Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff is stunningly good book. This was not exactly a surprise to me, it had been almost universally critically acclaimed, so really all I can do here is add my voice to the throng. Stacy Schiff takes one of the most legendary, almost cartoonish characters in Western History, tears down all the myth, and rebuilds her from the historical record into a figure no less outsized and fascinating for being grounded in fact.
Obviously, I don’t have the historical chops here to properly evaluate the research behind this book. But from my laymen’s perspective, it seems impeccable. I never felt that facts were being strained to fit a story, or that inconvenient facts were being hidden from me. There are many things we simply do not know about Cleopatra and the events of her time. When that is the case, the author is very clear about what we don’t know, but also very good at explaining what we do know about the time, and what that would lead us to suspect might fill the gaps in the historical record. Her voice is confident, informed, and inviting. She always has a useful fact on hand when needed, but unlike with some authors I’ve read, the tidbits never feel show-offy or extraneous to the story being told.
That said, and not to take anything away from the author: Cleopatra is the star of the story. She was the supremely confident heir to a proud, ancient dynasty (with ties both to Alexander the Great and the Pharaohs), a brilliant and resourceful politician who nearly succeeded in holding off the Roman Empire’s relentless expansion throughout the chaos of multiple civil wars. She was undeniably compelling, both as a politician and as a woman, and throughout her career pulled off one coup after another, keeping Egypt’s fragile independence through countless shifts of power in the ever-threatening Roman Empire. However, her final bet on Antony failed to pay off, and she killed herself at age 38. She was the last person to rule an independent Egypt for almost 2000 years, and one of the most powerful women in all of history. Almost any biography of her would be interesting. This one is a must-read.