Released to rave reviews and the full packaging monty of its publisher, Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra took the NYT by storm in 2011, remaining there for months. And no wonder! This kamikaze of masterly writing, meticulous and thorough research, and humanizing hand of the author did a spectacular job of unmasking the woman behind the myth and debunking the lies we today call slander.
This is the biography of Queen Cleopatra VII Philopator (as the title implies) but it is done unlike any other. (PLEASE) remove the images of Liz Taylor in near-drag from your mind as you embark on this one, for this work is a truly stunning portrayal of the woman behind the parable. This biography delves into her marriages, her political decisions, her rise and her downfall. The flap said it all. In fact, it was the dazzling summary in the book flap that drew me in (rather than the razzle dazzle of Schiff’s renowned name on the cover and spine):
“Famous long before she was notorious, Cleopatra has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons…In a masterly return to the classical sources, Stacy Schiff boldly separates fact from fiction to rescue the magnetic queen whose death ushered in a new world order, a generation before the birth of Christ.”
Honestly, I couldn’t have summed this one up better myself (and whoever wrote that flap summary, in its entirety, should be commended themselves).
This biography, mind you, was released before the (in my opinion) disastrous exposé that Schiff did on The Witches, back when I’d never heard of this Pulitzer Prize winner and my mind was free of all bias for what those pages might hold, for how her style of writing would or would not stimulate and intrigue me. So, I was delighted to find that even the very first line drew me in with a skill rivaling the best in fiction, and her knack for weaving a story out of the hard research and history lost—rather than numbing the reader’s mind with dull and tiresome fact after fact—kept me reading, and hooked.
“Among the most famous women to have lived, Cleopatra VII ruled Egypt for twenty-two years. She lost a kingdom once, regained it, nearly lost it again, amassed an empire, lost it all.”
Thus go the very first two lines of this biographical tour de force. Schiff weaves the tale in three dimensions. The world—Cleopatra’s world—that she depicts is rich with detail, color, noise. Intrigue, scandal, but, best of all, skillful and methodical stripping away of the myths that surround the legend. Page by page, Schiff untangles the Queen from the lies that have torn her down and muddied her name and her legacy, her intelligence and her political savvy. She dissects the hard decisions made in the name of sovereignty and survival that have painted Cleopatra both the witch and the harlot for centuries, truly, millennia—detailing the actions that made the Queen while giving the reader the perspective of the Queen who made the actions.
No surprise that the same methods used to villainize women both today and historically were used to dismantle the legacy of a great ruler of that era; indeed, the last ruler of that era. But Schiff’s Cleopatra did not cower behind the wall of generations of myth and salaciousness. Everything from her genealogy and skin tone (about as disputed as that of Christ himself’s) to education and precarious upbringing were explored, and Schiff’s work did a masterly job of giving the reader a view of Cleopatra’s life from a thrilling perch, as if right on her shoulder the entire time.
Because of this work, I will most certainly give Schiff’s writing another chance. This page turner (I literally finished half of it in one sitting) made me laugh with the satirical jabs that Schiff managed to aim at the lies surround her muse. It brought me to tears—yes, real ones!—at the climactic conclusion that left a queen and her lover dead and an era at an end. And the clever style of writing itself was witty, intellectual, adroit and entertaining to say the least. My copy was left full of highlighted passages and marginal notes; the best kind of read, if you ask me. Five stars *****