Cleopatra: A Life

“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 life. Against a powerful enchantress there is no contest. Against a woman who ensnares a man in the coils of her serpentine intelligence – in her ropes of pearls – there should, at least be some kind of antidote. Cleopatra unsettles more as sage than as seductress; it is less threatening to believe her fatally attractive than fatally intelligent.” (Cleopatra: A life by Stacy Schiff)

Cleopatra CoverIt is patently clear that there is no way we can know Cleopatra’s motives or many of the events of her life. Not only has much been lost or destroyed, but her history was left to the too-capable hands of her enemies. Stacy Schiff admits this and never once tries to hold up one account as being the absolute truth. She cites from Plutarch, Dio, history of the time, and even Shakespeare, yet what ensues from this isn’t chaos, but a full picture of a dynamic and controversial woman.

Even though I have emerged from my week spent with this book rather more confused about Cleopatra’s life than at the onset, I feel that I have, in a sense, met this incredible woman. Real people don’t adhere to one specific story line – they bounce around, display their vices, and sometimes can’t even explain themselves to themselves. All of the different ways of looking at Cleopatra claim at least a small aspect of truth – she most likely loved Antony, for example, even while using him for his power and her own gain. By knowing Cleopatra’s story from so many angles the details become murky, but the person herself is revealed. Cleopatra rises above her one-sided legend here and becomes a multi-dimensional character, fit both for adoration and revulsion.

Beverage: An absolutely luxurious piece of non-fiction, this book calls for sweet, honeyed wine, of the bacchanal sort.

Reminds me of… a book that doesn’t bestow upon its characters the gift of three-dimensionality: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Skloot focuses so fervently on showing her friends in the best light that she forgets people have many different sides.


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