The real Cleopatra?
Stacy Schiff's biography of Cleopatra won many awards and received excellent reviews when it was released last year. And it deserves every single bit of praise given.
I can't think of any criticisms of Cleopatra: A Life. It probably helps Schiff's cause that I know so little about Cleopatra and her time period, as well as, I am ashamed to admit, the Roman Empire (seriously, everything I know about Julius Caesar is from Shakespeare). That meant almost everything in the book was new and exciting to me. Really, I am so easy.
Schiff had a challenge on her hands--there really isn't a lot of primary source material specifically about Cleopatra and her life. This means a lot of the detail comes from information that does exist about life in Egypt at the time of Cleopatra's life, and about the Egyptian rulers in general (two thought to take away--Alexandria was Shangri-La and Rome was a dump; Egyptian royal family members killed each other at a rate that would put the mob to shame). This kind of biography can be a little dicey--it gets very annoying after a while to constantly read sentences like, "One suspects she may have thought..." or "we can imagine her doing..." and so on. I came down hard on Tilar Mazzeo for this in her biography of the Widow Clicquot and her founding of the champagne dynasty. Yet here I laud it. Why? I can't quite say other than simply that Schiff just does it a lot better (apologies to Ms. Mazzeo). It's been several months since I read the book, so I can't give you examples. All I can do is say I can't imagine who wouldn't like this book. Unless you're someone who hates history or biographies. And even then I'd say to you, "No, I swear, you'll like this one!"