Book cover
A Life
Stacy Schiff

I’ve been fascinated by Cleopatra since I first read Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra a decade ago. The play is remarkable, but of course it is built around a mythical Cleopatra who only vaguely resembles the real person. This is the second Cleopatra biography I’ve read, and for my money a much better one. Schiff does such a good job illuminating the source material and putting what has been said about Cleopatra into historical and cultural context. The result is perhaps a less certain story than other books offer, but one that feels grounded in rationality and research.

I admire the Cleopatra this book reveals. She is inventive and bold, if not successful. I’ll let it speak for itself:

Two thousand years of bad press and overheated prose, of film and opera, cannot conceal the fact that Cleopatra was a remarkably capable queen, canny and opportunistic in the extreme, a strategist of the first rank. Her career began with one brazen act of defiance and ended with another. “What woman, what ancient succession of men, was so great?” demands the anonymous author of a fragmentary Latin poem, which positions her as the principal player of the age. Boldly and bodily, she inserted herself into world politics, with wide-reaching consequences.

This book also left me fascinated by Cleopatra’s young half-sister Arsinoë. I’d love to read more about her, but material seems sparse. Anyway, what a family.