Stacy Schiff looks for hidden details about the world’s most famous female monarch in Cleopatra: A Life. And, believe me, those details hide among gobs of information about the men she loved. In order to tell Cleopatra’s life, Schiff really tells the stories of Caesar and Mark Antony. This isn’t entirely the author’s fault, since the primary sources with the queen’s history have been mostly destroyed.

So what Schiff does is build pillars of the men’s lives and then string a few lights between them, which represent what little we know, guess, or assume about Cleopatra. I commend an author who can eke out 300 pages in this manner. But it’s hard to feel absorbed in a female figure’s life when most of the information is about the men around her.

On the other hand, we know a fair amount about Alexandria and Egypt in Cleopatra’s time. So here Schiff has material to work with. And she explains plenty. For example, Egyptians were relatively feminist about their attitude towards women. Who knew?

“As wives, widows, or divorcées, they owned vineyards, wineries, papyrus marshes, ships, perfume businesses, milling equipment, slaves, homes, camels. As much as one third of Ptolemaic Egypt may have been in female hands.”

And of course, Cleopatra had privilege that other women did not. Still she lived, as Schiff says, “…at one of the most dangerous intersections in history: that of women and power.” Therefore, she was very much damned if she did, and damned if she didn’t. No matter whose army she backed, the risks were substantial. And adding love and children into the mix only complicated things. But she did have times of immeasurable wealth and success.

My conclusions

I wanted to enjoy this book considerably more than I did. Schiff’s writing was more like college history textbook and less like narrative nonfiction. Which is my nice way of saying I thought it was boring. But if female monarchs fascinate you, then don’t skip learning about Cleopatra. Just know that there are battles, politics, and three men at the center of the story.

Another significant piece of the puzzle is the time Cleopatra spent in Rome, while involved with Caesar. As the various campaigns occur, Schiff also includes details of other regions. It rounds out the story, but also left me feeling that I didn’t learn as much about Egypt’s culture and traditions as I wanted.

It’s a shame that most of what we know about Cleopatra and her reign comes from the pens of men. They certainly have a patriarchal perspective. Perhaps, that’s why she’s always cast as a seductress. Schiff fills in the other details and uses her woman’s viewpoint to offer a new angle.

If you love ancient history and want to know Cleopatra outside the stereotypes, give this one a try.

Pair with Mary Beard’s Women & Power: A Manifesto or Victoria The Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire from Julia Baird.