Cleopatra; A Life by Stacy Schiff
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It's fascinating; it feels like a credible and fresh perspective on the period and on Cleopatra. I'm only in the first few chapters so far. She's making inferences about the nature of the relationship between Cleopatra & Caesar, but so far none of it has seemed implausible or unsupported.
I have to admit that I'm leery of most popular bios of famous personages, in that there is often a strong temptation for the author to interpret such lives in terms of their "relevance" for our times. I'm not saying Schiff does this, but it is a peeve of mine.
Beyond that, I really don't know what purpose his books serve ... I actually own some and actually still have them on my shelf, but I've never been able to read more than 50 pages of his writing and while reading I am absolutely unable to pay attention so that when I put the bok down I recall nothing except the strong urge to start drinking immediately ... and a lot ...
"except the strong urge to start drinking immediately ... and a lot ..."
Hmmm... Seems the books do have a positive purpose. ;-)
To be honest, I don't have a strong background in the Ptolemies or the late-Roman republic/early empire, so I can't comment on how Schiff's book compares to other research. However, it's a fantastically written biography, and one that renewed my interest in the genre. There were a few minor errors. For example, at one point she mentions that Alexander the Great had no children to be heirs. As far as I know, this is not, strictly speaking, true. His had a child who was born post-mortem and was killed soon after. (I chalk this up to a minor lapse, however, since it doesn't impact the book's subject and perhaps she meant that he had no heirs with irrefutable claims? Whoever her editor was probably didn't have the background to catch it and make the distinction.)
It's not an academic work. Schiff is a biographer by trade, not a historian. However, as a popular work, I don't think I could ask for much more. She's a master of prose and even when she wanders off the historical record, she's careful to note her departure and her subsequent conjectures are plausible. She brings a fresh perspective to Cleopatra's life, even if I certainly wouldn't call it authoritative.
I'd love to hear how people with more of a background in the era (or in the ancient Mediterranean) feel about it. It's certainly thought-provoking and a lot of fun to read. I just don't know how it fits in with the current scholarship and how justified Schiff is in reaching some of her conclusions.
As long as the scholarship behind it doesn't turn out to a hack job like A World Lit Only by Fire, I'll continue to push the book on friends and recommend it unabashedly. It's a fine example of the biography as literature and deserves the praise it's been getting in the general press.
I should add that it's copiously footnoted.
I researched this a bit and it seems that this notion has been somewhat popularized by Ralph Ellis in King Jesus. Does anyone know anything about this story?
Schiff's evocation of what growing up would have been like for Cleopatra--the mixture of Hellenistic and Egyptian influences--was fascinating. A minor example was her explanation of why being trained in rhetoric was important : what it consisted of and why the public admired it in those days. Her detailed description of Alexandria and of the Nile were welcome. Her portrayal of the "world" as seen from Egypt was refreshing to me. And she was clear about the conflicting stories, even as she stated her case.
And no matter what exactly we know for sure, it's certain that she and Caesar went up the Nile on a spectacular barge and THAT would be a sight I'd give a lot to have seen. My guess is that the reality would have put Richard Burton and Liz Taylor to shame.
> 31 & 33 I actually found this style of biography ingenious: where hard facts are simply unavailable, as with Claire Tomalin's Jane Austen: a Life, and the biographer instead concentrates on the life surrounding their subject in order to bring them alive, if short on personal details. Schiff's exploration of the motives behind the creation of the various Cleopatra myths over the centuries was detailed and thoughtful.
Schiff's general tactic, which she outlines in her introduction, is to look at the various sources available and try to construct some plausible happy medium between them.
But "plausible" is all she can ever hope to attain. Her intuition serves her in good stead in many cases--for example, her re-interpretation of Cleopatra's first meeting with Julius Caesar, stripped of its romanticism. But her method does have drawbacks. Because she is always "answering" the disparate and often wildly hostile source material, her explanations sometimes stray into excuses. And because, in the end, much of Cleopatra's life is closed and inaccessible to the historian, the book has the odd effect of being very convincing about small things, but insubstantial about many large ones. Any time Schiff talks about what was going through Cleopatra's mind during a given event, she's on shaky, unsubstantiated ground.
It was interesting to read this in concert with a couple other classical histories: Adrienne Mayor's The Poison King, which is even more speculative, if not outright inventive, and The Ghosts of Cannae by Robert L. O'Connell, which is rigorous in the way it avoids unsubstantiated material. All three books deal with adversaries of the Roman Empire who achieved almost mythical auras, all three had only the hostile sources of Roman accounts to rely on. All three were dealing with figures whose deeds--even the most famous--are often shrouded in uncertainty because so much as been lost to time. Of the three, Cannae was my favorite, because the author never lets the reader forget what is fact and what is just theory, and we are constantly reminded that we can guess, but we can't know. Schiff is less circumspect, and not above treating the occasional story as fact, especially if it is a good story. And Mayor is unapologetically speculative. She even has a long discussion in her introduction about the uses of constructing "what if" scenarios as a tool of historical research.