May 012011
 

Stacy Schiff doesn’t just bring the most powerful woman in history to life, she brings her readers on location.  We face every decision Cleopatra contends with in real time.  First we are given detailed context with respect to the economy, politics, both local and foreign, family issues, the weather, even it feels like, how everyone is feeling on a particular cloudy afternoon when something auspicious is about to occur.  Then we are given options, Cleopatra’s selection among those choices, and finally a full retrospective analysis for what might have been going through her mind as she calculated was on the minds of her friends and enemies.    Without being overtly feminist in her description, Schiff does an extraordinary job of overturning history’s assessment of the Queen.  No longer a whore and seductress, Schiff persuades us rather convincingly that Cleopatra is an exceptionally adept politician unsurpassed by virtually anyone of her period.  Yes, she sleeps with and has children by the two most powerful men of her era — Julius Caeser and Marc Antony — but her success is not so much sexual as political.  The tragedy, Schiff argues, is that Cleopatra is judged by standards reserved to oppress women, rather than the more objective measures used to evaluate male political leaders. Schiff can really write, too.  This is much more than a history text; it redirects the way history has been used for 2,000 years.

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