By Chet Yarbrough
By Stacy Schiff
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize
(Also Available as an Audio Book)
Beauty, brains, wealth, and power are Cleopatra’s gift to history.
A dilettante of history reads Pulitzer Prize winning books because scholarly research and factual integrity are practically guaranteed. Reading Cleopatra satisfies that criteria but leaves a reader with a text book perception of the last queen of Egypt.
Stacy Schiff sticks to the documentary truth of Cleopatra’s life. She clearly pursues what ancient texts offer about this Egyptian world leader. She avoids speculation that surrounds the idea of a strong woman’s influence in a world controlled by men. Schiff’s pursuit of facts is scholarly but her writing leaves a skeleton rather than a full blooded human being. In fairness, that may be all that verifiable facts can reveal.
Money, power, and prestige have ruled the world since the beginning of reported history. Those elements surround the legend and truth of Cleopatra’s reign and influence. As Schiff reports, Cleopatra cultivated the powers of her era with the money and prestige of her royal position. The obscurity of what those powers were is not made much clearer by Schiff’s research.
The facts are amazing. Cleopatra manages to kill or co-opt all opponents of her ascension to the throne. She becomes revered by her subordinates for her ability to manage Egypt’s complex culture. Cleopatra successfully manages potentially lethal conflicts with Caesar, Herod, Mark Anthony, and (until her suicide) Octavian; i.e. the most powerful men of the age.
Schiff reveals facts about Cleopatra’s grasp of foreign language and culture and her ability to seduce powerful men like Caesar and Mark Anthony. What remains a mystery is why these dominant male personalities did not take what they wanted rather than accept what Cleopatra was willing to offer.
Schiff reports the lavish entertainment and ritual comings and goings of Cleopatra but she is unable to make those events concrete enough for one to understand how they enhanced rather than objectified and demeaned Cleopatra’s influence.
In the end, one is better informed about the facts of Cleopatra’s life but the limitations of scholarly reporting leave a dilettante of history unsatisfied.