I’m giving away several books throughout March in honor of Women’s History Month. Win a copy of this book, courtesy of Little, Brown and Company! Read on for more information.
Cleopatra’s legacy is indelible: In her twenties and thirties, she ruled a country that was known for producing scholars, doctors, and artists. She had children with Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, two of the most recognizable names in history. Centuries after her death, she remains a pop culture icon, forever immortalized by Elizabeth Taylor.
Depending on who you ask, she’s also a wickedly conniving woman who singlehandedly brought down an empire.
Because she was such a controversial figure, much of what is known about Cleopatra VII is muddled. While she certainly had her followers, her detractors’ writings–including the likes of Plutarch and Dio–also served to color people’s impressions. In Cleopatra: A Life, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff sifts through historical events and surviving historical documents to piece together a more objective interpretation of Cleopatra’s life.
If you know next to nothing about Cleopatra’s life (I certainly fell into that category), you will come away with an eye-opening portrait of one of the most notorious women in history and the culture she grew up in. Of Cleopatra’s family tree, or “ungainly shrub of a family tree,” Schiff writes:
While the inbreeding was meant to stabilize the family, it had a paradoxical effect…Over the generations the [Ptolemy] family indulged in what has been termed “an orgy of pillage and murder,” lurid even by colorful Macedonian standards…Over and over mothers sent troops against sons. Sisters waged war against brothers. Cleopatra’s great-grandmother fought one civil war against her parents, a second against her children.
Indeed, right before forging a relationship with Caesar, a young Cleopatra had her brother/husband murdered in order to secure her power. It’s been a while since I’ve read any Macedonian history, so getting reacquainted with all of the violence and backstabbing was astonishing.
As for the relationships for which she will always be known, Schiff does a great job of analyzing Cleopatra’s motives and portraying her as the PR-savvy woman she was. Though she must rely on several historical documents written by men who weren’t fans of Cleopatra, Schiff carefully recreates politics and culture in Rome and Alexandria in order to contextualize Cleopatra’s life. As a result, readers get to learn all kinds of little interesting tidbits, like birth control methods of the day.
My only problem with the book is that so much of it focuses of these other aspects of history, rather than on Cleopatra herself. To a certain extent, all of the extra information is needed in order for Schiff to achieve her desired effect. On the other hand, I wish it hadn’t focused so much on the secondary players. With all of the smaller details, this isn’t something I’d want to listen to on audiobook; I can’t imagine being able to keep track of everything.
Before I wrap up, I want to comment on something I don’t usually refer to in my reviews: the cover of the book is perfect. Initially, my reaction fell somewhere between, “hmm…interesting,” and “pretty, but where’s her face?” Having read the book, though, it makes perfect sense: Cleopatra would have worn a white diadem tied around her head and would have been decked out in pearls, the diamonds of her day. She would have worn luxurious, colorful clothing. But aside from that, we’ll never really know what she looked like; for all that we now know of her, she still remains an enigma, and people will always want to know more.
Cleopatra: A Life was released on November 1, 2010 by Little, Brown and Company.
Want a chance to read this book? Little, Brown and Company has provided a finished copy for a Women’s History Month giveaway! To enter, fill out this form by Friday, April 8, 2011. This giveaway is now closed.