I knew next to nothing about Cleopatra going into this one. I know she lead Egypt at some point and had an affair with Marc Antony and that all of this caused a Mediterranean kerfuffle in the time of the Roman Empire. But I couldn’t say what her power was or what era she lived in or any of that. I couldn’t even guess, not even taking material from the wildly inaccurate plays and movies about her as I’ve seen none.
So it felt good to come out of this knowing the few truths we do know about her. She wasn’t Egyptian, rather Macedonian as most (all) of the Ptolemies were. She was a client queen who ruled at the mercy of the Roman Empire, though she had accumulated enough wealth and power that they needed her as much as she needed them. She ruled in Alexandria, perhaps the culture center of the world at the time. And her reign came to an end at the same time Octavian, later known as Augustus, rose to power.
Beyond that, we don’t know much else. Cleopatra’s power was solidified in her home country as the Egyptians had no problem with female rule. But this isn’t a girlboss narrative. Cleopatra arranged assassins, owned slaves, and put the lives of her subjects at the whims of Rome. Stacy Schiff uses what little source material there is on her to try and give us a full picture. She’s good at pointing out avenues in which Cleopatra’s political canniness helped her in situations with men, especially with the Romans and Herod. But she is careful not to overstate anything.
The focus of the book meanders at times and it could have been more tightly presented but this is still a very readable, easy-to-digest intro as to who Cleopatra was and the clues at to who she might have been.