Cleopatra: Truth is Stranger Than Fiction

I don’t read a lot of nonfiction; I never have. Recently, I’ve been dabbling a bit–trying to broaden my reading range.  I’ve heard great things about Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff, winner of the Pulitzer Prize. I just finished and I loved it!Cleopatra

Schiff’s biography of Cleopatra is crazy good. Cleopatra’s full, publicly extravagant life is a biographer’s dream– so full of riches and scandal. Schiff handles the complexity and historical ambiguity of Cleopatra’s life expertly. She descibes her as “a stubborn, supreme exception to every rule” (p. 302). She makes no apologies for Cleopatra. She relates how she schemed desperately to win the favor of Caesar, murdered her family members, ruled with superior intelligence, and changed the face of female rulers forever. Schiff tells us what historians have said about her, and puts contemporary opinions (particularly Cicero’s) in proper perspective. She states the possibilities but doesn’t use absolutes. I particularly appreciated her approach to Cleopatra’s relationships. We all know about Caesar and Mark Antony, but what is the real story? Using historical evidence, Schiff tells of how they met, interacted, and what that the evidence suggests about their personal relationship. To her credit, she doesn’t allow Cleopatra to be cast as the demon seductress that history has painted her, but neither does she romanticize Cleopatra’s shrewd nature. She emphasizes her powerful presence and allure, but admits that she wasn’t that attractive. Schiff addresses the role that history and legend have cast her in, the snake-carrying seductress, but argues with convincing evidence that there is more to the story: “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” (301).

And what a story it is! The realistic portrait of Cleopatra in Stacy Schiff’s biography is even more extraordinary than the legend. As she puts it:  “There was a glamour and a grandeur to her story well before Octavian or Shakespeare got his hands on it” (p. 302). Cleopatra was ridiculously rich and Alexandria’s extravagance is legendary. Some of the most enjoyable parts of the book are the descriptions of her lavish parties–or rather just her lavish style of existence.  In a description of the dinner that Cleopatra threw for Antony when they met, Schiff makes it clear that the truth-in this case-is indeed stranger than fiction: “It was a scene so stunning that Shakespeare deferred to Plutarch, who had already pulled out all the adjectival stops for him. Surely something curious is afoot when the greatest Elizabethan poet cribs from a straight-backed biographer” (p. 161).

There are so many reasons why Schiff deserves all the praise and acclaim she has received for this book. To name a few more:

Her prose is striking. Her descriptions manage to convey the sight, smell, taste, and luxury of Cleopatra’s Alexandria in a way one would think impossible, given that we are talking about the ancient world:

“During the day Alexandria echoed with the sounds of horses’ hooves, the cries of porridge sellers or chickpea vendors, street performers, soothsayers, moneylenders. Its spice stands released exotic aromas, carried through the streets by a thick, salty sea breeze. Long-legged white and black ibises assembled at every intersection, foraging for crumbs. Until well into the evening, when the vermilion sun plunged precipitously into the harbor, Alexandria remained a swirl of reds andyellows, a swelling kaleidoscope of music, chaos, and color. Altogether it was a mood-altering city of extreme sensuality and high intellectualism, the Paris of the ancient world.” (p. 68)

–Talk about place writing. A job seriously well done.

The reader also finds tons of historical ‘trivia’ throughout the book. I really enjoyed this. Most of it is the sort of thing that nobody knows except the odd history professor and a Jeopardy fanatic, but it’s a delightful surprise when something pops out at you. I had a ton of, “I never knew that!,” moments with this book. I suppose that’s what nonfiction is all about. Maybe I should read some more often…

More importantly, you should read Cleopatra: A life. Whether or not you like nonfiction, you will appreciate this book…and you might possibly learn the answer to a jeopardy question and win thousands of dollars someday, thanks to me (and Stacy Schiff). You’re welcome.


  1. Emily C | 16th Oct 11

    I also don’t read a lot of nonfiction but this book was good. I love this review of it.

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