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Cleopatra: A Life

3.62  ·  Rating Details  ·  73,636 Ratings  ·  4,122 Reviews
The Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer brings to life the most intriguing woman in the history of the world: Cleopatra, the last queen of Egypt.

Her palace shimmered with onyx, garnets, and gold, but was richer still in political and sexual intrigue. Above all else, Cleopatra was a shrewd strategist and an ingenious negotiator.

Though her life spanned fewer than forty years,
ebook, 371 pages
Published November 1st 2010 by Hachette Book Group, Little, Brown and Company (first published September 5th 2006)
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Jane Ebersole The Ptolemaic rulers are an interesting family beginning in Macedon, through Alexander the Great and beyond.

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First and foremost this is a history book. The plot is taken from real time 2,000 years ago. It hasn't been bloated with fantastical elements or intense drama. In fact, if you were reading this book as you would a work of fiction, you'll find yourself sadly lacking that same kind of connection to Cleopatra as you would to a main character in a novel. Why? Because Cleopatra is nearly unknowable. And she's not a fictional character. She's spoken of from a distance, seen more through the eyes of me ...more
Elizabeth Sulzby
So far, I am very disappointed in this book--by a Pulitzer Prize winning author. She uses very long paragraphs that should have been divided. She puts her points embedded so that it's hard for a reader to see what she intends to be significant. There are "clever" pieces that are not at all clever.

The author says she will not create material but may create context from other sources, but she does not give the reader cues. For example, in Chapter II she goes on and on about Cleopatra's education,
Stacy Schiff has a serious girl crush on Cleopatra. If you want to read 300 pages about how awesome Queen Cleo was, then this is the book for you!

I remembered little about the famous Egyptian ruler from world history class in high school, and I don't think the Elizabeth Taylor movie counts as a documentary, so Schiff's book felt like my introduction to Cleopatra. The book covers her family, her childhood, her education, her ability to charm and manipulate, her relationships with Julius Caesar an
Kelly A.

The number one thing that I learned from Cleopatra: A Life was this: I had deceived myself in thinking I knew anything about her before reading this book. Stacy Schiff digs deep into the life of one of the most well-known, yet misunderstood women in history. Most of us know her as the Egyptian queen who had affairs/children with both Caesar and Mark Antony, the two most powerful men of their age. She herself was much, much more than that.

Cleopatra was a fa
I picked Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra: A Life biography off the library's new releases shelf because 1) I recently realized that I hadn't read a biography since Plutarch's Greek Lives, maybe a decade ago and 2) the latest National Geographic had a cool article on the subject. Cleopatra: A Life was strong, full of detail and suspense, but evidenced some of what keeps me away from biographies in the first place.

I get the sense biography, like all writing, I suppose, is about choices. How will the biog
David Jacobs
Jan 26, 2011 David Jacobs rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Stacy Schiff has crafted, somehow, a new angle on one of the world's oldest great stories. By focusing on the first degree sources we have from the period (mostly from Roman scholars & historians, since Alexandria was destroyed by earthquakes), Schiff at once claims expertise but only in a context that is also accessible to the reader. At times Schiff's explanation of the sources and the perceived motivations of their authors feels plodding, but the framing of these sources is essential to S ...more
Kim Berkshire
Disappointed in this. Was really looking forward to it after it made so many Top 10 of 2010 lists, but I was sufficiently underwhelmed. Subject matter really interested me, so I would have been very forgiving, but this book jumped all over the place. One criticism I had read was that the author takes a lot of liberties based on her exhaustive research, some of which are just silly. Concur.
February and March are insanely busy and I usually find little time to read during these months, but even b
Jason Koivu
Jul 27, 2012 Jason Koivu rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra: A Life is speculative, board-line revisionist history. It is unabashedly pro-Cleopatra. Schiff looks at all the historical accounts - many of which did not paint the Egyptian queen in a kindly light - and attempts to distort the image so that the portrait favors her subject much more than history has. For all that, Schiff offers sound speculation. Her what-ifs and perhapses chime with the ring of truth. After all, history is written by the victors and in the end Cleopat ...more
"When Egypt Ruled the East" by George Steindorff this book is not.

I have read many books on Egyptian history all the way up through the Ptolemies who, somehow, through some sort of rhetorical magic, were made to be as dry and dull as dead leaves in winter in "Cleopatra: A Life." I have read many history books. I consider myself a bit of a connoisseur of the genre. I even inhale historical fiction. Some of these books have been utter and complete crap. I have manned up and finished books that wou
Grace Tjan
What I learned from this book (in no particular order):

1. Cleo was an insatiable vamp who seduced two of the most powerful men in Rome using her feminine wiles. Cleo might have used her wiles to seduce them, but both Julius and Mark were hardly paragons of chastity themselves: Julius specialized in seducing “aristocratic wives”, while Mark had numerous affairs with both single and married women.

2. Cleo looked like Elizabeth Taylor with too much mascara. We just don’t really know how she looked.
Sally Howes
"In one of the busiest afterlives in history she has gone on to become an asteroid, a video game, a cliché, a cigarette, a slot machine, a strip club, a synonym for Elizabeth Taylor. Shakespeare attested to Cleopatra's infinite variety. He had no idea." In the opening pages of CLEOPATRA: A LIFE, Stacy Schiff sets the tone for what is to follow, and frankly, I found it all, from the first page to the last, to be utterly and sublimely intoxicating. Schiff's reverence for Cleopatra and the umbrage ...more
Sep 12, 2011 Julia rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: feministy, biography
I labelled this one as "feministy," because I don't think that Stacy Schiff could deny her "let's re-examine Cleopatra's ACTUAL awesomeness as opposed to this hyper-sexualized harpy-witch-seductress-harlot nonsense" angle. Pulitzer Prize-winning past or no, Schiff delivers fluff here. Good fluff, feminist as opposed to misogynistic fluff, but fluff nonetheless. Grad school is starting to ruin me for reading things that aren't in academic journals; after Schiff would state a presumed fact, my int ...more
Michelle (True Book Addict)
I have been too long away from non-fiction so this book was a slow and difficult read for me. However, it was definitely worth the read. We all know the story of Cleopatra, a story we've probably been told from novels and/or movies. Cleopatra was a beautiful seductress who loved and manipulated two great men, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. But she was so much more. She was a Ptolemy...from a family who was well known for murdering each other to gain power...yet she was rare in this family in tha ...more
Stephanie Dray
I couldn't be more pleased about the resurgence of interest in Cleopatra VII of Egypt. Given that I've spent the past few years of my life working on a trilogy about Cleopatra's daughter starting with Lily of the Nile, I admit a ready bias in favor of Stacy Schiff's new biography. However, I believe that this book would appeal even to those who don't have an obsession with Egypt's most famous monarch.

Schiff's tone is easy and breezy--injecting humor and modern comparisons into this survey of the
Larry Wilson
I was very disappointed by this book, the primary reason being the author’s very choppy style. I found the style made it extremely hard to read with no flow to the narrative. Her style used strange placements of the basic sentence elements (I much prefer subject, verb, object order), a plethora of semi-colons and dashes, odd adverbs (use of “as well” and “too” when “also” would have been more appropriate), and multiple short sentences following each other when proper connectors would have greatl ...more
The number one most read and liked review of this book on this site is completely off-base and this review is pretty much going to be a defense of Cleopatra in response to Elizabeth Sulzby's unfair mischaracterization of the work (beginning with her ludicrous shelving of the piece as "historicalfiction").

As someone trained in the art of history research and writing, a history teacher, and a published historian, I found Cleopatra impressive and an eloquent piece of first-rate scholarship. Schiff
Dana Stabenow
Sep 03, 2015 Dana Stabenow rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: book-club, alexandria
So my book club read Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra last month.

Every single one of the extant sources who wrote about Cleopatra's life had an agenda, specifically to demonize Cleopatra and make hers a name to live in infamy

...her story is constructed as much of male fear as fantasy.

Cicero, Plutarch, Dio, Lucan, Schiff quotes them all extensively and compensates for their obvious bias by attempting to put the reader in that place and time. In this case the "devil" truly is in the details, right down to
It’s a very interesting book. I would say that Schiff's approach to Cleopatra was not only feminist, but also, and possibly foremost, critical. She did not take historians' accounts on their face value; she vigilantly evaluated everything they said, and provided her own commentary. Her images of Cleopatra, Cesar and Mark Anthony are fascinating, and the portrayal of Egyptian, Roman and Middle Eastern society quite eye opening.
Liz Nutting
The most common feminist approach to Biblical studies begins with the concept of a “hermeneutics of suspicion.” Roughly put, hermeneutics is the theory and principles of interpretation, in this context interpretation of the biblical texts themselves through critical study. A hermeneutics of suspicion approaches the texts with, well, suspicion—that is, it does not take the texts as given but is attentive to what is not said and who is not represented. In a feminist approach, biblical scholars are ...more
Mar 16, 2011 Madeline rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"Among the most famous women to have lived, Cleopatra VII ruled Egypt for twenty-two years. She lost a kingdom once, regained it, nearly lost it again, amassed an empire, lost it all. A goddess as a child, a queen at eighteen, a celebrity soon thereafter, she was an object of speculation and veneration, gossip and legend, even in her own time. At the height of her power she controlled virtually the entire eastern Mediterranean coast, the last great kingdom of any Egyptian ruler. For a fleeting m ...more
Jan 21, 2012 Mis rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Mis by: bookclub
I keep falling asleep on this book...way too clinical & dry:( I'm going to keep trying though, as some books get better after 1st couple chapters?
It did not get better. The writer seemed to have to keep reminding us that nothing of real fact is known of Cleopatra. Wasn't that kind of the point of her book to give a different perspective (that of a woman writing about a powerful & influential woman)? Which she sort of did...but I would imagine a much more lush, exciting, literary r
Jan 01, 2011 Jill rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography, history
The author clearly loved her subject--but the combination of a serious lack of hard evidence and a writing style I found pretentious significantly diminished my enjoyment of this book. While meticulously researched, the lack of verifiable evidence leads the author to take a series of side-notes that describe, in extensive detail, subjects only tangentially related to Cleopatra. The first half of the book was very difficult to get through because of this; it would perhaps have been better suited ...more
Rick Riordan
Nov 08, 2013 Rick Riordan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
It's amazing what a rich portrait Schiff created when we have so few sources to draw from about Cleopatra's life.
Barb Terpstra
Dec 05, 2010 Barb Terpstra rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
When I finished reading this book, I thought, oh, it was okay. But then I started telling a friend about it, and decided I like it much more than I thought. It is fascinating to me that there are really no images of Cleopatra, only her coin portraits are accepted as authentic. So here we have a woman, who "ruled Egypt for twenty-two years. She lost a kingdom once, regained it,nearly lost it again, amassed an empire, lost it all. A goddess as a child, a queen at eighteen . . . at the height of he ...more
Mo Shah
Jun 10, 2011 Mo Shah rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-in-2011
This one was one of the most highly rated books of the last year, so I added it to my reading list. I'm glad I did, although I'm not entire sure it lived up to its billing.

The author is erudite, and not afraid to show it. What she does successfully is to really give the reader an idea of the context of what the Roman world was like in those days, and the complex political world that was the mediterranean. Understanding that goes a long way to understanding the machinations in Rome and how how mu
May 06, 2015 Arminius rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Cleopatra began what was known of her reign in the year 51 BC. After being deposed by her brother, she was reinstated as the Egyptian Queen by a conquering Julius Caesar in 48 BC. After pleading her case to him and using her charm to seduce him she was free to rule Egypt unmolested. Unfortunately, Rome deteriorated into a Civil war after Caesars’s assignation. Caesar’s top general Mark Antony and his adopted son and nephew Octavian combined forces to defeat Caesar’s killer’s Cassius and Brutus a ...more
José Luís  Fernandes
I feel a bit divided over this book. While it successfully destroys many Roman biases against Cleopatra and myths, Schiff inflates Cleopatra’s genius quite a bit and her admiration for the Queen becomes too obvious. I’m neither very convinced she was a great strategist (although she was surely a very shrewd politician) nor that Marc Anthony’s end was due to her (she played an important role in Actium, but Anthony wasn’t exactly brilliant in any account and decidedly much worse in political terms ...more
One of those books that’s kind of disappointing, after all the hype, but you feel virtuous for having read it. The obvious problem is that so little is actually known about Cleopatra from firsthand or sympathetic sources that a real biography is impossible. Schiff has done a commendable job of presenting and assessing the available information but Cleopatra’s emotional presence is elusive; she probably raises more questions than she answers. I think I was hoping for a cleaner narrative along the ...more
EZRead eBookstore
I picked up “Cleopatra: A Life” (which sounds suspiciously like a rockstar bio) thinking it would be a nice piece of fluff. Peacock feather fans and asps and Elizabeth Taylor smooching Rex Harrison. What I actually read was an incredibly detailed depiction of her entire moment in time; from makeup to mathematics in Egypt. Author Stacy Schiff tries to debunk, not unlike Mythbusters, all of the fabulous legends that make Cleopatra interesting. The biggest one? Homegirl was ugly.

Actually, the debun
Jul 09, 2011 Michael rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Review from Badelynge.
In 2000 Stacy Schiff won a Pulitzer for her biography of Vera Nabokov, wife of Author Vladimir Nabokov. In this biography she casts her researching skills a little further back in time and tries to pierce the glare and glamour of mythology, push past the propaganda and traverse the abyss of 2000 years of history in search of Cleopatra VII. At hand she has a wealth of sources that might be as daunting as searching for truth buried by two millennia of hyperbole and obscuremen
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Stacy Schiff is the author of Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), winner of the Pulitzer Prize; Saint-Exupéry, a Pulitzer Prize finalist; and A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, winner of the George Washington Book Prize, the Ambassador Award in American Studies, and the Gilbert Chinard Prize of the Institut Français d'Amérique. All three were New York Times Notable Books; ...more
More about Stacy Schiff...

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“As always, an educated woman was a dangerous woman.” 93 likes
“[Cleopatra's] power has been made to derive from her sexuality, for obvious reason; as one of Caesar's murderers had noted, 'How much more attention people pay to their fears than to their memories!' 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.” 31 likes
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