I'm not a historian, and I feel as if I have massive holes in my historical knowledge, so this was an eye-opening work to me. I didn't really know anything about Cleopatra except for the legends (most of which are false). Even little things, such as the fact that Cleopatra wasn't Egyptian at all, but of Greek (Macedonian) descent, as were all of the Ptolemies.
I didn't fully grasp some of the Roman politics that swirled around Cleopatra because of her relationships with Julius Caesar, and then with Mark Antony. But what was very clear is that Cleopatra's image in popular culture and legend does her very little justice. We all know that history is written by the victors, and this is nowhere more evident than in the tall tales Roman historians give us about the last of the Egyptian monarchs.
In the final chapter, Schiff gives us an excellent summary both of how history has mischaracterized Cleopatra, and why.
It has always been preferable to attribute a woman's success to her beauty rather than to her brains, to reduce her to the sum of her sex life. Against a powerful enchantress there is no contest. Against a woman who ensnares a man in the coils of her serpentine intelligence--in her ropes of pearls--there should, at least, be some kind of antidote. Cleopatra unsettles more as sage than as seductress; it is less threatening the believe her fatally attractive than fatally intelligent.... It also makes a better story.
The personal inevitably trumps the political, and the erotic trumps all: We will remember that Cleopatra slept with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony long after we have forgotten what she accomplished in doing so, that she sustained a vast, rich, densely populated empire in its troubled twilight, in the name of a proud and cultivated dynasty.
The historians in Rome had their own agenda and either couldn't or wouldn't recognize Cleopatra for the strategic genius that she was. Stacy Schiff makes sure we don't make the same mistake. She corrects the legends, but in way that fails to diminish the mystery and magic that swirls around Egypt's last queen.