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Cleopatra: A Life

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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, it reshaped the contours of the ancient world. She was married twice, each time to a brother. She waged a brutal civil war against the first when both were teenagers. She poisoned the second. Ultimately she dispensed with an ambitious sister as well; incest and assassination were family specialties. Cleopatra appears to have had sex with only two men. They happen, however, to have been Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, among the most prominent Romans of the day. Both were married to other women. Cleopatra had a child with Caesar and–after his murder–three more with his protégé. Already she was the wealthiest ruler in the Mediterranean; the relationship with Antony confirmed her status as the most influential woman of the age. The two would together attempt to forge a new empire, in an alliance that spelled their ends. Cleopatra has lodged herself in our imaginations ever since.

Famous long before she was notorious, Cleopatra has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons. Shakespeare and Shaw put words in her mouth. Michelangelo, Tiepolo, and Elizabeth Taylor put a face to her name. Along the way, Cleopatra’s supple personality and the drama of her circumstances have been lost. In a masterly return to the classical sources, Stacy Schiff here boldly separates fact from fiction to rescue the magnetic queen whose death ushered in a new world order. Rich in detail, epic in scope, Schiff ‘s is a luminous, deeply original reconstruction of a dazzling life.

369 pages, Hardcover

First published November 1, 2010

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About the author

Stacy Schiff

17 books1,731 followers
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; the Los Angeles Times Book Review, the Chicago Tribune, and The Economist also named A Great Improvisation a Best Book of the Year. The biographies have been published in a host of foreign editions.

Schiff has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities and was a Director’s Fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. She was awarded a 2006 Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Schiff has written for The New Yorker, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Boston Globe, among other publications. She lives in New York City.

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Profile Image for Donna.
1,178 reviews
November 24, 2014
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 men around her than through her own lenses. If you're not interested in Caesarian Roman or Ptolemaic Egyptian history, you might not get much out of this book. But if you are, and you want to know more about the elusive Cleopatra, not the Elizabeth Taylor or Shakespeare version but the real person garnered from first hand accounts and a few words out of her own mouth, you'll guzzle this book up as if it were your life force.

The person of Cleopatra is the center of this book's universe with which all other events orbit. Unfortunately, the only way we can truly get to know Cleopatra now is by analyzing the events happening around her through the eyes of the people she's come in contact with. As I said above, this creates a sort of distance from her but it allows for a more objective look into her life. With these elements Schiff allows you to dissect her life and get a better hint of who Cleopatra was as a person, what her personality really was like and whether something of those scandalizing rumors really were true. Augustus Caesar did a good job of striking her from the history books. But not good enough. Here she remains to this day and Schiff did an excellent job of digging up the truth behind this woman we know next to nothing about. We barely even know what she looks like save for some sanctioned Ptolemaic coinage with her bust stamped onto it.

Despite the rampant incest (holy god, we're talking about a family stump here, ew) and homicidal tendencies, Cleopatra's ability to rule a kingdom was astonishing compared to any ruler, let alone a woman living, quite literally, in a man's world. That's not to say her reign was full of smooth sailing, but she knew how to talk, walk and act in order to get what she needed for her country. She put her country first above all else (except maybe her children). Just like the accounts of this book orbit around Cleopatra, every piece of minutiae of Cleopatra's life orbited around the success of her kingdom. It's hard to determine if she did something genuinely out of love or if it was show, but it was all for Egypt, ultimately. Even when she tried negotiating with the immovable Augustus after she swindled Antony into his own suicide, it was all political. It was Antony's only way to die on his terms and Cleopatra's last hope of saving her country.

Despite the distance I say this book creates between the reader and Cleopatra, it does an excellent job of forming a more accurate image of her in your mind's eye. That Elizabeth Taylor hussy image gets pushed aside as all of these missing pieces replace it, forming this real live person that feels more a part of history itself than just Hollywood. While the puzzle isn't complete, and probably never will be, Schiff does an fantastic job of digging up absolutely everything she can on this amazing woman and giving it to us as straight as can be. She doesn't hide what Cleopatra is, or what she potentially was. No secret is safe, nor even skewed. I felt like I was back during her reign, sitting on a cloud with the gods and watching all of these events unfold. Some of the images were blurry but they were clear enough to determine just what was going on.

While it took a little while for me to get through, this book is an excellent historical read. A must read for anyone interested in the life and times of Cleopatra without the fabrications of storytelling and millennia of innuendo. It's raw, it's unforgiving and you will come away from it being more knowledgeable about such a shadowy figure in history. And then you'll want to read it again to be sure you picked up all of the historical tidbits you may have missed.

If you want a good piece of fiction to follow this book with, you should pick up Cleopatra's Daughter by Michelle Moran. It picks up almost right where Cleopatra ends and Moran sticks pretty closely to the facts Schiff writes about. Honestly, I don't think you'll be able to stop at the end of Cleopatra. She's just far too interesting of a person.
Profile Image for Matt.
917 reviews28.2k followers
April 3, 2021
“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…”
- Stacy Schiff, Cleopatra: A Life

One of the things that children are really good at doing is reminding you of all the things you don’t know. At the dinner table, I am routinely confronted with the limits of my knowledge, whether that is mathematical, scientific, or historical. Cleopatra is a case in point. When she arose as a topic of conversation, I had literally nothing to add beyond “Queen of Egypt.” Everything else – from the time of her birth, the period of her reign, the impact of her existence, and the details of her end – was entirely unknown to me.

Thus, it was interesting to discover – shortly after opening Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life – that much of Cleopatra’s life is unknown even to those most devoted to studying her. Despite being “one of the most recognizable figures in history,” many of the most fundamental aspects of her time on earth – including what she looked like – elude us. What relatively-contemporary sources we have were often (as Schiff points out repeatedly) written by men in adverse positions of power, who were trying to paint a very particular picture of a bewitching seductress.

The lack of reliable sources and primary documentation does not keep Schiff from delivering one heck of a story.

In Cleopatra, an undaunted Schiff takes what we know about the famous queen, adds what we know about her contemporaries (especially Julius Caesar and Mark Antony), and combines that with a bunch of informed speculation to create a rollickingly fun portrait of a titanic figure of the ancient world.

Egypt has a long history of outsiders exerting influence over her. That tradition started a long time ago. In point of fact, despite being Egypt’s ruler, Cleopatra (technically Cleopatra VII) herself was not Egyptian, but a Macedonian Greek, a member of the Ptolemaic dynasty that was founded by one of Alexander the Great’s generals. Undoubtedly, there were many interesting facets to the Ptolemies. For me, though, the thing that really jumped out was their extreme fondness for incestuous unions. Marrying each other was just really high on their daily to-do list. Indeed, when Schiff properly opens her story on Cleopatra – after a helpful introductory chapter – she is at war with her brother, Ptolemy XIII, who is also her husband.

The course of this sibling war is dizzyingly confusing – and not just because of the tangled genealogical trees – especially if you are not already versed in this milieu. It involves a Roman civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey, in which Pompey was defeated and fled to Egypt. When he arrived, Ptolemy XIII had Pompey beheaded, and sent proof of that act to Caesar. Rather than being gratified at the death of his foe, Caesar – who appears to have had the emotional stability of the San Andreas Fault – was enraged, and called on Ptolemy XIII to disband his army. When Caesar came to Alexandria to see this done, Cleopatra had herself smuggled into his presence, beginning a relationship that would ultimately bring her control of most of the eastern Mediterranean coast.

Cleopatra had a child with Caesar, weathered the Ides of March, and then began one of the more famous relationships in history, with the Roman Mark Antony. Antony’s feud – and eventual civil war – with Octavian led to the downfall of both Antony and Cleopatra, and to Egypt becoming a Roman province.

Schiff narrates this in a lively style. This is not sedately written history. Rather, it is by turns wry, witty, scathing, and glib. There are times when this was overwritten, when I had to read a sentence twice to get its meaning, but I prefer author-historians who recognize that writing is a craft. If the prose is dry and lifeless, it really does not matter how well-researched, scholarly, or informed a book is, because the chances are that I’ll stop reading. Schiff has an engaging approach that – for its occasional faults – is never less than interesting.

As I mentioned above, the record on Cleopatra is spotty. This requires Schiff to engage in a good deal of conjecture. There is a higher usage of “would have,” “could have,” and “might have” than in most histories, but this is simply unavoidable. Plutarch, for instance, was one of Cleopatra’s main chroniclers, but he was not born until nearly eighty years after the queen’s death. It’s therefore hard to know where he came by his information. Schiff is forced into a lot of guesswork, using whatever other evidence is at hand to support her theories.

No amount of informed reasoning can fill the huge gaps that exist. Schiff makes do by providing some vivid descriptions of Cleopatra’s environment. For example, she does a wonderful job evoking the city of Alexandria at the height of its glory:

From east to west the city measured nearly four miles, a wonderland of baths, theaters, gymnasiums, courts, temples, shrines, and synagogues. A limestone wall surrounded its perimeter, punctuated by towers, patrolled at both ends of the Canopic Way by prostitutes. During the day Alexandria echoed with the sounds of horses’ hooves, the cries of porridge sellers or chickpea vendors, street performers, soothsayers, moneylenders. Its spice stands released exotic aromas, carried through the streets by a thick, salty sea breeze. Long-legged white and black ibises assembled at every intersection, foraging for crumbs. Until well into the evening, when the vermillion sun plunged precipitously into the harbor, Alexandria remained a swirl of reds and yellows, a swelling kaleidoscope of music, chaos, and color…

Part of the reason that I avoid reading about antiquity is the aforementioned lack of details. It’s the little things that make up life, and without them, the distant past feels like a different planet. Here, Schiff has done a lot of work to gather up as many evidentiary scraps as she could, stitching them together to create an impressive mosaic. The tale is in the telling. Is it all one-hundred percent dead-on accurate? No, but Schiff is upfront about explaining where the seams show, and of comparing sources when they contradict each other. If it is not the verifiable truth – which is a near-impossible standard no matter the historical era – it certainly feels true. In this book’s best moments, Cleopatra no longer feels so remote, separated by two millennia. Instead, she comes alive in these pages, playing her high-stakes game with Rome, with all the world to win, and only her life to lose.
Profile Image for Elizabeth Sulzby.
579 reviews134 followers
April 3, 2014
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, including details about her oral reading, her rhetorical skills, etc., for at least 6 pages then, finally, she cites Plutarch for her end-point educational achievements (most of which have been given over and over in other work about Cleopatra).

I appreciated the author's judgments about the difficulties of a Greek speaker learning Egyptian of that era, demotic and formal, compared with the difficulties of an Egyptian speaker learning Greek. But I did not find her showing evidence whether or not these were generalizations or actually the case with Cleopatra.

I also found boring the detailed accounts of the Ptolemies' intermarriages, of the ruthless executions of family members in line of succession, and of the conflict brought on by the Macedonia ancestry of the Ptolemies, including Cleopatra, simply because there are other sources for this. (I see I have written one of those sentences that I have blamed Schiff for. Blush.)

This book may be useful for readers who haven't studied Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, etc., before. I also consider it useful for the broader discussion of the many women of educational achievement of this era. I also found her description of the Alexandrian library and the tutor/scholars making use of it during her education.

I'm going to give the author another chapter and if it doesn't improve, I'll put it aside for other sources.

Addition August 2011: I have read more parts of the book now and still have the same reactions. I am hoping some other Goodreads reviews will point me to unique, useful, and artistic aspects of this prizewinning historical fiction.
Profile Image for Matt.
3,718 reviews12.8k followers
January 29, 2021
There is something about biographies of people you hear so much about but know so little that stirs me up. Anyone who mentions the name ‘Cleopatra’ is sure to have an image in their mind, if only the depiction that Elizabeth Taylor made of the Egyptian queen in 1963. Stacy Schiff takes the reader along a winding adventure into the world before the Common Era, where actions to unite came at the cost of land and life, both bloody endeavours. Through her tedious research, Schiff brings to life a woman known by few but whose name is synonymous with regality. A brilliant depiction here, if heavy on history. Perfect for the biography fanatic, as well as those curious about a complicated woman in history.

Born into the Ptolemaic dynasty that ruled Egypt, Cleopatra was of Macedonia Greek origin at a time of much political and geographic change. Her family ruled over the region with an iron fist and would not diminish themselves to speak Egyptian, choosing Greek for their daily interactions. However, Cleopatra did eventually learn the language and customs of the locals, if only to further strengthen her time as ruler of the region.

After the death of her father, Ptolemy XII, Cleopatra was required to serve as co-ruler of Egypt with her brothers, Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV, both of whom she had to marry, as per Egyptian custom. However, neither liaison brought about children and Cleopatra was soon able to cast them off and reigned alone, ingratiating herself with the locals by citing that she was the reincarnated Egyptian goddess, Isis. With Egypt being eyed by Rome as a potential item of acquisition, Cleopatra headed to Europe to liaise with Julius Caesar, an event that led to a secret tryst, leaving Cleopatra the Emperor's mistress.

Nine months later, Cleopatra bore a son from this union, whom she named Caesarian, or little Caesar. Upon Caesar's assassination in the Roman Senate, Cleopatra found herself in an interesting position, both as the mother of the Emperor's child and as ruler of Egypt; she had to choose a side to fill the Roman void.

Turning to back Marc Antony, Cleopatra and all of Egypt held their collective breath as the Roman Civil War grew in fervour, pitting Antony against Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (later known as Augustus). While events in Rome were becoming bloodier, Egypt stood in the middle as the prized possession of both factions, with Cleopatra still holding the reins of power. Her backing Antony turned romantic and Cleopatra bore him twins, Cleopatra II and Alexander Helios, as well as another son, Ptolemy Philadelphus. Their passion was strong and Schiff left the impression that it might have helped Cleopatra see Egypt as both fertile in its political and cultural heterogeneity.

Schiff discusses a fairly significant hierarchy between the common Egyptian and the upper-class Greeks and Mesopotamian. During the Roman Civil War, Schiff also discusses Cleopatra fervour to exact revenge on enemies within the state, quelling any who spoke out against her, including a sister that threatened her hold on power, and sentiments that might have been interpreted as against Antony's forces.

After the loss at a key battle, Antony attempted suicide in shame, though the historical narrative differs at this point, depending on which account the reader might follow. Schiff presents both the idea that Cleopatra learned of her lover's death and killed herself, or had Marc Antony brought to her on the verge of death and witnessed his final breath, before allowing herself to be bitten by an asp.

The reader can parse through this and some of the other accounts to come up with their own personal finale, but all the same, Cleopatra's life centred around reigning the land eventually subsumed into the new Roman Empire and her passionate connection with two famous Romans, both firmly established in the record books. A biography thick with information, nuances, and powerful symbolism, Schiff is sure to impress any reader to dares take the time to investigate the life and times of this most famous Egyptian ruler.

This is my second Schiff biography (and my second time with this piece), which seeks to shed light on powerful and controversial women in history. The attentive reader will no doubt realise the onerous task of trying to amass a biography of a woman as popular as Cleopatra.

Misnomers pepper the historical record, making the discovery of a true story all the more difficult, though Schiff does a formidable job in collecting a thread by which the reader can follow events somewhat fluidly. Additionally, all formal documents were created either in that time before the Common Era or within a hundred years thereafter, let alone that many were penned in languages that have either since died or been significantly altered.

Schiff shows readers why she is worthy of another Pulitzer for her detailed work in weaving a digestible biography, adding fact to a narrative chock full of dates and political happenings. I found things difficult to follow at times, which could be a mix of my own mental acuity and the amount of information each chapter presented, though Schiff is not to blame for my lack of cognizance. I only wish I could have latched on better to what was being presented, as I am sure I could have ascertained even more out of this wonderful piece. Told frankly and succinctly, Schiff does a masterful job that anyone with a passion and curiosity for biographies will find endearing and truly captivating.

Kudos, Madam Schiff for another wonderful biography. I am eager to find more that you have written down the road as I continue to expand my knowledge of areas in which I am interested but know very little.

Love/hate the review? An ever-growing collection of others appears at:

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/...
Profile Image for Diane.
1,080 reviews2,652 followers
January 14, 2015
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 and Mark Antony, the political climate in Rome and Alexandria, her death, and her enduring appeal.

"Among the most famous women to have lived, Cleopatra VII ruled Egypt for 22 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 18, 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 moment she held the fate of the Western world in her hands. She had a child with a married man, three more with another. She died at 39, a generation before the birth of Christ. Catastrophe reliably cements a reputation, and Cleopatra's end was sudden and sensational. She has lodged herself in our imaginations ever since."

Throughout the book, Schiff relates what various historians and storytellers have written over the years about Cleopatra, pointing out inconsistencies or motives, and she also offers her own ideas about the queen. I appreciated this inclusion of narratives, especially since some writers had their own agenda. Schiff's opinions were generally about how smart and shrewd Cleopatra was, and how she could orchestrate events to her liking or how she could manipulate political figures (mostly).

My complaint about the book was how dense it could be; Schiff sometimes got bogged down in too many trivial details that slowed down the narrative. But overall, the prose is lovely and engaging, and I enjoyed listening to this on audio, read by Robin Miles. I would recommend this to fans of history and girl power, obviously.

Favorite Quotes:
"Can anything good be said of a woman who slept with the two most powerful men of her time? Possibly, but not in an age when Rome controlled the narrative. Cleopatra stood at one of the most dangerous intersections in history: that of women and power. Clever women, Euripides had warned hundreds of years earlier, were dangerous."

"From an early age she enjoyed the best education available in the Hellenistic world, at the hands of the most gifted scholars, in what was incontestably the greatest center of learning in existence: The library of Alexandria and its attached museum were literally in her backyard. The most prestigious of its scholars were her tutors, its men of science her doctors. She did not have to venture far for a prescription, a eulogy, a mechanical toy, a map."

"Two thousand years of bad press and overheated prose, of film and opera, cannot conceal the fact that Cleopatra was a remarkably capable queen, canny and opportunistic in the extreme, a strategist of the first rank. Her career began with one brazen act of defiance and ended with another ... Boldly and bodily, she inserted herself into world politics, with wide-reaching consequences. She convinced her people that a twilight was a dawn and — with all her might — struggled to make it so. In a desperate situation, she improvised wildly, then improvised afresh, for some a definition of genius. There was a glamour and a grandeur to her story well before either Octavian or Shakespeare got his hands on it. Hers was an exhilarating presence; before she sent Plutarch many pages out of his way she had the same effect on his countrymen. From our first glimpse of her to the last, she dazzles for her ability to set the scene. To the end she was mistress of herself, astute, spirited, inconceivably rich, pampered yet ambitious."
Profile Image for Sara.
Author 1 book487 followers
June 10, 2017
Perhaps of all the historic characters we think we know, but don’t, Cleopatra ranks at the top of the list. Sometimes a legend is so well-known that we lose track of the fact that a real human being was living this story, fighting these battles, and harboring these emotions. What an extraordinary person she must have been to have lived through so much in her short thirty-nine years and to have influenced history in the way that she did.

First fact that I did not know. She was Cleopatra VII. There were five before her, but someone screwed up the count and she was officially #7. I think we would all agree that regardless of that fact, there was only ONE Cleopatra. Nothing like her has existed since the year 30 BC.

She was the exceptional woman who knew how to play with the men and come out on top. She was absolutely as smart as she was beautiful, and probably more so, since her beauty is not mentioned as often as her charm. She came to power in what might be termed a cruel and ruthless manner, being directly involved in the death of her siblings, but reality is that it was more a matter of survival than choice.

That her fate became linked with Marc Antony’s might have as much to do with playing the political game as it ever did with love or passion. She bore him three children, however, and it is hard to imagine that she did not feel very strong bonds with him beyond those of their interlaced political ambitions.

There exists but one word actually written by Cleopatra herself. Everything we know of her comes to us from other sources. Cicero, who despised her, is a major source, as is Plutarch, who lived between 45 and 120 AD. It takes a lot of research in multiple sources to assemble a true picture of her life, and Stacy Schiff has done the work. She has managed at the same time to make the account interesting and never boring or stale.

In the final insult to my knowledge of Cleopatra, I learned that it was most likely NOT an asp that killed her. The story does, however, date back to almost the moment of her death and was spread by Octavian for his own reasons. It fit so perfectly with the legend that already begun to spin around her and the images that were associated with the Ptolemies, that it stuck like glue.

“Before her came Eve, Medusa, Electra, and the Erinyes; when a woman teams up with a snake, a moral storm threatens somewhere.” Says Schiff. It explains well why historians preferred to pass along the fiction instead of the truth.

“Our fascination with Cleopatra has only increased as a result; she is all the more mythic for her disappearance. The holes in the story keep us under her spell.” She bewitches us from beyond the grave perhaps because we know so little about her personally and that gives us a blank slate on which we can write our own version of Cleopatra.

Having now finished this biography, I am anxious to find time to revisit my favorite Cleopatra story, the one penned by William Shakespeare. I will read it with an eye to how it differs from the truths we know about this enigmatic woman.
Profile Image for Felice Laverne.
Author 1 book3,202 followers
August 5, 2019
Released to rave reviews and the full packaging monty of its publisher, Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra took the NYT by storm in 2011, remaining there for months. And no wonder! This kamikaze of masterly writing, meticulous and thorough research, and humanizing hand of the author did a spectacular job of unmasking the woman behind the myth and debunking the lies we today call slander.

This is the biography of Queen Cleopatra VII Philopator (as the title implies) but it is done unlike any other. (PLEASE) remove the images of Liz Taylor in near-drag from your mind as you embark on this one, for this work is a truly stunning portrayal of the woman behind the parable. This biography delves into her marriages, her political decisions, her rise and her downfall. The flap said it all. In fact, it was the dazzling summary in the book flap that drew me in (rather than the razzle dazzle of Schiff’s renowned name on the cover and spine):

“Famous long before she was notorious, Cleopatra has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons…In a masterly return to the classical sources, Stacy Schiff boldly separates fact from fiction to rescue the magnetic queen whose death ushered in a new world order, a generation before the birth of Christ.” Honestly, I couldn’t have summed this one up better myself (and whoever wrote that flap summary, in its entirety, should be commended themselves).

This biography, mind you, was released before the (in my opinion) disastrous exposé that Schiff did on The Witches, back when I’d never heard of this Pulitzer Prize winner and my mind was free of all bias for what those pages might hold, for how her style of writing would or would not stimulate and intrigue me. So, I was delighted to find that even the very first line drew me in with a skill rivaling the best in fiction, and her knack for weaving a story out of the hard research and history lost—rather than numbing the reader’s mind with dull and tiresome fact after fact—kept me reading, and hooked.

“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.”

Thus go the very first two lines of this biographical tour de force. Schiff weaves the tale in three dimensions. The world—Cleopatra’s world—that she depicts is rich with detail, color, noise. Intrigue, scandal, but, best of all, skillful and methodical stripping away of the myths that surround the legend. Page by page, Schiff untangles the Queen from the lies that have torn her down and muddied her name and her legacy, her intelligence and her political savvy. She dissects the hard decisions made in the name of sovereignty and survival that have painted Cleopatra both the witch and the harlot for centuries, truly, millennia—detailing the actions that made the Queen while giving the reader the perspective of the Queen who made the actions.

No surprise that the same methods used to villainize women both today and historically were used to dismantle the legacy of a great ruler of that era; indeed, the last ruler of that era. But Schiff’s Cleopatra did not cower behind the wall of generations of myth and salaciousness. Everything from her genealogy and skin tone (about as disputed as that of Christ himself’s) to education and precarious upbringing were explored, and Schiff’s work did a masterly job of giving the reader a view of Cleopatra’s life from a thrilling perch, as if right on her shoulder the entire time.

Because of this work, I will most certainly give Schiff’s writing another chance. This page turner (I literally finished half of it in one sitting) made me laugh with the satirical jabs that Schiff managed to aim at the lies surrounding her muse. It brought me to tears—yes, real ones!—at the climactic conclusion that left a queen and her lover dead and an era at an end. And the clever style of writing itself was witty, intellectual, adroit and entertaining to say the least. My copy was left full of highlighted passages and marginal notes; the best kind of read, if you ask me. 5 stars *****


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Profile Image for Jason Koivu.
Author 7 books1,225 followers
March 25, 2016
Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra: A Life is speculative, borderline revisionist history. It is unabashedly pro-Cleopatra, and ya know what? That's okay!

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 Cleopatra was written about by those Romans who were victorious over her.

What saves Schiff's work from utter sycophancy is that she always lets the reader know that she is offering up alternative possibilities to what may or may not have happened. She never tricks the reader into thinking her statements are fact. Any guess is stated as such.

It's a tall order writing about a woman 2000 years dead, about whom little is truly known even though she's arguably the most famous woman in history. Even without much concrete evidence to go on, Schiff was still able to put together a relatively lengthy biography, and an enjoyably written one at that. It gives just enough background info through numerous footnotes on the movers-and-shakers and the momentous moments of the day. Life in the Mediterranean two millennia ago for the rulers and ruled, with Cleopatra at the center of all things, is richly related within.

Highly recommended for those with an interest in learning about only the most famous woman ever!
Profile Image for Emily.
Author 8 books24 followers
January 19, 2011
"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 would defeat a lesser soul simply because it might have a tidbit, a _fact_, a grain of something cool lurking inside.

But wow does this book need an editor. I cannot tell if Stacy Schiff was covering for being far more interested in the Romans than the Egyptians, or simply having more knowledge of the Romans, or just seriously not liking the Latin language or what, but this book is so padded with passive tense that I cannot be certain that she is speaking authoritatively on anything. It comes off like: "Cicero who MAY HAVE somehow sort of rubbed against Cleopatra who MAY HAVE spent some time in Rome with Julius Caesar MAY HAVE said something bad about her but WITHOUT SPEAKING HER NAME so WHO KNOWS." Now read 384 pages like that. You get the general idea. Toss in paragraphs that are overwritten and that's the whole book.

I will openly admit that the sheer terribleness of this book defeated me in mortal combat. I didn't make it to the end. After a while, I didn't care any more. I wanted to throw the book against the wall -- except that would have broken my Kindle and I would have been sad. And this is me with a book on Egypt. Anything Egypt. Me. Egypt. I will drag people across oceans to stare at dead people from the sands in dusty museums and I couldn't finish this book! That's how bad it is.

Some little bits of this book actually had a little sparkle. When it stumbled aimlessly on a topic where Schiff knew enough to speak authoritatively, it was kind of interesting. Contrasts between Alexandria and Rome. Contrasts in Greek Alexandra vs. Egyptian Memphis. Some comments on trade. This bought the book an extra star and kept it from the one star trash can. Every once in a while there is a ray of hope among the rhetorical trash. But then it fades away and I was sad in snow.

But for the most part? Blech. Avoid. This book is a massive disappointment.
Profile Image for Rick Riordan.
Author 492 books402k followers
November 8, 2013
It's amazing what a rich portrait Schiff created when we have so few sources to draw from about Cleopatra's life.
Profile Image for Lorna.
678 reviews367 followers
June 15, 2022
Cleopatra: A Life by Pulitzer-prize winning historian Stacy Schiff was well-researched and well-sourced biographical account of the life of Cleopatra. Ms. Schiff does a good job of trying to separate the myth as well as the mystique of the life of Cleopatra from the romantic accounts by Shakespeare to George Bernard Shaw in poetry to the historical record. As Schiff points out, much of the confusion arises from the fact that Cleopatra's family styled themselves as pharaohs for ten generations when in fact, the Ptolemies were Macedonian Greek.

"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 moment she held the fate of the Western world in her hands. She had a child with a married man, three more with another. She died at thirty-nine, a generation before the birth of Christ. Catastrophe reliably cements a reputation, and Cleopatra's end was sudden and sensational. She has lodged herself in our imaginations ever since. Many people have spoken for her, including the greatest playwrights and poets; we have been putting words in her mouth for two thousand years."

This was a factual historical account of what is known about the life of Cleopatra and her ascendency to the throne of Egypt and her twenty-two year reign. This historical narrative beginning with her family and its interesting dynamics. There was a lot of emphasis on how her father had contributed to her education making sure that she was literate as well as able to communicate in many different languages all of which stood her in good stead as she ruled Egypt and the Mediterranean. Of course, no account of Cleopatra would be complete without knowing of her relationships with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. All in all, this was a riveting historical perspective on such an important figure in the world's history.
Profile Image for Kelly A..
168 reviews32 followers
September 17, 2010

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 fabulously rich woman. In contemporary terms, her net worth would be around $95.8 billion dollars. She was worth more than three Queen Elizabeth IIs. Amazingly, she also lived in a culture were women were greatly empowered. A woman in first century B.C. could choose her own husband, own property, grant their own divorces, operate businesses, and serve as priests. As much as one third of Egypt was controlled by female hands.

There are many other things that stick out to me about Cleopatra's life. The biggest was her incestuous family ties. Her grandparents were uncle and niece, her parents were brother and sister, and Cleopatra herself was married to both of her brothers. I question how there were no physical or mental deformations! Another interesting point pertains to her beauty. Third century A.D. records call her "strikingly exquisite" in appearance, while those of the Middle Ages say she was "famous for nothing but her beauty." Shakespeare raves about her looks. However, her contemporaries, those who actually knew and saw her, say nothing about her beauty. In fact, her appearance was called "not remarkable." Quite different from what most of us have heard about her!

Stacy Schiff wrote an extremely entertaining book full of fun, interesting facts. I loved her sarcastic voice and the humor she injected into the characters. I will say that it seems to drag on forever at the end. The story began to focus too much on Mark Antony and the military, which quickly lost my interest. I skimmed the last 100 pages. That being said, I'd rate it 3.5 stars; the plethora of amazing facts was overshadowed by the fact that I felt I had to force myself to even finish it.
Profile Image for Hannah.
591 reviews1,051 followers
February 17, 2019
This was incredible. The depth in which Stacy Schiff took her book is incredible, both in scope as well as in narrative prowess. She takes a story that has been told countless times and meticulously shows how that picture we all have of Cleopatra, the last Ptolemaic queen, has been influenced and changed over the centuries and what might be the truth underneath all the propaganda. And she does it with wry wit and a wonderful sense of pacing.

I obviously knew the bare bones of the story going in (Cleopatra smuggling herself into Caesar’s camp, having a child with him, Caesar being killed [Et tu, Brute?], her having children with Marc Antony, Civil War between Marc Antony and Octavian, her death by snake venom) but Stacy Schiff showed me how large the holes in my knowledge are in fact. I am in absolute awe of this achievement in research and in story telling. Sometimes the details got a little bit overwhelming but overall Schiff manages to comprise this crucial part of history into a narrative that left me engaged until the very end.

What struck me most while listening to this book was how very different the Romans were – my history teachers always emphasized the Roman Empire as the birth place of Europe as we know it but Schiff shows exactly how different Roman culture if from my own. The actions some of these men took make literally no sense from a modern viewpoint – and Schiff makes no attempt to give them other reasonings except for the ones written down by the actors themselves. Marc Antony in particular often acts in a way that seems highly illogical but obviously makes sense in the cultural framework. I have a lot to think about now, about the way in which I view the world mostly.

I also take away from this book a whole new appreciation of Cleopatra – she is my hero; she was clever and shrewed and witty and apparently so charismatic that men promised her the world. I just wish we had more things she had written herself because even though this is her story it is also always framed by the men in her life – and many of them did not appreciate her in the slightest.
Profile Image for Maja  - BibliophiliaDK ✨.
1,076 reviews631 followers
September 14, 2019

✨ Popsugar Reading Challenge 2019✨
✨✨A book by an author whose first and last name start with the same letter✨✨

Biographies can fall into one of two categories: academic or entertainment. While this book was clearly first and foremost entertainment, there is not doubt in my mind that a lot of academic work proceeded its making. There is so much research and work put into this book, but all the same it reads almost like a novel. Schiff's ability to set the stage and the mood is unparalleled and makes this a very singular biographical book.

"[...] in the absence of facts, myth rushes in, the kudzu of history."


Setting the stage: Usually when I read biographies I loath the times when the author shifts focus from the subject at hand to the surrounding circumstances. That's often because I have the feeling that the author only touches upon these things because without them, the subject matter is too narrow for an entire book. However, I did not get that feeling when Schiff did it in this book because it was done so extremely well. It really felt like added value and not merely weaving!

"For well over two thousand years, a myth has been able to outrun and outlive a fact."

Sources: I am always impressed when authors demonstrate their knowledge of their sources and Schiff definitely knew hers! She was really good at pointing out strengths and weaknesses for each of her sources in an easily understandable and even humorous way.

Writing: Three words are all that's needed: Engaging, easy and enlightening!

"Apollodorus came, Caesar saw, Cleopatra conquered, a sequence of events that does not necessarily add up in her favour."


Notes: Being an historian I missed notes and citations. I understand why they weren't included, but I missed them all the same...

Profile Image for Grace Tjan.
188 reviews506 followers
March 4, 2011
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. The only surviving images of her are stylized coin portraits. Accounts that were written during or shortly after her lifetime didn’t say much about her looks, while later sources seems to have exaggerated her beauty to fit the vampy seductress mold. However, as a Macedonian Greek, she must have looked Caucasian, thus probably closer to the aforementioned Ms. Taylor than say, Queen Latifah.

3. Mark Antony looked like Richard Burton. Mark Antony was “broad-shouldered, bull-necked, ridiculously handsome, with a thick head of curls and aquiline features.” Who knows, he might have looked like a certain Welsh actor. They both surely drank a lot.

4. Cleo was a dumb floozy who had nothing going on for her except her seductive beauty. As a Ptolemaic princess, Cleo received a first rate education by ancient standards, which is to say that she was well versed in mathematics, astronomy/astrology, Greek philosophy and literature, and rhetoric. According to Plutarch, she spoke nine languages, in addition to Egyptian, which other Ptolemaic rulers didn’t even bother to learn. She managed to make herself the absolute ruler of Egypt, while preserving her country’s independence against Roman encroachment for almost two decades. She must have been a pretty smart lady to be able to accomplish such feats.

5. Cleo was an incestuous queen who murdered her siblings to gain the throne of Egypt. Essentially true. The Ptolemies followed the ancient Egyptian custom of royal intermarriages. She was married to her 13-year old brother (prior to fighting him for the throne and causing him to be killed by Caesar’s men), and then to another brother. She also had her sister Arsinoe, a rival claimant to the throne, murdered. But to be fair, murdering relatives had been a centuries old tradition in her family, and those siblings would not have hesitated to off her if they had the chance anyway.

6. Ptolemaic Alexandria was an astounding city of Cecil B. de Millean proportions. Alexandria’s famous lighthouse (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world), library and gymnasium dwarfed anything in other 1st century B.C. cities. Forty-foot tall sculptures of former Cleopatras greeted new arrivals in its harbor. At least one “colossal hawk-headed sphinx” towered over the palace wall. “Glossy thirty-foot long sphinxes” guarded the temples. The Canopic Way, Alexandria’s main drag, could accommodate eight chariots driving abreast. The cosmopolitan population was “hyperkinetic”. Rome was nothing but a staid, crude muddy hamlet in comparison.

7. Cleo corrupted the Romans with her Eastern luxuries and debaucheries. Orientalism nonsense that began as Octavian’s propaganda. It’s true that the Ptolemies threw the best parties in the ancient world (at one particular feast, the gold dinner vessels alone were said to have weighed 300 tons), but Cleo was also one of the richest ruler on earth, so she could well afforded them. Peacock-eating Romans could be perfectly extravagant and corrupt without any Eastern influences.

8. Cicero is the “greatest boaster alive”, a fawning hypocrite who “was perfectly capable of maligning a man one day and swearing eternal devotion to him the next.” Cleo didn't want to lend him her book (probably from the great library of Alexandria) and he spent the rest of his life maligning her.

9. Herod was an “entertaining” friend of Mark’s who later turned treacherous. He was also a fake Jew who probably didn’t deserve the throne of Judaea. Herod and Cleo fought over asphalt and balsam monopolies, and this resulted in Flavius Josephus maligning her.

10. Cleo killed herself by putting an asp to her bared breast. Painters and moviemakers love this scene. But it’s most probably not true. Cleo, a “woman who is known for her crisp decisions and meticulous planning” would surely have hesitated to entrust her fate to an unreliable wild animal. She had plenty of quicker, less painful options, such as the poisons that she was reported to have experimented with. It was also as well a little too convenient to be killed by the royal emblem of Egypt: the snake made more symbolic than practical sense. Octavian did display a model of Cleo with an asp in his triumph, and this was probably where the legend started.

“…We are left to square intelligible decisions with obscure accounts…”, Schiff wrote of the contradictory historical accounts about Antony and Cleopatra’s conduct at the battle of Actium. The same might be said of virtually all historical accounts about her, be they written by Plutarch, Suetonius, Dio, Josephus or others. If your agenda is to remove 2,000 years of sexist and/or orientalist distortions from Cleopatra’s portrait, which account are you going to accept as reliable and which are not? Are you going to accept those that support your thesis only and disregard those that do not, even though they are consistent with other accounts? After all, “no story in the ancient world is unvarnished”. In Cleopatra’s case, the varnish might have been so thick and persistent that it has become virtually impossible to remove.

Schiff’s book is an entertaining, occasionally snarky, impressively detailed reconstruction of what Cleopatra might have been like, but there were times when I wondered whether she was just as biased as her ancient predecessors. What really happened 2,000 years ago? Who knows?

3,5 stars.
Profile Image for Larry Wilson.
1 review1 follower
April 27, 2011
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 greatly improved the flow. There were instances where her usage could have been much simpler and, in some situations, I found there were unnecessary added commas. Basically, her writing drove me nuts!

I also thought that the author frequently introduced new events or characters without the appropriate amount of background information. Perhaps a listing of the primary characters at the beginning of the book would have helped here; I noticed that War and Peace provided such a list. The bottom line is that I didn’t think she did a good job of putting together and telling the story.

As to the content of the book, it appeared that the author had done a good job of researching her subject and the times. Having studied Latin for four years in high schook, I felt that the content of this book put a lot of the times and persons in context. If this had not been the case, I would have rated the book even lower.

Lastly, I think the author could have done a better job of providing some relevance to our current world. Other than making sure we understood how amazing a person Cleopatra was, I’m not sure she gave me a lot that I took away from reading this book.

See all my book ratings at: http://www.wilsonld.com/weblog/
Profile Image for Bren fall in love with the sea..
1,574 reviews272 followers
February 29, 2020
“As always, an educated woman was a dangerous woman.”
― Stacy Schiff, Cleopatra: A Life

I found this book to be good but not exceptional. Part of that is that I have read so many books on Cleopatra. My favorite is "I Cleopatra" which was published in the seventies and I really look to that book as being the Gold Standard of all things Cleopatra.

Also this book is difficult to get into..at least at first. I did warm up to it but some aspects were more interesting then others. I appreciate all the research that must have gone into this. It was an educational read.

But certain parts dragged and I did struggle with some of it. I'd still recommend it to Historical Fiction buffs and especially to anyone interested in the life of Cleopatra but "I Cleopatra" will always be my favorite Cleopatra book.
Profile Image for Kim Berkshire.
164 reviews5 followers
April 18, 2012
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 by those standards, it should not have taken me two months to read this book.
Profile Image for BAM the enigma.
1,848 reviews360 followers
March 4, 2017
Reading the introduction I realize what a monumental project writing a biography of Cleopatra must have been for Schiff. Sources are questionable and rare, many dating hundreds of years after the events occurred.
Cleopatra was a sensation during her lifetime. A diplomat, economist, politician, fashion plate, and "outsize personality", Cleopatra built an empire throughout the Mediterranean region. With the help of Julius Caesar, at the age of 21 Cleopatra won both her throne and her citizens back. Caesar, as we all know, was enthralled by her. But the question of who seduces whom is debated. What is known is that Caesar fell in love with Egypt and impregnated the queen.
Discussing the economy of Egypt, Schiff compares it to the Soviet Union. Most of what harvested, brewed, herded, etc was owned by the government, including the land itself. Revenues were submitted to officials who deducted expenses and rent. "The reassuring message was 'nobody is allowed to do what he wishes, but everything is arranged for the best.'" Due to this royal monopoly Cleopatra,of course, made huge profits. These riches were what attracted Rome to Alexandria.
After Caesar's demise, Cleopatra casts her wiles in the direction of his cousin, Marc Antony, a renowned commander and philanderer with a penchant for drink. This was an unacceptable relationship in the eyes of Octavian, Julius' successor. Great battles ensued, lives were lost, treasures confiscated.
Cleopatra's reputation as a wanton and sexual manipulator comes down to us from writing hundreds of years after her demise. Schiff shuffles through several ancient sources to determine who the real ruler was as a mother, a lover, and a queen. She gives all perspectives whether positive or negative for the reader to digest.
For a historical fiction version of this book look to Margaret George's The Memoirs of Cleopatra. It's obvious these two authors found the same resources.

Thanks to Schiff for choosing to use English spellings of names and places instead of transliterations. I get bogged down reading that.

Buddy Read with Matt Pechey-thanks for the recommendation!

Lenten nonfiction Reading Challenge book #3
Profile Image for Nicholas.
552 reviews62 followers
February 28, 2014
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 does what very few historians writing for a popular audience do: she provides a compelling and fascinating historiography of sources on her subject. By default, she has to. There are no extant original sources for the life of Cleopatra as there are for individuals like Caesar, Octavian or Cicero. Even archeology is difficult; the final resting place and mausoleum of Cleopatra has never been found and large parts of her palace have since sunk into the Mediterranean making excavation difficult as a matter of course. Schiff makes the detective work of constructing the life of Cleopatra both illuminating and fun. While narrating the pieces of her life we can put together from sources outside Ptolemaic Egypt and making inferences from more well-documented lives of pharoahs (and women) in Alexandria to provide context and supplement the guesswork, Schiff engages in fantastic detective work while providing a sort of meta-analysis of the divergent sources on Cleopatra's life - examining motive, politics, historical context and sociocultural factors that are illuminating and insightful. Schiff's biography is as much a story of the tales of Cleopatra and why they were told (almost universally to shore up patriarchy in different ages and to serve as a cautionary tale against the empowerment and education of women) as it is the fragmentary accounting of a poorly documented and important life. Those who want the rich detail that the solid record-keeping of western bureaucracies provide from late antiquity on will no doubt be disappointed by the lack of verifiable details, but I would still say that there's much to learn about the myth of Cleopatra and what it means to Western civilization and its Roman mania since the collapse of the Republic.

What Schiff does best is analyze the remarkable achievements of the young pharaoh and set a stark counterpoint to the oversexualized Elizabeth Taylor image that has persisted of Cleopatra since the time of her contemporaries. It's work in history that needs more attention. I can't think of a single significant female figure from history whose success hasn't been attributed at least in part to her sex appeal (or being at least partially crazy). Intelligent and powerful women in the traditional historical narrative either sleep their way to the top or pursue power and education "like men" - a characteristic unbefitting their sex. Schiff makes it her primary focus to shed light on what we do know of an Alexandrian upbringing in the Ptolemy family, what the sources say about her carriage and demeanor, her education, her political acumen in retaining power and expanding the influence of the Ptolemaic dynasty, and the wisdom with which she ruled her people. Passages focusing on these attributes are placed in contrast to what misogynistic Romans and their cultural descendants recalled of her. In Schiff's words,
"Her 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. 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 to believe her fatally attractive than fatally intelligent...She remains on the map for having seduced two of the greatest men of her time, while her crime was to have entered into those same "wily and suspicious" marital partnerships that every man in power enjoyed. She did so in reverse and in her own name; this made her a deviant, socially disruptive, an unnatural woman. To these she added a few other offenses. She made Rome feel uncouth, insecure, and poor, sufficient cause for anxiety without adding sexuality to the mix."

Schiff's work explores the various ways Cleopatra threatened male ego by unpacking the rumors and tales that occlude the truth.

Schiff does not "create material" and is very careful to source passages describing her subject (in fact the sourcing is part of the story). I don't understand the criticism of the six page analysis of the political and educational climate of Ptolemaic Egypt in chapter two that Schiff uses to allow the reader to understand the conditions that forged the character and ambitions of Cleopatra. Plutarch is cited as a source for this context. So what? Sulzby asserts most of this information has been given "over and over in other works about Cleopatra." Again, so what? Chances are your average popular reader hasn't read Plutarch; furthermore, even if they had, why is it such a terrible thing to remind people of even if they knew it to begin with? Especially when placing such details in an entirely new light?

I found the recounting of the Ptolemies' intermarriages and familial politics to be rather engrossing and engagingly told on Schiff's part. She doesn't overburden the narrative with mazes of succession and settles instead for leaving the reader with the general feeling of the paranoid and vicious political atmosphere in which Cleopatra was raised to explain her actions during the war with her brother and the subsequent "removal" of her family from the political equation. While the story can get tangled here, memorization of the intricacies is not necessary and relevant details are reviewed at appropriate moments of real analysis.

As for the book being useful for "people who haven't studied Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, etc., before," I'd have to agree. It's a fantastic introduction to those characters, but the spirit in which that compliment is delivered seems to suggest that there are better narratives of their lives out there. For the men in that list, I'd be inclined to agree, but the purpose of this biography was to illuminate the life of Cleopatra and how her male contemporaries helped shape the choices she made and the subsequent narrative of her life. The details of the personality, achievements and legacy of the supporting cast of characters is concisely told and thoroughly analyzed without straying from the focus. This is not a history of the end of Republican Rome or the beginning of the Empire after all. If anything, I think Schiff does a remarkable job encouraging curious readers to seek out more information, while placing these figures in the grander narrative of Cleopatra's life - seeing them as she would rather than as her earliest chronicles assumed she had.

As an historian I appreciated the copious notes and extensive source list used by Schiff. As a reader I thoroughly enjoyed her narrative flair and organizational skill. There need to be more re-examinations of prominent women in history just like this. Do yourself a favor and pick this one up. Read it. Thoughtfully. There's as much to wonder at in the magnificence of the ancient world as there is to learn about the roots of patriarchy.
Profile Image for 7jane.
677 reviews256 followers
September 26, 2020
Cleopatra unsettles more as sage than as seductress; it is less threatening to believe her fatally attractive than fatally intelligent.

Beauty? Intelligence (and running your country successfully for so long)!
Snake poison? No, poison that is just like going to sleep (no naked breast, but carefully positioned by two also-then-dying servant ladies, before the conqueror of your land finds out - this event was so well written in this book)!

This book aims to clear her name, to show that it was not the beauty and magic that made men scorn her, but her intelligence, power, and wealth (the last one especially) that caused her success and defeat, no matter who she was with at any point of time. So very soon after her death the misinformation and the legend started, but it was this point of history that introduced Rome to international influences, luxury, and other things that improved them and their power - including getting a decent calendar that would make knowing the time of year *and* the year - 'what year is it?' *lol* - easier.

There are two color-photo concentrations within the book, plus at the start the map of Alexandria and the map of eastern Mediterranean at the time of the greatest expansion of Cleopatra's rule, ad at the end some paintings as example, a short author interview, and reading group questions.

She was not ugly, but not beautiful (in a way say, Octavia, was. Octavia is actually one of the more likeable characters in this book for me): "she had a sharp, angular face, a hooked nose, and a strong chin; definitely not an Elizabeth Taylor look-alike". After all, her roots were in Macedonian Greece, and there was not much marrying with outside people - the family had incestous marriages like the pharaohs, and another thing common from generation to generation was offing your relatives - she did that to three of her four siblings (one had been killed by her father before she became a queen). I'm a bit surprised to learn that she lived to 39 years old, but I think that's a pretty good length of life considering the times and its dangers both from the inside and the outside.

It's easy to understand that a lot of the written things about her and the history she's in is biased, and the archaeological material is scarce - little of her Alexandria remains today, with some under water, some under current city - but the author manages to gather together a pretty seamless story of success and the downfall (which seems to start when Mark Anthony arrives back to Alexandria to celebrate his victory after second Parthia trip, plus Octavian realising he really wants the wealth of Egypt *now*).

There were two important men in her life: Julius Caesar, with which it wasn't really about love, but power and the meeting of two intelligent people. Cleopatra's part in his downfall was actually minimal to none, no matter what has been written later.
It was he who she visited, twice, in Rome, which was a total culture-shock place for her, being of different weather, behind in city planning, culture, and luxury, noisy and closed-minded (this was before all the outside-influence and culture-booming happened). A lot of the current existing buildings from Ancient Rome were still unbuilt.
--Alexandria, its looks, and the Nile trip plus the parties Cleopatra threw left me in awe, even when I just imagined what was being written in this book; how much fun it would be a walk-around Youtube video of that place...
--there also some information about that pearl-dissolving tale: it is *not* easy or quick thing to do, so most likely it didn't happen!

The other important man was Mark Anthony, and just reading about what he was like, as he is introduced here, can make the reader easily see why he would fail in warfare later in the story. I don't know if Cleopatra loved him at first, but it might have happened later, perhaps realised even in the last months of their lives. (The way he dies makes me go "WTF Cleopatra, why did you have to make this death happen this way?" The why this would be better than what Octavian would do with him?)

Two men I started to really hate, too:
Cicero - what a killjoy hater bitter bitter hypocrite wife-changing whining egotist! Good thing he died so soon after Caesar; what he would've said in later years...
Octavian (Augustus) doesn't really come off much better either: that monobrow shortie small-teethed exaggerating manipulative high-soled-shoes-wearing greedy jealous grudge-holding little shit!
--In this book the author also points out that some things interesting about attitude towards the East already existed: the Orient:Sex/decadence association, and the 'male-West, female-East' thing.

I wonder what would have happened if Mark Anthony and Cleopatra had been wiser and quicker about the war they had to fight against Octavia (who started it)? Or what would've become of the Cleopatra-legend if she had gone to Rome as Octavian's prisoner? Or if Cesarion, her son, had managed to sail to India? Just interesting to think about.

It's true that her enemies made her the beautiful, sensual, magic-using seductress who died by snakebite on her naked breast, but what emerges here as her legacy's influence on Rome makes it seem like she conquered Rome through that, no matter what the men of her time and later though and managed to pass on. And this book wipes the fog they created and let us see her (and her true face in her coins) as she is, finally, now.
Profile Image for RandomAnthony.
394 reviews111 followers
August 15, 2011
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 biographer pick and choose between sources and details? What spin will the biographer put on both the known and speculative? Stacy Schiff proves herself, early on, able to balance these questions well. An analysis of Cleopatra's life requires a great deal of contextualization in part because of the misinformation through which today's perceptions of the subject are likely to be filtered. I never saw the Elizabeth Taylor film but I know, for example, that Cleopatra was supposed to be gorgeous and seductive. Schiff runs into a few problems around the queen's image; for example, she gently mocks Plutarch for letting Cleopatra run away with his biography of Mark Antony, but Schiff could be accused of the same as far as Julius Ceasar, Mark Antony, and Octavian are concerned. The figures' stories are intertwined to the point that separating them out would lead to a storyline full of holes. Schiff seems like she also would like to assign the seductive, intelligent qualities to Cleopatra without bowing to the stereotypes. She wants to portray Cleopatra as powerful, a great queen, but confusion emerges when Cleopatra stumbles and her biographer empasizes her powerlessness within the male-dominated Roman culture. And rarely does Schiff, until the very end, acknowledge that Cleopatra's haughty, royal side may have led to her demise. Schiff's much more comfortable lampooning the queen's male counterparts than casting a negative glance toward Cleopatra. Again, these are the choices a biographer has to make, and Schiff, from what I can tell, provides a counterweight to what she sees as her mostly male predecessors' framing of Cleopatra as an evil, serpentine seductress. Cleopatra: A Life is probably not the definitive Cleopatra biography but instead embodies what appears to be an alternative perspective.

That said, Schiff tells a great story. The last hundred pages, leading up to Octavian's march on Alexandria and Cleopatra's barricading herself in a tomb, kept me up much later than I wanted last week on the front porch. Schiff admirably balances keeping the action moving with discussion of historical accuracy. I liked Cleopatra: A Life and feel better for reading the book. Maybe I'll read Keith Richards's autobiography next.

edit: I was just thinking that I've read some musical biographies lately, like the eels one and the Bob Mould book I'm reading now.
Profile Image for David Jacobs.
25 reviews16 followers
January 27, 2011
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 Schiff's project. Some classicists (most significantly Mary Beard in the New York Review of Books) have been catty about the book, passing it off as lightweight or finding nits in the text. This makes me only want to love it more.

Even with thin sourcing and scrubbed of the orientalism and oversexualized mythologies, Cleopatra's life story is incredible. The last quarter of the book dedicated to Rome's war on Egypt and Cleopatra's eventual suicide is taut storytelling, not just "classicism for amateurs."

Here's one of my favorite passages from the book, about a fishing trip that Cleopatra and Antony took during a time of relative peace and prosperity in their lives.

Appian has Antony exclusively in the company of Cleopatra, “to whom his sojourn in Alexandria was wholly devoted.” He sees in her a poor influence. Antony “was often disarmed by Cleopatra, subdued by her spells, and persuaded to drop from his hands great undertakings and necessary campaigns, only to roam about and play with her on the sea-shores.” More likely the opposite was true. And while Cleopatra focused exclusively and intently on her guest, she did so without sacrificing her competitive spirit, her sense of humor, or her agenda. Here are the two on an Alexandrian afternoon, relaxing on the river or on Lake Mareotis in a fishing boat, surrounded by attendants. Mark Antony is frustrated. He commands whole armies but on this occasion somehow cannot coax a single fish from the teeming, famously fertile Egyptian waters. He is all the more mortified as Cleopatra stands beside him. Romance or no, to prove so incompetent in her presence is a torture. Antony does what any self-respecting angler would: Secretly he orders his servants to dive into the water and fasten a series of precaught fish to his hook. One after another he reels these catches in, a little too triumphantly, a little too regularly; he is an impulsive man with something to prove, never particularly good at limits. Cleopatra rarely misses a trick and does not miss this one. She feigns admiration. Her lover is a most dexterous man! Later that afternoon she sings his praises to her friends, whom she invites to witness his prowess for themselves.

A great fleet accordingly heads out the following day. At its outset Cleopatra issues a few furtive orders of her own. Antony puts out his line, to instantaneous results. He senses a great weight and reels in his catch, to peals of laughter: From the Nile he extracts a salted, imported Black Sea herring. She is no scold, having instead mastered that formula for which every parent, coach, and chief executive searches: She has ambition, and no trouble encouraging the same in others. “Leave the fishing rod, General, to us,” Cleopatra admonishes, before the assembled company. “Your prey,” she reminds Antony, “are cities, kingdoms, and continents.”
Profile Image for Erin .
1,229 reviews1,141 followers
July 22, 2020
Cleopatra is one of the most famous women who ever lived. Which is actually quite funny when you realize that the Roman empire did everything in their power to erase her from history.

I don't think I need to tell you who Cleopatra was, but I will anyway. Cleopatra was the last queen of Egypt. She ruled for over 2 decades and is most remembered for her love affairs with 2 of the most powerful men in Rome Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony. History has painted her as a seductress and she has been blamed for the downfall of Egypt, Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony and a gang of other things.

Stacy Schiff set out on the herculean feat of humanizing a myth. The real Cleopatra was known in her time as a shrewd strategist, a powerful leader, and brilliant negotiator. She was also just as ruthless and murderess as her male counterparts. She had all of her siblings murdered. She wiped out anybody who spoke out against her but she was also a loving mother and known to be incredibly loyal to her friends.

It has long been said that her downfall was related to her relationships with Caeser and Mark Anthony but that not true. The real reason for downfall at the hands of Rome was all about money. Despite being the most powerful empire on Earth, Rome was broke. Being at war constantly is expensive and Egypt was a wealthy country. With Cleopatra out of the way Rome could plunder Egypt's wealth.

As I said at the beginning of this review, Rome did everything in its power to erase Cleopatra from history but instead that only made her more famous. Cleopatra wasn't a well loved monarch in her lifetime but after her death she became an icon for female sexual power. All the things that Rome used to discredit her made her more popular.

Here's a question

Who was the leader of Rome when Cleopatra committed suicide?

Most people can't name him and I think that a poetic sort of justice.

The answer to that question is Octavian. Octavian did his best to wipe out any mention of Cleopatra and yet she persist!

A Must Read!
Profile Image for Julie .
4,025 reviews58.9k followers
June 21, 2012
I started this book with no preconceived notions, so I was really impressed. I don't read alot of straight up history books, preferring fiction. So, when I do read non fiction history I like to read it a little at a time, while I keep a novel going on the side. It took me almost a week to finish it, but I'm glad I took my time. This was a very interesting book, wiping out all Hollywood's gloss. The majority of the book dealt with Cleopatra's life with Antony. I thought she was very smart, very successful, up until the end. She has 20 some years as Queen and that's saying something. I thought she even had the last word, although there were some who put their own spin on it. As much as I learned about Cleopatra, she still holds some mystery and fascination. A very absorbing read.
Profile Image for saïd.
6,139 reviews696 followers
January 10, 2023
Elizabeth Taylor depicted Cleopatra VII onscreen in 1963, and has served as a blueprint for historical fiction writers ever since. As an historian, I typically think of that film with the kind of fond indulgence you’d give a kid whose crayon doodles look nothing like their subject matter: you did your best, buddy! I promise I think it looks great! So the 1963 Cleopatra is revisionist history to an extent, and certainly cemented in Western pop culture the image of Cleopatra as a drop-dead gorgeous femme fatale whose many male lovers did tend to drop dead due to her... féminité fatale, to put it bluntly. Stacy Schiff’s biography of Cleopatra VII is the inverse; to wit, the moral opposite of Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra.

What do I mean by that? Well, writing a biography of a woman who died over two millennia ago is no easy task, particularly when so many of the typical biographical details about her have long since been lost. But, by gathering up all the scant contemporary historical sources to which we do have access and combining those with a healthy dose of conjecture both ancient and modern, Schiff is able to scrape together an impressively lengthy portrait of Cleopatra VII—and one that’s enjoyable to read, at that. For every speculation Schiff makes, she not only notes precisely where she strays from historical fact—the footnotes are extensive—but also how she arrived at each conclusion and what led her there. Schiff’s biography is unabashedly in favour of Cleopatra VII, but Schiff states her biases upfront (and, tongue-in-cheek, notes that most surviving historical accounts did not exactly portray the woman herself in a sympathetic light), and never, unintentionally or otherwise, leads the reader into taking her speculations as factual.

Misinformation about Cleopatra VII abounds even in the modern era, some of it millennia-old political propaganda meant to discredit her (she was only successful because she was hot; she seduced both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony to ruin; her advisors pulled the strings while keeping her as a figurehead; she committed suicide by allowing an asp to bite her breast while she reclined sensually in the nude) and some of it invented entirely out of wholecloth for reasons unknown (HBO’s Rome, which ran from 2005 to 2007, portrayed Cleopatra VII as a drug-addicted nymphomaniac who mistreated her servants, had no political aspirations beyond keeping herself alive, and was willing to spread her legs for any Roman who would grant her a child which would then be a Roman citizen, thus continuing her bloodline). Some of it is well-meaning yet misguided (yes, Cleopatra was in fact what we would today describe as ‘white’; she was a Mediterranean Greek woman of the Ptolemaic line by birth, and an Egyptian Arab by nationality) and some of it is brazenly misogynistic. Octavian’s trailing propaganda—everything from the apocryphal asp story to the claim that Egypt under her rule was responsible for the ‘corruption’ of Rome via extravagant luxury—has slithered its way into pop culture depictions of Cleopatra VII, but Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life is neither pro-Roman in its politics nor pop culture in its style: while I don’t necessarily believe that misinformation in a positive aspect intended to counter misinformation in a negative aspect is actually helpful (cf. Howard Zinn), I do also acknowledge that Schiff’s guesswork is clearly and consistently marked as such, and her compilation of historical sources both fair and foul has resulted in a truly splendid portrait more accurate but no less alluring than Elizabeth Taylor.
Profile Image for Daniel Chaikin.
594 reviews56 followers
August 1, 2020
38. Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
reader: Robin Miles
published: 2010
format: 14:16 audible audiobook (369 pages in hardcover)
acquired: Jun 22
listened: Jun 23 – Jul 16
rating: 3
locations: Roman Empire
about the author born 1961 in Adams, MA

Cleopatra is famous because, well... because of the men who fathered her children and because she is history's great seductress who first conquered Julius Caesar, and later wooed Mark Antony to his ruin. That's the myth, the one in Roman accounts, and in Shakespeare's play and in Elizabeth Taylor's movie. The crazy-sexualized-lady-who-ruined-everything myth—which, I imagine, is the one most of us know and believed at some point; and treasured as fascinating. Schiff here tries to get around all this to the true historical figure.


For some perspective, the Ptolemaic empire founded after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 bce, came to end here, with this queen, as Octavius Caesar strolled into Alexandria on August 1, 30 bce. At Cleopatra's birth the City of Alexandria was the world's leading cultural center, and probably by far the richest city in the world. And it had, of course, the most famous library in history. Rome, an empire based on constant pillaging, was parochial in comparison, a cultural back water. The Ptolemy's, Macedonian, not Egyptian, controlled and overshadowed a wide assortment of cultures and wealth. Power stakes were high and the royal family was awash in brutal gruesome power politics and, with no other comparable power figures to mingle with, a kind of regimented inbreeding where siblings were routinely married to each other. Strange stuff. But the royal family was also exceptionally well educated, hired the best scholars in their known world as educators and had pretty good access to some reading material. Cleopatra would have learned to speak several languages fluently and learned to banter with whatever intellectuals came around. When she became queen of Egypt, she became the richest person in the world. To put it simply, she would have been far more cultured and sophisticated than the Roman leadership. The point is, the myth is impossible.


Some facts. Cleopatra used Julius Caesar and his army to win her throne and become queen of the wealthiest kingdom in the world, and she had his children. She came to Rome and bantered with Cicero. When Caesar was assassinated, his will left his inheritance to his great nephew, Gaius Octavius, and not to his half-Ptolemaic children by Cleopatra. Cleopatra fled Rome. As the Roman Republic went through its final death spasm, she sided with Mark Antony and had his children and funded his army. Apparently seeing an impossible military situation they had stumbled into, they abandoned their army at the battle of Actium, saved the money and ran for Alexandria, making a probable military defeat catastrophic. They lost the Roman civil war and both committed suicide as Octavius entered Alexandria. Cleopatra's oldest child by Julius Caesar was murdered. Her children by Mark Antony were brought to Rome and raised as full Roman citizens. Octavius, of course, became Augustus Caesar, the first Roman emperor.


Some other facts. There is not much else. After Octavius won, he controlled the narrative and used it, overwriting the true story with his a kind of propaganda version. The real historical Cleopatra and all her records are lost and buried under Roman myth.


I enjoyed this but I wasn't crazy about what Schiff does. Certainly it's well grounded in the solid facts available and her end note makes clear just how much scholarship went into this. But, there is a but. The book is challenged because it sticks to the evidence and there isn't much of a record of Cleopatra, the person. It's lost. This means the biography is kind of missing a subject. Schiff handles this in a variety of ways and I found the changing approaches mixed and a little frustrating. The way I put it in my Litsy review was that Schiff's "guidance through all the unknowns felt unsatisfying".

Profile Image for Sally Howes.
72 reviews56 followers
March 1, 2015
"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 she takes at the outrageously sexist myth men have created around her are immediately apparent, as are Schiff's own highly engaging storytelling abilities. This is not just another dry biography, it is as colorful as was Cleopatra herself, while also managing to retain factual integrity. Whether a book is fiction or non-fiction, reading should never be a chore, and CLEOPATRA: A LIFE is, simply, a delight.

It is clear from the outset that this book is intended as a feminist revisioning of the biography of one of the most famous women in the history of the world. And considering the fact that this biography has heretofore been written mainly by chauvinistic men, this intention seems more than fair. As Schiff so righteously asserts: "Affairs of state have fallen away, leaving us with affairs of the heart. A commanding woman versed in politics, diplomacy, and governance; fluent in nine languages; silver-tongued and charismatic, Cleopatra nonetheless seems the joint creation of Roman propagandists and Hollywood directors." Put simply: "She elicited scorn and envy in equal and equally distorting measure; her story is constructed as much of male fear as fantasy."

Schiff's biography of Cleopatra is determined to attribute full agency to her, and as it says more than once, it is at pains to demonstrate that she was much more than the sum of her two great seductions (of Julius Caesar and, after Caesar's death, of Mark Antony). "Cleopatra descended from a long line of murderers and faithfully upheld the family tradition but was, for her time and place, remarkably well behaved. She nonetheless survives as a wanton temptress, not the last time a genuinely powerful woman has been transmuted into a shamelessly seductive one." Schiff alludes repeatedly, and justifiably, to the fact that "the double standard" has heavily colored history's view of Cleopatra: "As incandescent as was her personality, Cleopatra was every bit Caesar's equal as a coolheaded, clear-eyed pragmatist, though what passed on his part as strategy would be remembered on hers as manipulation."

From what Schiff says at the outset, it is clear that writing a biography of Cleopatra VII of Egypt is no mean feat, as it appears that the Cleopatra we think we know today is comprised of about nine-tenths myth ("... in the absence of facts, myth rushes in ..."), written largely by men with pressing political or artistic agendas, with remarkably few solid facts from which to begin. "Can anything good be said of a woman who slept with the two most powerful men of her time? Possibly, but not in an age when Rome controlled the narrative. Cleopatra stood at one of the most dangerous intersections in history: that of women and power. Clever women, Euripides had warned hundreds of years earlier, were dangerous."

As mentioned, CLEOPATRA: A LIFE is quite openly sympathetic to and admiring of its unique subject, yet neither does it pull any punches: When Cleopatra is ruthless, in error, or for any reason unfathomable or distasteful, we are told so without equivocation. At one point, Schiff talks about "... Cleopatra's high-handedness. Strategy came more naturally to her than did diplomacy. She may have been tactless; megalomania ran in the family. She had no trouble reminding those around her that - as she would assert later - she had for many years governed a vast kingdom by herself."

From the first, Schiff's prose style is captivating and electrifying, punchy and witty, nimble and vivid and vivacious. She may occasionally make statements that are slightly too sweeping just because they sound really good, but overall this book is an excellent blend of sparkling prose, engaging storytelling, and serious scholarship. CLEOPATRA: A LIFE is a gem in the world of narrative non-fiction, its merrily light step along a path paved with very important facts about a very important woman making it the single most readable biography I have had the pleasure to encounter in a very long time. This is just one of the sentences that particularly struck me: "A Roman could not pry apart the exotic and the erotic; Cleopatra was a stand-in for the occult, alchemical East, for her sinuous, sensuous land, as perverse and original as its astonishment of a river." Despite her talent for storytelling, however, Schiff is scrupulous in pointing out the many cases in which the facts are unclear or open to interpretation. However, this is done as unobtrusively as possible and rarely interrupts the narrative flow very noticeably.

Schiff uses diverting details and arresting anecdotes to bring Cleopatra's story to life. The book is rich in jaw-dropping details, from the mind-boggling complexity of the Ptolemy family tree to the opulence and splendor of Alexandria and its customs and celebrations to the extraordinarily advanced society in which Cleopatra lived, almost equalling twentieth-century Western society in areas like women's rights and technology. This is one of the more tame details given of Ptolemaic celebrations: "Among the greatest hosts in history, the Ptolemies sent their guests stumbling home with gifts. It was not unusual to make off with a place setting of solid silver, a slave, a gazelle, a gold sofa, a horse in silver armor. Excess had put the Ptolemies on the map, where Cleopatra fully intended the dynasty to remain." Some readers may feel this lavish detail distracts from the main story, but I drank it all in eagerly until I could all but see, hear, taste, and smell first-century BC Alexandria and move around inside Cleopatra's skin.

Of all the inspirational qualities to be found in Cleopatra, perhaps the greatest is this: Until the moment of her death, she was full to overflowing with life. While those around her crumbled, she continued to plan, to strive, to live. She clung tenaciously to the infinite variety of her colorful life, and while always pragmatic, she never gave up hope. Possibly the most famous event of Cleopatra's life is her death, with mythical symbolism (the sly woman paired with the serpent) that has made it legendary. However, Schiff's hypotheses about the manner of Cleopatra's demise suggest that truth once again has the potential to be stranger, or at least more intriguing, than fiction.

"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. She remains on the map for having seduced two of the greatest men of her time, while her crime was to have entered into those same 'wily and suspicious' marital partnerships that every man in power enjoyed. She did so in reverse and in her own name; this made her a deviant, socially disruptive, an unnatural woman." It is high time that the man-made mists of myth be dispersed so that we can see clearly the real Cleopatra, a queen who will always be larger than life in her own right, one of the greatest monarchs ever to have graced human history. Considering the formidable myth-making machine that men have kept rolling for thousands of years in order to control our knowledge of Cleopatra, finding the truth behind the smoke and mirrors is no mean feat. With CLEOPATRA: A LIFE, Stacy Schiff has made a laudable and entertaining start to demythologizing the Queen of the Nile and revealing the extraordinary woman she truly was. Schiff thoroughly deserves the last word here: "Two thousand years of bad press and overheated prose, of film and opera, cannot conceal the fact that Cleopatra was a remarkably capable queen, canny and opportunistic in the extreme, a strategist of the first rank."

★This review is also available on my blog at feelthepowerofstory.wordpress.com★
Profile Image for Ariel Karn.
35 reviews8 followers
February 5, 2023
Edit: after went back in and have more patient this time. I’m giving it 3.5 (from 2.5). I understand we don’t have enough about her to have the whole book completely about her so I’m being more understanding. It might be boring still but, it’s not as bad as 2.5 would give it a Justice. But I still expected more and will still finding more books to read about her.

Old review: What a disappointment. I really look forward to read about cleopatra and instead I got a bunch of story on pretty much anything else and only somewhat 25% about her.

I understand that understanding/ reading what happened to her/ her context is important to learn about her but it is still a little too much. First chapter was okay, that is why I stuck around. But after that it became repeatedly about anything else but her.

I understand that learning about how alexandrian are like is important to understand her story. But do I need 6 pages on how alexandrian love to have fun with already 4 pages about how the palace is covered in gold? No.

Reading this book, it became like a game of finding her name. Because other than that (the context) can be understood with just a glance (I mean it, it’s repetitive and most of them unnecessary) and so I would try to find her name and read about her instead but then it became less and less - like 3 pages for one paragraph on her type of situation.

I’m very dissatisfied and disappointed. I really love her and want to read more about her. It is unfortunate that there isn’t much texts on her as a person/queen.

I expected a lot more. I might comeback for it cuz I really want to read about her and I might have no choice but for now I really have so many thing to read yet so little time.
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