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