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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, 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.


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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, 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.

30 review for Cleopatra: A Life

  1. 5 out of 5

    Donna

    First and foremost this is a history book. The plot is taken from real time 2,000 years ago. It hasn't been bloated with fantastical elements or intense drama. In fact, if you were reading this book as you would a work of fiction, you'll find yourself sadly lacking that same kind of connection to Cleopatra as you would to a main character in a novel. Why? Because Cleopatra is nearly unknowable. And she's not a fictional character. She's spoken of from a distance, seen more through the eyes of me 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.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Elizabeth Sulzby

    So far, I am very disappointed in this book--by a Pulitzer Prize winning author. She uses very long paragraphs that should have been divided. She puts her points embedded so that it's hard for a reader to see what she intends to be significant. There are "clever" pieces that are not at all clever. The author says she will not create material but may create context from other sources, but she does not give the reader cues. For example, in Chapter II she goes on and on about Cleopatra's education, 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.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Matt

    Beginning a month (or forty days) of biographies, I thought I would work through this buddy read. In her biography of Cleopatra, 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. 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 Beginning a month (or forty days) of biographies, I thought I would work through this buddy read. In her biography of Cleopatra, 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. 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, 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. Like/hate the review? An ever-growing collection of others appears at: http://pecheyponderings.wordpress.com

  4. 4 out of 5

    Diane

    Stacy Schiff has a serious girl crush on Cleopatra. If you want to read 300 pages about how awesome Queen Cleo was, then this is the book for you! I remembered little about the famous Egyptian ruler from world history class in high school, and I don't think the Elizabeth Taylor movie counts as a documentary, so Schiff's book felt like my introduction to Cleopatra. The book covers her family, her childhood, her education, her ability to charm and manipulate, her relationships with Julius Caesar an 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."

  5. 5 out of 5

    Sara

    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. Ther 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.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Jason Koivu

    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 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!

  7. 5 out of 5

    Navidad Thélamour

    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. (PLEAS 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 ***** The Navi Review Blog | Twitter | Instagram

  8. 5 out of 5

    Hannah

    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 ( 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.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Kelly A.

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

  10. 5 out of 5

    Grace Tjan

    What I learned from this book (in no particular order): 1. Cleo was an insatiable vamp who seduced two of the most powerful men in Rome using her feminine wiles. Cleo might have used her wiles to seduce them, but both Julius and Mark were hardly paragons of chastity themselves: Julius specialized in seducing “aristocratic wives”, while Mark had numerous affairs with both single and married women. 2. Cleo looked like Elizabeth Taylor with too much mascara. We just don’t really know how she looked. 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.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Emily

    "When Egypt Ruled the East" by George Steindorff this book is not. I have read many books on Egyptian history all the way up through the Ptolemies who, somehow, through some sort of rhetorical magic, were made to be as dry and dull as dead leaves in winter in "Cleopatra: A Life." I have read many history books. I consider myself a bit of a connoisseur of the genre. I even inhale historical fiction. Some of these books have been utter and complete crap. I have manned up and finished books that wou "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.

  12. 5 out of 5

    RandomAnthony

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

  13. 4 out of 5

    BAM The Bibliomaniac

    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 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

  14. 5 out of 5

    Kim Berkshire

    Disappointed in this. Was really looking forward to it after it made so many Top 10 of 2010 lists, but I was sufficiently underwhelmed. Subject matter really interested me, so I would have been very forgiving, but this book jumped all over the place. One criticism I had read was that the author takes a lot of liberties based on her exhaustive research, some of which are just silly. Concur. February and March are insanely busy and I usually find little time to read during these months, but even b 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.

  15. 5 out of 5

    David Jacobs

    Stacy Schiff has crafted, somehow, a new angle on one of the world's oldest great stories. By focusing on the first degree sources we have from the period (mostly from Roman scholars & historians, since Alexandria was destroyed by earthquakes), Schiff at once claims expertise but only in a context that is also accessible to the reader. At times Schiff's explanation of the sources and the perceived motivations of their authors feels plodding, but the framing of these sources is essential to S 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.”

  16. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer

    What a way to start the year

  17. 4 out of 5

    Larry Wilson

    I was very disappointed by this book, the primary reason being the author’s very choppy style. I found the style made it extremely hard to read with no flow to the narrative. Her style used strange placements of the basic sentence elements (I much prefer subject, verb, object order), a plethora of semi-colons and dashes, odd adverbs (use of “as well” and “too” when “also” would have been more appropriate), and multiple short sentences following each other when proper connectors would have greatl 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/

  18. 4 out of 5

    Rick Riordan

    It's amazing what a rich portrait Schiff created when we have so few sources to draw from about Cleopatra's life.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Sally Howes

    "In one of the busiest afterlives in history she has gone on to become an asteroid, a video game, a cliché, a cigarette, a slot machine, a strip club, a synonym for Elizabeth Taylor. Shakespeare attested to Cleopatra's infinite variety. He had no idea." In the opening pages of CLEOPATRA: A LIFE, Stacy Schiff sets the tone for what is to follow, and frankly, I found it all, from the first page to the last, to be utterly and sublimely intoxicating. Schiff's reverence for Cleopatra and the umbrage "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★

  20. 5 out of 5

    Nicholas

    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 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.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Julia

    I labelled this one as "feministy," because I don't think that Stacy Schiff could deny her "let's re-examine Cleopatra's ACTUAL awesomeness as opposed to this hyper-sexualized harpy-witch-seductress-harlot nonsense" angle. Pulitzer Prize-winning past or no, Schiff delivers fluff here. Good fluff, feminist as opposed to misogynistic fluff, but fluff nonetheless. Grad school is starting to ruin me for reading things that aren't in academic journals; after Schiff would state a presumed fact, my int I labelled this one as "feministy," because I don't think that Stacy Schiff could deny her "let's re-examine Cleopatra's ACTUAL awesomeness as opposed to this hyper-sexualized harpy-witch-seductress-harlot nonsense" angle. Pulitzer Prize-winning past or no, Schiff delivers fluff here. Good fluff, feminist as opposed to misogynistic fluff, but fluff nonetheless. Grad school is starting to ruin me for reading things that aren't in academic journals; after Schiff would state a presumed fact, my internal monologue would often go, "Yes, but how do you KNOW that? What source did you use? I don't want to thumb through the epic notes section in the back, I want to know NOW" (to be clear, I read all the notes, and found them quite worthwhile, it just involved a lot of page turning). All my griping aside, I was glad for the trip back through history, much of which I hadn't actually known in particularly much detail before. Schiff is also blessed with an eye for detail, combined with an ability not to get so enamored with all the jewel-encrusted whatevers in Cleopatra's history that she forgot to tell a good story.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Dana Stabenow

    So my book club read Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra last month. Every single one of the extant sources who wrote about Cleopatra's life had an agenda, specifically to demonize Cleopatra and make hers a name to live in infamy ...her story is constructed as much of male fear as fantasy. Cicero, Plutarch, Dio, Lucan, Schiff quotes them all extensively and compensates for their obvious bias by attempting to put the reader in that place and time. In this case the "devil" truly is in the details, right down to So my book club read Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra last month. Every single one of the extant sources who wrote about Cleopatra's life had an agenda, specifically to demonize Cleopatra and make hers a name to live in infamy ...her story is constructed as much of male fear as fantasy. Cicero, Plutarch, Dio, Lucan, Schiff quotes them all extensively and compensates for their obvious bias by attempting to put the reader in that place and time. In this case the "devil" truly is in the details, right down to the banquet decor Strewn in heaps over the floors, they lent the impression of a country meadow, if onelittered at meal's end by oyster shells, lobster claws, and peach pits. Those details make fascinating reading. Take the status of women in Cleopatra's Alexandria They inherited equally and held property independently. Married women did not submit to their husbands' control. They enjoyed the right to divorce and to be supported after a divorce. Until the time an ex-wife's dowry was returned, she was entitled to be lodged in the house of her choice. Her property remained hers, it was not to be squandered by a wastrel husband. The law sided with the wife and children if a husband acted against their interests...They loaned money and operated barges. They served as priests in the native temples. They initiated lawsuits and hired flute players. As wives, widows, or divorcees, they owned vineyards, wineries, papyrus marshes, ships, perfume businesses, milling equipment, slaves, homes, camels. As much as one third of Ptolemaic Egypt may have been in female hands. Considering that Schiff is writing about Egypt circa 55 BC (yes, BC) that's a bit of an eye-opener. Intelligent and extensively educated, Cleopatra spoke seven languages, and was the only Ptolemy ever to learn Egyptian, the native tongue of most of her subjects. She was smart enough to embrace the role of Isis in all public ceremonies and annual celebrations, becoming not only queen but goddess. This made her so popular that in the twenty-two years she reigned, she never faced a rebellion, the only Ptolemy of whom that can be said. This was a terrific discussion book, partly because there is nothing to tell us how Cleopatra really thought and felt. Everything has to be inferred by her actions, and most of those were reported by men influenced by Octavian, later Caesar Augustus [Octavian] celebrates [Cleopatra's] defeat before it has occurred. Virgil and Propertius were on hand for the Egyptian triumph, by which time both the asp [according to Schiff, it wasn't an asp, it was very probably poison made by Cleopatra's own hand] and Cleopatra's pernicious influence were already set in stone. In every reckoning Antony is made to flee Actium on Cleopatra's account. She helpfully illuminated one of Propertius's favorite points: a man in love is a helpless man, shamefully subservient to his mistress. It is as if Octavian delivers Rome from that ill as well. He has restored the natural order of things: men ruled women, and Rome ruled the world. On both counts, Cleopatra was crucial to the story. Not to mention which, the treasure Octavian looted from Egypt paid his way to power in Rome. Since this is my blog and I get to write what I want, I think Cleopatra was always a queen first and a lover second. Caesar became her lover by default. He was the man on the ground, the representative of the Roman Empire who was going to decide who reigned in Egypt, Cleopatra or her brother. She had no choice, she had to seduce Caesar over to her side, and she did, and that plus a little matter of fratricide put her on her throne and kept her there for twenty-two years. Until another man knocked her off. Schiff writes She got a very good deal right, and one crucial thing wrong. That one crucial thing was, of course, Marc Antony. But, again, what choice did Cleopatra really have? Octavian, Lepidus and Antony carved up the Roman world between them and Antony got the eastern Mediterranean, which included Egypt. Again, Antony was the Roman on the ground, the guy with the legions. She invited him to Alexandria and she seduced him into supporting her, but when he left she didn't see him again for three years. Schiff doesn't report any credible evidence that Cleopatra pined for him, she got on with the business of ruling her country. Nor did he pine for her, he married Octavian's sister and they lived together in Athens in what sounds like amity and affection. It isn't until he returns from Parthia, a beaten man, that passion seems to overcome all else and he turns into an octopus, holding on to Cleopatra with all eight arms. By then Antony needed Cleopatra a lot more than she needed him and she knew it, but again, what was she going to do? She had deliberately seduced him to keep her throne and her country, and he was still the man in charge of her part of the world. Her distress at his death, all that weeping and wailing and tearing of hair and breast, that wasn't grief, that was part show, for the watching Roman soldiers in hopes that it would sway Octavian to let her keep her throne, but mostly rage, against the doofus who let her and Egypt down. She had to know by then that this was not only the end of her but the end of her country as anything but a client state of Rome. I'd have been pissed, too. One of the fun things about a book like this is indulging in "what if." When everyone and his brother was deserting Antony (deservedly so, what a wretched general, this was a guy who had only one good battle in him), what if Cleopatra had deserted, too, what if she had reached out to Octavian? She was in Rome on the Ides of March when Caesar was assassinated in the Forum, she was there when his will was read. He left Antony nothing. He chose Octavian as his heir. Caesar obviously knew both men well, and wrote his will accordingly. What if she had taken her cue from him? And the latest news in the life of Cleopatra? David Fincher is making a film based on this book starring Angelina Jolie. This woman just won't die. One last note: I wanted to give a shout-out to the cover art. It's rich in color and almost tactile, opalescent even, reminiscent of Cleopatra's lush life in Alexandria, but what I love is that her face is turned away from us, her features obscured in shadow. We can never truly know her. But Schiff sure gives it the red-shift limit try.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Laura Noggle

    “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.” Forever enigmatic, Cleopatra captured my imagination from the moment I first learned about her life. To this day she remains shrouded in mystique, and constantly alluring—one of the most powerful women in history. And yet, most of what we know is hearsay, speculation, and legend, thus rendering any attempt at a purely nonfi “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.” Forever enigmatic, Cleopatra captured my imagination from the moment I first learned about her life. To this day she remains shrouded in mystique, and constantly alluring—one of the most powerful women in history. And yet, most of what we know is hearsay, speculation, and legend, thus rendering any attempt at a purely nonfiction account of her life a true Herculean task. Stacy Schiff has done a commendable job cobbling sources, records, and rumors together into what is at best, an assumptive overview of a remarkable woman. Endlessly entertaining this book is not bad, but the facts are so ... questionable, as even Schiff admits, that the narrative can seem convoluted at points. Still, an engaging read on one of the most unique women of all time. “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. To these she added a few other offenses. She made Rome feel uncouth, insecure, and poor, sufficient cause for anxiety without adding sexuality into the mix.” “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.”

  24. 5 out of 5

    Mahlon

    Like everyone with even a passing interest in history… I thought I knew a little bit about Cleopatra, but Stacy Schiff's Biography quickly disabused me of that notion! It turned out that like most people, I had taken the oft repeated myths of thousands of years for fact. The most surprising fact I learned was that she was Macedonian and not Egyptian! I was very embarrassed to find out that I had placed both she and Cesar about 1250 years in time before they actually lived! In my judgment, one of Like everyone with even a passing interest in history… I thought I knew a little bit about Cleopatra, but Stacy Schiff's Biography quickly disabused me of that notion! It turned out that like most people, I had taken the oft repeated myths of thousands of years for fact. The most surprising fact I learned was that she was Macedonian and not Egyptian! I was very embarrassed to find out that I had placed both she and Cesar about 1250 years in time before they actually lived! In my judgment, one of the hardest things for a historian to do is to construct a biography when the historical record is spotty and few facts are known about a person. The author makes up for this lack of facts by making Cleopatra's Alexandria come to life, and weaving in an exhaustive amount of bureaucratic minutiae about her reign to form a complete tapestry of Cleopatra's life. I'd recommend this book to anyone who thinks they have a handle on basic classical history, because trust me, you might be surprised! Hopefully you know more than I did when I started this book.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Michelle Miller (True Book Addict)

    I have been too long away from non-fiction so this book was a slow and difficult read for me. However, it was definitely worth the read. We all know the story of Cleopatra, a story we've probably been told from novels and/or movies. Cleopatra was a beautiful seductress who loved and manipulated two great men, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. But she was so much more. She was a Ptolemy...from a family who was well known for murdering each other to gain power...yet she was rare in this family in tha I have been too long away from non-fiction so this book was a slow and difficult read for me. However, it was definitely worth the read. We all know the story of Cleopatra, a story we've probably been told from novels and/or movies. Cleopatra was a beautiful seductress who loved and manipulated two great men, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. But she was so much more. She was a Ptolemy...from a family who was well known for murdering each other to gain power...yet she was rare in this family in that she actually loved her father. Her love for her father led to her passionate love of her country and this was most important to her above anything else. So yes, she did use some feminine wiles to protect and secure her position, but she did so shrewdly and without compromising her honor, at least in her own eyes and the eyes of her subjects. The Romans' opinion of her was entirely different and not favorable. Schiff really brings to the fore just how skillful Cleopatra was, whether we know the whole truth or not. So much of the accounts of Cleopatra's life were written by Roman (and other) philosophers who often did not have good opinions of her either. I learned things in this book that I previously did not know. I did not know that Cleopatra had four children. I knew of Caesarion, her son with Julius Caesar, but did not know that she had three children with Mark Antony, two boys and a girl. I also did not know that the daughter, Cleopatra Selene, would go on to be a queen in Africa...pretty much following in her mother's footsteps in her rule there. This is an excellent book for people who enjoy non-fiction and for people who would like to learn more truth behind the legend. There are rumors that a movie is being made based on this book and that Angelina Jolie may play Cleopatra. I am rather disappointed by this news, as it is clear from the book that Cleopatra was not a true 'beauty', her seductive ability aside. Someone less attractive, but capable of sultry gestures and manipulations would be more appropriate, in my opinion. Like Hollywood cares what I think, right?!

  26. 4 out of 5

    Mis

    I keep falling asleep on this book...way too clinical & dry:( I'm going to keep trying though, as some books get better after 1st couple chapters? Update: It did not get better. The writer seemed to have to keep reminding us that nothing of real fact is known of Cleopatra. Wasn't that kind of the point of her book to give a different perspective (that of a woman writing about a powerful & influential woman)? Which she sort of did...but I would imagine a much more lush, exciting, literary r I keep falling asleep on this book...way too clinical & dry:( I'm going to keep trying though, as some books get better after 1st couple chapters? Update: It did not get better. The writer seemed to have to keep reminding us that nothing of real fact is known of Cleopatra. Wasn't that kind of the point of her book to give a different perspective (that of a woman writing about a powerful & influential woman)? Which she sort of did...but I would imagine a much more lush, exciting, literary ride from this particular historical legend. This book is good if you are suffering from insomnia and are looking for a non-addictive sleep inducing fix.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Kris - My Novelesque Life

    RATING: 3 STARS (Review Not on Blog) An interesting new look at Cleopatra's life - taking out the myth from the legend. I just wish it were more of novel/bio then just facts. It comes off dry and a bit dull

  28. 4 out of 5

    Jill

    The author clearly loved her subject--but the combination of a serious lack of hard evidence and a writing style I found pretentious significantly diminished my enjoyment of this book. While meticulously researched, the lack of verifiable evidence leads the author to take a series of side-notes that describe, in extensive detail, subjects only tangentially related to Cleopatra. The first half of the book was very difficult to get through because of this; it would perhaps have been better suited The author clearly loved her subject--but the combination of a serious lack of hard evidence and a writing style I found pretentious significantly diminished my enjoyment of this book. While meticulously researched, the lack of verifiable evidence leads the author to take a series of side-notes that describe, in extensive detail, subjects only tangentially related to Cleopatra. The first half of the book was very difficult to get through because of this; it would perhaps have been better suited as part of a review of the standards of Egyptian living at the time, or a more general history. As Mark Antony enters the scene, the story gains momentum, but the continual assumptions ("Cleopatra must have" is a phrase that now makes me clench my jaw) grated, as did my feeling that Schiff wanted to show off her vocabulary, with her gratuitous use of archaic words and an overabundance of adjectives. It's unfortunate that this book failed to live up to my expectations. While some of this is the result of a lack of concrete historical evidence, the author might have been better served to convert her data into a more general study of the period, rather than attempting to provide insight on the workings of Cleopatra's mind with such limited evidence to back up her assertions. I found myself interested, but often very annoyed, which is why I couldn't give the book above two stars. I can't say I "liked" it, but it was an "okay," if irritating, read.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Liz Nutting

    The most common feminist approach to Biblical studies begins with the concept of a “hermeneutics of suspicion.” Roughly put, hermeneutics is the theory and principles of interpretation, in this context interpretation of the biblical texts themselves through critical study. A hermeneutics of suspicion approaches the texts with, well, suspicion—that is, it does not take the texts as given but is attentive to what is not said and who is not represented. In a feminist approach, biblical scholars are The most common feminist approach to Biblical studies begins with the concept of a “hermeneutics of suspicion.” Roughly put, hermeneutics is the theory and principles of interpretation, in this context interpretation of the biblical texts themselves through critical study. A hermeneutics of suspicion approaches the texts with, well, suspicion—that is, it does not take the texts as given but is attentive to what is not said and who is not represented. In a feminist approach, biblical scholars are critically (suspiciously) examining the representation of women in the texts. As the feminist theologian Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza points out, the androcentric language of the Biblical texts obscures the contributions of women, and “mentions women only when women’s behavior presents a problem or when women are exceptional individuals.” To the Roman authors who chronicled her life, Cleopatra was both. She was the exceptional woman who was lover to both Julius Caeser and Marc Antony and in the process brought down the Roman Republic. It is up to Stacy Schiff to exercise a hermeneutics of suspicion in her exceptional new biography of the ancient Egyptian queen, Cleopatra. Whether interpreting the biblical canon or the political history of Rome, it is not possible to discard or disregard the ancient texts; they are often the only evidence we have of critical events. What we know of Cleopatra is found almost exclusively in the writings of Plutarch, Dio Cassius and other first century Roman polemicists writing a generation or more after her death. Schiff does a superb job ferreting out their agendas and showing how those shaped their presentations of Cleopatra. It was not in their interests to extol Cleopatra’s virtues or show her in a favorable light. They were writing from the perspective of history’s winners, and needed to cast the queen as a threat to the Roman way of life, with her profligate ways and her feminine wiles that brought down two of the finest Romans who ever lived. The task of the interpreter is rather to read the lacunas in the text, what’s missing, what is unsaid by what is said. Schiff dissects her ancient sources to uncover the real Cleopatra hidden between the lines. Where the ancients portrayed a conniving woman, Schiff sees a skillful politician, a queen whose twenty-year rule was among the most peaceful and productive of any Ptolemy emperor. Where the male authors see a manipulative harlot, Schiff sees a woman who may well have loved Marc Antony, but who in any event knew the value of the alliance. Schiff’s prose is rich and evocative, befitting the subject. There are marvelous descriptions of ancient Alexandria and Rome and astute commentary on a fascinating historical period. In places, the writing is dense and requires the reader’s close attention, but it repays the effort. After all, how can you not love an author who creates sentences like this: “And in the absence of facts, myth rushes in, the kudzu of history”? Under Schiff’s lens, the Cleopatra of Elizabeth Taylor and Shakespeare wanes and an intelligent, educated (she spoke 9 languages), adroit leader takes her rightful place. All of which does nothing to diminish the inherent romance and adventure of her story.

  30. 4 out of 5

    R K

    It's funny how when we think of Ancient Egypt we jump to the Pharaohs. Inadvertently, we focus on the female Pharaohs who rules. MerNeith, Nefertiti, Hatshepsut, and Cleopatra are names that come immediately to the mind, for they set a standard of female rulers in a male dominated world. Growing up, I've only read one book on Cleopatra and it was one that was aimed for children so my knowledge about her was very limited. Most of what I knew about Cleopatra came from modern day interpretations. A It's funny how when we think of Ancient Egypt we jump to the Pharaohs. Inadvertently, we focus on the female Pharaohs who rules. MerNeith, Nefertiti, Hatshepsut, and Cleopatra are names that come immediately to the mind, for they set a standard of female rulers in a male dominated world. Growing up, I've only read one book on Cleopatra and it was one that was aimed for children so my knowledge about her was very limited. Most of what I knew about Cleopatra came from modern day interpretations. All I knew was that she was that ruler of Egypt and that her reputation has been tarnished by future generations. Review Continued Here

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