Saturday, April 20, 2013

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

Cleopatra became a queen at the age of 18, married twice (each time to a brother), and at the height of her power controlled virtually the entire eastern Mediterranean coast--the last great kingdom of any Egyptian ruler.   She was 39 when she died, and had ruled for nearly 22 years (about a decade longer than Alexander the Great).  Famous long before she became notorious, according to Ms. Schiff, she has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons.

This is a scholarly treatment of the woman who spoke many languages, including the language of flattery.  She knew how to turn people to her will, and was said to be a political genius in that respect.  She wasn't a great beauty, but charisma seemed to be her dominant quality.  She was a tough, independent, capable woman with wit and humor who could blend herself into any circumstances.  They called her the Queen of Kings and she was worshipped as a goddess in her lifetime.

Schiff paints a portrait of Cleopatra that tries to separate her from the mythology and hyperbole that history has cloaked her in revealing the true woman underneath.  Not an easy task.  For as she says in this book "It has always been preferable to attribute a woman's success to her beauty rather than to her brains, to reduce her to the sum of her sex is less threatening to believe her fatally attractive than fatally intelligent."

I enjoyed this book, but it is not a casual read, nor written for the casual reader.  But if you enjoy your history meticulously researched and are intrigued by this alluring but elusive woman who lived in an amazing era and was so much more than the voluptuous seductress of legend, then you might want to give it a read.

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