Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

In the interest of full disclosure I have to admit I was home schooled. And I may or may not have spent whole months studying Ancient Egypt. There is most likely photographic evidence of the giant map of Egypt I made out of some kind of flour mixture. I could go on but is this not proof positive of my crazy nerdiness?

And because of all the nerdiness I grew up with I still can't quite shirk my pesky interest in history in general, thus the reading of crazy biographies. This one however, was a great read even for those who previously have not devoted much of their precious childhoods to creating timelines of various ancient Egyptian dynasties. 

Cleopatra was a pretty fantastic historic character, thats why so many writers and artists have had a field day with her for over two thousand years. But Schiff does an excellent job fleshing out the massive amount of politicking and strategizing it took for Cleopatra to rule a vast and wealthy empire, seduce the two most powerful men of the day, give birth to four children, and function as an important god. Thats a lot of multi-tasking if you ask me. 

Schiff brings the history, as far as we know it, into clear sight with the importance of various decisions Cleopatra made throughout her twenty-two year reign. Her story is probably a little less romantic than Elizabeth Taylor and Shakespeare portray it, but not much. Schiff's writing is eloquent without tending towards the boring, she streamlines very efficiently, and hardly inserts feminist thoughts. 

Any reading of Cleopatra; A Life is not a search for virtue. This was an ancient queen living by very different standards in a pre-Christian pagan environment. But her impact upon much of classical art, poetry, drama, and of course, the Elizabeth Taylor epic, still reverberates today. Its always interesting to know the truth behind the character. 

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