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Cleopatra: A Life

May 28th, 2012

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Book Overview:

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.

Book Review

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History Books 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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  1. Tomorryo
    June 2nd, 2012 at 01:16 | #1


    This book is INTENSE!!! From the moment I read the author’s intro, I knew I was in for a treat. Basically, she read everything that exists about Cleopatra, decided who the crackpot authors were vs the reliable ones, and distilled it all into an epic. She goes into insane detail, but not in a boring way. She describes every aspect of Alexandria and Rome, and goes into the motivations and feelings of the people involved in the story. I love her in-depth descriptions of Cleopatra’s palace – she even describes what the ceilings looked like and what stones were inlaid-in-what. If you’re looking for the full story of Cleopatra, read this!!!

  2. T. Wong
    June 2nd, 2012 at 03:18 | #2


    If you love books, Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff, is a must have. This book’s physical, sensual beauty places in sharp relief the reasons why books, good old-fashioned books, are alive in a way wholly separate from their electronic facsimile. And, alive is the word I use to describe this biography as well. Ms. Schiff brings alive not only the name Cleopatra, but also the place, the time, the smells, the value of money, the relationships, the ambition, the passions. As with her book about Benjamin Franklin, every sense of the reader goes back with her to another era – one with heros and villians and myths, and yes, a goddess.

  3. W. Jamison
    June 2nd, 2012 at 06:47 | #3


    Who was she in her own eyes? It never dawned on me before that the view I always had of Cleo was that of her critics. What did the Romans see in her that would not have been the Egyptian view? It is about time someone looked at the sources and read the life from a subjective view instead of the critical objective view. Another victory for women.

  4. Professor Emeritus P. Bagnolo
    June 3rd, 2012 at 10:18 | #4


    Cleopatra: A Life

    Stacy Schiff

    Author Stacy Schiff is a Pulitzer Prize winner and in another case was a Pulitzer finalist. She also won the George Washington Book Prize, the Ambassador Award in American studies, the Gilbert Chiard Prize of the Institute Francais d’ Amérique and three NYT Notable Books, The LA Times Book Review, The Chicago Tribune, and Economist books of the year. She received Fellowships from: the Guggenheim Foundation and National Endowment for the Humanities, a Director’s Fellow at the Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers and much, much more.

    The copy I received from Amazon for review was a typical advanced, uncorrected, proof, Review copy, which is usually a paperback format. Except that in this case the care given to the paperback cover, complete with a florid display of color in a four folded front and back cover, may be a clue to the coming of a hard cover of opulence. This sort of Review copy is more rare than most and it hints at the possibility of a forthcoming major film on Cleopatra.

    As for the content; ah the content… magnifique! One hundred, ten thousand words of unbridled perfection. Stacy Schiff’s language is as effusive in was the Queen, which she adorns with deep research – research that blows the cover off more than two thousand years of intentional slanderous inaccuracies. Some by men who hated her, who were, I believe, because of their fear of women of Power, beauty, sexual excellence, confidence and intellect.

    In line after line, paragraph after paragraph, the writing, vocabulary, color and tone of the book is perfection. Words flow into sentences four to ten lines long, and in a few cases paragraphs often cover most of a page, ala Henry James, (Turn of The Screw, etc.) and if you are used to reading the classics in any language, you don’t mind it a bit, and some may welcome it.

    Schiff expands her sentences sometimes into nearly page long paragraphs, with serial descriptions of sumptuously, voluptuous parades, banquets and artifacts. She seduces you into falling head over heels in love, and or lust with the girl queen, whose intellect, competence, strategic and tactical planning are equal to if not superior to that of entire enemy nations.

    Cleopatra, a Greek woman, who spoke at least eight languages, played most games as well as or better than her male companions, who were often in awe of her. She who could and did easily charm men with even half an effort, even those who resented, hated and were envious of her (and there were many) made Alexandria the art, cultural and commercial center of the world. Her net worth before her death was valued at roughly $95.7 Billion American dollars, the richest woman in the world, or ever, and among the richest humans (men or women) of all time.

    Her nation became a storied and mythical land in which women excelled in many fields and in comparison to Rome, it was a paradise of perfection. In that and the production of art, decorative items, jewels and ship building was unique, her output of grain was stupendous, as were the creation of exotic clothing, jewelry, and brightly colored clothing were unmatched in all of antiquity. It was a storied land of Amazon females which were also exquisitely feminine. In her case more so. And yet by most evidence and descriptions, though she was not not drop-dead gorgeous, she, by velvety soft, articulate and eloquent voice, and quick wit, quick response, with a satiric sense of humor and the ability to tease, roast, attracted men with her vibrantly vivacious force of personality and her amazingly classical education, which was often superior to that of her enemies. The fabled Library of Alexandria’s, mythical contents, grew to 500,000 volumes in fantasy, though most present day estimates say it was closer to 100,000 to 250,000 scrolls.

    Few males could withstand or compete her charm wit and repartee’. These are good reasons why two of the most powerful men on earth fell deeply in comradeship and love/lust with her. Two men who threw away a kingdom and three quarters of the world, just to be with her, whenever possible. Yet, through all of this, she was not, “the whore queen.”

    Caesar and Mark Antony were the Charley Sheen of their era, bedding down more women than Hefner, many of which were married to senators and other political and business types. The truth is that despite the slanders of Cicero, Octavian, her rival brothers and sister, Dolabella, Delius, half the women of Rome, and historians of her day later and long after her death, including Lucan, and for centuries afterwords many others using the errors and intentionally reading of motives onto the circumstances surrounding a woman, whose very existence caused them to shrivel in fear of castigation, or swell in lust, despite their fear, even when not in her presence.

    With sumptuous language, the author lays out the truth, beneath the rumors and libels. Schiff uncovers, with exhaustive research, the details as far as they can be deduced without eye-witnesses. She tabulates the incredible odds against Cleopatra even surviving her early teens when she was constantly avoiding assassination at the hands of siblings, adults, traitors, greedy and murderous others all around her. She became, of necessity, a skilled and fearless killer in an atmosphere in which at any turn, or step she could be herself murdered. It was an era where one either learns to kill or is killed. Yet she became a teen aged queen of incredible skills and outlived most of her enemies, and if Mark Antony had acted promptly, she and he would have outlived Octavian and reigned until old age, as co-queen of three-quarters of the world, perhaps including Rome as well.

    The truth concerning her denigrating title (The Whore Queen), by men whose masculinity was threatened by such female of great competence, is easy to unravel. In their case it was the ebony pot calling the kettle black. Most of her male enemies slept with every senator’s wife of beauty or wealth, in Rome. Fear and envy was the motivation of the vast majority of those who slandered her. More importantly, was that there is not a shred of evidence of her sleeping with anyone other than Caesar and Mark Antony. Was she a master of poisons? Was she a killer? Was she seductive? Was she manipulative? Yes to the first three, possibly to the fourth, but she lived in a world far different from ours. A world of murder, especially of females in line for Queenship. Was she guilty of incest? No, there was no such crime in her world, nor did she consummate her marriage to her brothers.

    The Mark Antony of the movies and semi-fictional books, was not the Mark Antony of Cleopatra’s world. He appeared erratically shifting between competent and ineffective after the death of his mentor Caesar. He failed to eliminate his physically weak chief rival, who was obviously out to destroy him. He seemed to want Rome, Egypt and his position to go away. It appears that the stress of a life of violence, war, intrigue, pressure rendered him inept. He seemed to just want to move away to secret island where love and peace would follow him all the days of his life. He became a fish out of water, and allowed a physical weakling to destroy him. Karma? Tired of warring? Wasted by love and trapped in a world of violence, a soldier who appeared at one time fearless, crumbling and losing his sanity and perspective? Reading between the Schiff lines, I say yes, to all of that.

    Of all of the historical biographies, I have read in my life this ranks it the top five-ten. If you read only one such book this year, I urge you to make Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff, the one.

  5. Tracy Hodson
    June 3rd, 2012 at 21:06 | #5


    2 stars for the first half; 4 for the second half -averaged out to 3

    “Cleopatra: A Life” is not the book one wants it to be. A new biography of one of the most fascinating women in history who had liasons with two of the most fascinating men in history should, at least, entertain us. After all, she was Isis personified, the Queen of the Nile, the last Pharoah of Egypt, the end of the 300-year Ptolemaic dynasty, the woman who held the keys to the granaries that fed Rome, a legendary beauty of great charisma, the wealthiest woman on Earth, the symbol of all that was exotic and enticing about the sensual East–surely a biography of Cleopatra has got to be great. Stacy Schiff’s book, however, disappoints. Certainly a good deal of that disappointment stems from the fact that there is simply very little information extant about Cleopatra, and much of what is “known” is questionable. There are no primary sources except her enemies, who wrote what served their purposes, while the three main secondary sources, Plutarch (writing primarily about Antony), Appian, and Dio lived well after her lifetime and all contradict one another. Even Caesar himself only mentioned her briefly. Her capital city, the Alexandria she knew, lies under the sea or has been destroyed by war and modern building; other than the profiles on her coins, there isn’t even a portrait of her. Ms. Schiff acknowledges the almost total lack of reliable information right from the start, but can’t quite overcome the enormity of that obstacle. Her prose is often stilted as she fills pages with everything but Cleopatra’s life. We learn what her education probably consisted of, what the people of Alexandria ate and therefore what Cleopatra probably ate, how they partied (and they really partied); we get lots of sentences beginning with “she probably,” “she may have,” “she might have,” “we can guess she…” This becomes both frustrating and tedious to read. We do get a good picture of Alexandrian life in the 1st century B.C., and lots of incidental details (the importance of the great goddess, Isis, the racial and religious make-up of the city, a great deal of detail about the wealth and importance of Alexandria at this time, even birth control methods), but there is very little justification for filling the first 150 pages with so much that sheds no light on Cleopatra or her life. That which is known about her background, her early life, and her relationship with Caesar takes little time to relate, and the author gets bogged down in irrelevant information. It becomes further mired as we are forced to listen to Cicero whine about Alexandria, Antony, and his favorite object of scorn, Cleopatra herself (who apparently upset him over a book). One can’t help but wish that Ms. Schiff had decided to get through this material more quickly in order to bring us to the moment of Antony’s appearance in Cleopatra’s life, for his effect on the book is much as his effect on Cleopatra’s life: things get much more interesting.

    The second half of the book is dedicated to the exploration of that most intriguing of relationships, though Ms. Schiff doesn’t seem to subscribe to the idea of theirs being a great romance. She doesn’t really seem to have a point of view about many things, including the source of Cleopatra’s great power over two of the greatest men of her age. Instead, she presents various accounts about all the major events of the last ten years of Cleopatra’s life, during which she was Antony’s faithful lover and mother to three children by him in addition to her son, Caesarion, by Julius Caesar (his only son and only living child), and Antony’s eldest children by an early marriage. The details of their life together–as much as can be known–are covered well, and the tension mounts as they plummet headlong into war and the final, fatal, showdown with Octavian. All of this is well-written and exciting to read; clearly, when Ms. Schiff has something to write about, she writes vividly. And this is a story worth telling–whether Cleopatra and Antony partnered out of passion, or politics, or both, it is certainly one of the great couplings of all time. The bewildering and disastrous Battle of Actium, Cleopatra’s building of her own Mausoleum, Antony’s botched suicide and subsequent death in Cleopatra’s arms are the stuff of high opera. Octavian’s cold, ruthless gamesmanship versus Cleopatra’s determined, intelligent survivalism made for a dramatic end-game, regardless of the veracity of the varying accounts (poison or an unlikely, very handy, cobra? Cleopatra’s suicide or murder by Octavian?).

    The chief problem for any biographer of Cleopatra is that she is primarily known as the mistress of Caesar and Antony–she really had no “life” of her own as far as history is concerned, unlike Elizabeth I or Eleanor of Aquitaine whose lives stand on their own merits. While she was allowed to rule Egypt on her own, unlike the other “client kings” of Rome, apparently no one chronicled her life during the periods when she was not having a direct impact on Rome and its leaders. Rome had a unique problem on its hands with Cleopatra. She was more than just an expendable dragon sitting on a great pile of treasure–she was a beautiful woman, able to insinuate herself into Caesar’s life sufficiently to end up carrying the greatest card of all: his son. With that Ace up her sleeve, she couldn’t be paid off or killed, and she certainly couldn’t be ignored. She became a force to reckon with, and as such, a major player on Rome’s stage (despite its resistance to this disquieting reality); for this reason we know more about her than we likely would have ever known about some other Ptolemy who just happened to be the nominal Pharoah under Rome’s jurisdiction. Her story, for all its gaps and mythologized elements, has inspired artists and writers for more than two thousand years; that will just have to be enough for us.

  6. Pastor Dan
    June 4th, 2012 at 21:10 | #6


    This scholarly work on the life of Cleopatra is filled with facts that I had never heard or clarifies things that I thought that proved to be wrong. I have been reading lots of Historical Fiction and really enjoying them, so this book was a bit more difficult to get into. It truly is a historic piece that gives a good biography of the life of Cleopatra.

    It is obvious that Ms. Schiff has done a great amount of research and is giving us as clear a picture as possible of Cleopatra. I found some of the writing a bit difficult to follow, there are lots of names, places, dates and issues that start to fill your mind with a bit of overflow. But if you slow down a bit, concentrate more than you would in reading a novel you will find the nuggets of gold that are buried in the facts and it will bring Cleopatra’s life into focus.

    The combination of Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great, the Egyptian, Roman and Persian Empires are all pulled together to give the accurate picture of what life was life in the Middle East during Cleopatra’s life.

    Maybe the biggest thing to keep in mind is the fact that during this period of history men were the dominate figures, in most cultures women were property. So for Cleopatra to rise to such notoriety is amazing.

    If you enjoy history and enjoy wading through lots of information you will enjoy this history of the life of Cleopatra.


  7. Carol S.
    June 5th, 2012 at 12:19 | #7


    Before reading Stacy Schiff’s new biography of Cleopatra, I freely confess to not knowing that much about the Queen of Egypt — and after reading it, I realize that much of what I thought I knew was false. Schiff does a lot of myth-busting in this book: Cleopatra was a Macedonian Greek, not Egyptian; she probably didn’t die of an asp bite; and she was a far more intelligent, capable leader than she is usually given credit for. I will let historians and Egyptologists opine as to the thoroughness of Schiff’s research and the validity of the conclusions she reaches, but it seems as though she has trawled through numerous ancient texts and records to support her theories about Cleopatra’s life. (The biggest criticism I have of the book is that it is densely written, with so many references to source material, commentary about said source material, and long, complex sentences intertwining on themselves, that one sometimes gets bogged down in verbiage and too much detail.) Indeed, one of the biggest challenges facing a biographer of an ancient figure like Cleopatra is the lack of first-hand source material. When contemporaneous, primary sources don’t survive, the biographer has to turn to secondary sources, many of which were written to satisfy political or other agenda, and Schiff does a good job of pointing out the difficulties in relying on these sources as she goes along.

    In all this talk about sources and history, I don’t want to overlook the fact that Cleopatra lived a fascinating and dramatic life,which Schiff does portray admirably (if her writing style is a bit on the dry side at times). Cleopatra came from a long line of monarchs, and had to fight hard to obtain and keep her crown. Schiff talks about the familial conflicts, sibling pitted against sibling, that explain why Cleopatra, like so many other Egyptian monarchs, ordered so many assassinations to secure her throne. There are, of course, Cleopatra’s relationships with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, each of which seemed to be based both on the personal charms of the men but also on Cleopatra’s need to maintain an alliance with Rome to further stabilize her hold on the Egyptian throne. And Cleopatra’s fabulous wealth and luxurious lifestyle is fascinating to read about; bowers strewn knee-deep in roses, golden barges with purple sails, lavish entertaining… it’s a window into a rare and truly over-the-top way of life.

    Despite all of the soapy details, what stayed with me the most were the more lasting, one might say feminist, qualities that Cleopatra displayed. She received a thorough education, the best available at the time, and was very intelligent and learned. She spoke multiple languages fluently, no joke when you consider the different and difficult-to-learn tongues spoke in that region, and thinking about the beautiful queen able to converse as easily with slaves as with fellow rulers and ambassadors is a striking image. She was a political survivor, using what she had to first get her throne, then keep it, while expanding her reign over large parts of the Mediterranean/Middle East. She faced rampant sexism from many quarters, particularly from Romans who did not have a particularly enlightened view of a woman’s role (and it was interesting to learn how enlightened Alexandria was regarding women’s rights by comparison). So many historians and commentators have written Cleopatra off as a sexual predator, judging her far more harshly than the men she had relationships with (Caesar and Antony were certainly no virtuous husbands faithful to their wives!) that I enjoyed reading Schiff’s more objective portrayal of Cleopatra as an intelligent, ambitious, perservering ruler who, yes, probably used her sexuality as a part of her arsenal, but who should be viewed as so much more than a limpid babe in eyeliner, lying on a barge, or a scheming slut who slept her way to the top.

  8. Marcy L. Thompson
    June 6th, 2012 at 16:51 | #8


    As the author makes clear on nearly every page, much of what we know about Cleopatra is suspect. It was either written by people with a definite agenda, or by people who lived centuries after she died. And yet, she was a major player in the politics of the Mediterranean area during her lifetime. Her death marks the end of an historical age. And her legends are well-integrated into Western histories and ideas about history.

    In this biography, Stacy Schiff makes a valiant effort to discern what we know, what we can reasonably infer, and what that we think we know is wrong. Cleopatra as depicted here is both far more and far less than the popular conception of her, and the book is fascinating. I found it well-written and interesting.

    The cover image is evocative of one of the great mysteries: we don’t really know what Cleopatra looked like. The photographs of coins and other possible renditions help unravel that mystery, but like much else about this fascinating woman, what is left at the end is an awful lot of “Well, we just don’t know, but here’s what probably happened.”

  9. Randy Stafford
    June 7th, 2012 at 09:02 | #9


    So what does Stacy Schiff bring to the study of Cleopatra?

    A dramatic narrative that opens with a 21 year old Cleopatra smuggling herself, in a rug, to meet Julius Caesar at her old palace in Alexandria. A prose that strives so hard to be elegant that it occasionally trips up, is a bit too discursive at times like going into Florence Nightingale’s impressions of Alexandria, comparing the entrance of Cleopatra into Tarsus with other famous entrances that include Howard Carter into King Tut’s tomb and the Beatles on Ed Sullivan’s show. A tone of rather conventional feminism – history as one long tale of male domination with strong women resented and lied about – rubs against passages where Cleopatra wistfully fears her most beautiful years are behind her, where she resorts to a woman’s first and last weapon of tears. We are sometimes faced with a false choice of seeing Cleopatra as a seducer or a superbly intelligent woman of many talents. Why not both?

    Those are all minor quibbles. The Cleopatra of drama and song and painting has so much allure, so much name recognition, that Schiff would have to be a truly pathetic writer to make her into a boring, obscure figure, another one of those figures from the ancient world who is mute on their own life. Instead, Schiff’s prose accomplishes what a good historical narrative should – propels you forward through a story whose end you already know.

    Does she bring anything new to Cleopatra? I have no idea. This is the first biography of the queen I’ve read.

    I can tell you that, since I usually read general or topical histories of Rome, I found this biography offered some perhaps trivial, perhaps important events not covered in those books. For instance, is Cicero’s hostility towards Cleopatra really just because she didn’t deliver a book she promised him? It’s also an interesting parallax on Caesar’s dictatorship and the chaos after his death, a good companion to Adrian Goldworthy’s Caesar: Life of a Colossus. Because we have, at most, one word in her hand, we must see Cleopatra the seducer, general, poisoner, doctor, and mother through other eyes. And, while I think Schiff is a bit too skeptical of them, I agree with her conclusion, after carefully examining the Roman and Roman collaborator ( i.e. Josephus) accounts of her, that they do sound suspiciously formulaic in parts.

    Schiff takes time to cover some important contextual matters of Cleopatra’s life. The command and control of the incredibly wealthy Egyptian economy was a revelation to me as was the native Egyptians’ loyalty to the first Ptolemic ruler to take an interest in them. We also learn a fair amount about the young Herod and his particularly viperous family.

    And we get a look at some mysteries of the queen’s life: Why did she flee the Battle of Actium, a battle vaguely covered in ancient records? Why did she keep the defeated Antony around Alexandria afterwards? Love? Pity? Fear of Roman reprisals if she killed him? How did she die?

    Schiff gives us a life that is better and more interesting than the legend.

  10. Stanley C. Sargent
    June 7th, 2012 at 12:32 | #10


    As an published author having written (fiction) about ancient Egypt myself, I have to admit I am in awe of this book and its author!

    Ms. Schiff went back to the classic sources and considered each as propaganda, exaggerated legend, and/or fact (the latter being an incredibly rare commodity in ancient texts). For the most part, all the ancient sources of information concerning Cleopatra are a mix of all three of the three aforementioned categories. We have very little by way of artifacts and almost nothing of Cleopatra’s actual writings (maybe a fragment containing her preferred sign-off, “Let it be done.” and possibly a bit of the end of a letter (that may be a copy of the original). Alexandria, the wonder of the world due to the Ptolemies, is now 20 feet underwater and was looted by Octavion immediately after the deaths of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. A few statues, pylons, and broken bits of structures have recently been pulled from the Alexandrian harbor, but not enough underwater research has been done to date to provide us with much new information.

    Considering all this, it takes great courage for a Pulitzer Prize winning (among MANY other awards) author to tackle such complicated, albeit compelling, subject matter in hope of extracting a logical, accurate-as-possible of not only Cleopatra herself but the torturous times in which she lived. Ms. Schiff refuses to simply reiterate either the oft-repeated Roman propaganda concerning the Egyptian monarch (the Romans despised Cleopatra, in great part due to the manipulations and falsifications of the scheming, obsessive, murderous and ultra-devious Octavion, aka Augustus ) or the glamorously romantic vision conjured and elaborated on by Shaw, Shakespeare, at least 3 spectacular Hollywood films (one silent), and numerous imitators.

    This volume not only makes an exhaustive effort to provide us with a clear understanding of the mind and life of one of the world’s greatest leaders, male or female, but manages to successfully weave Cleopatra the person into the hellishly confusing context of the treacherous world in which she lived.

    This is, admittedly, no light read. If that is what is desired, readers might as well pick up the novel based on the Taylor/Burton cinematic extravaganza of a few decades ago. Ms. Schiff’s style is scholarly and intense but not beyond the ken of most educated readers willing to pay attention to what they are reading (turn off the TV and rid yourself of background noise). There’s a lot to keep track of, yes, but the story takes place in very complex and confusing times. Murder, even within one’s own family was rampant, betrayal was a daily event, and a flash of gold or promise of power could turn a monarch’s head so quickly that he barely caught a fleeting glimpse of his most loyal comrade as he wields a deadly weapon furiously over his head.

    It would be pointless to try and encapsulate the contents of the book in a short review, so I won’t try. I will say I found it to be an admirably fascinating and enlightening read that was amazingly well-researched and stylishly written. Myths are considered and often dismissed as the creations of extremely opinionated authors of and after Cleopatra’s time.

    Above all, however, this is the first book that struggles (successfully, in my opinion) to reveal to readers Cleopatra the person rather than the myth; she was not only a brilliant ruler but (to the shock of the ancient world) also a woman. Not only was she other than the dazzlingly irresistible vamp and witch of legend, but she possessed a mind, charm, education and wit so incredible that the two greatest leaders of the Roman world were so captivated by her that they were willing, even eager, to risk their lives and their countries just to be her close companion and sometimes lover (neither of them could legally marry her under Roman law). Cleopatra bore these men children, potential heirs to the vast riches of the most powerful empire in the world at that time. As the author points out, she also ushered in a new era that changed and more often than not improved endless aspects of the rest of the world over the subsequent centuries. We cannot truly understand Cleopatra’s motives or actual feelings in many instances, but Ms. Schiff has shifted through all of the most reliable if any of them are truly reliable) authoritative works on the life and times of this most illustrious and fascinating ruler in order to present us with a far more realistic, logical and understandable (not to mention enjoyable) picture than has previously seen print. I wildly applaud her for this wonderful, highly successful and important effort.

  11. Kelly
    June 7th, 2012 at 19:32 | #11


    Wow – I SO wanted to love this book. What a great subject. And the author has such fantastic credentials – I thought this couldn’t fail to be a fascinating read.

    Unfortunately, this book is downright painful to read. It is verbose, clunky, rambling, and very tedious to follow. I have to read and re-read many of the passages just to discern what she’s trying to say.

    I’m frustrated because the author obviously knows her subject. She is very intelligent and I think she’s done her research. I WANT to read what she has to say about it. I think her perspective might be interesting because she’s clearly angry about the way Cleopatra has been treated in many historical biographies. I’d like to know what she thinks the real truth is.

    But my life is just too busy to have to wade through compound sentences and lengthy passages that use 10 times more words than necessary to say what could be said concisely. This book requires serious total concentration with no distractions in order to follow what she’s trying to say – and that just isn’t going to happen around here.

    If you are an academic who loves reading this kind of writing because of the mental exercise it requires, you will adore this book. Buy it.

    If you mostly enjoy reading for pleasure and entertainment, you may want to skip this one.

  12. Andrew Olivo
    June 8th, 2012 at 07:06 | #12


    This is a beautifully written and beautifully illustrated book. The author makes the story of Cleopatra come to life, making historical figures from so long ago seem more approachable and understandable. This book is an obvious choice for anyone interested in women’s history, and the history of powerful women and women in politics. Probably the most interesting thing I learned in this book was that in Cleopatra’s day women held equal rights to men; women could own property, initiate their own divorces, sue their ex-husbands for alimony, etc. This helped me understand that Cleopatra was a product of her nation, a nation that the time was entirely out of sync with the rest of the world and that often shocked the rest of the world.

    Anyone familiar with my reviews will know that other woman that I am fascinated with is Eva Peron. I see parallels between Eva Peron and Cleopatra. This book explains that women in power are often perceived as attaining that power solely through sexuality. This has been said about Eva Peron and Cleopatra; but I’ve read that Eva Peron was actually a very “sexless” woman, and this book about Cleopatra says that the woman herself was hardly considered beautiful. It’s just interesting to see how powerful women are often transmuted into seductresses. Obviously, this is usually because history books are written by men (ahem, the author of this book is a woman).

  13. Happy Reader
    June 8th, 2012 at 12:56 | #13


    I am reviewing from the Advance Reading Copy, Uncorrected Proof.

    I admit that I’m a Cleopatra fan. I have a number of books about her, and the myth is not nearly as interesting as the real woman. I will say that this book, by Stacy Schiff, is now my favorite. This is not fictionalized history, but a well thought out and well documented biography. Her notes and bibliography are extensive.

    Not only that, but the writing is engaging. From the first chapter: “Like all lives that lend themselves to poetry, Cleopatra’s was one of dislocations and disappointments.”

    Right off the bat I was impressed with this book because the photo on the front of the book is EXACTLY right! It doesn’t show a woman wearing a black Egyptian wig in a white linen gown. On festival days where Cleopatra went among the people as Isis, she would have worn the full Egyptian Pharoah regalia. But otherwise, she and the “ruling class” of Egypt were Greek! As Schiff writes, “The Ptolemies were in fact Macedonian Greek, which makes Cleopatra approximately as Egyptian as Elizabeth Taylor.” Cleopatra’s dynasty was started by Ptolomy, one of the generals who carved up Alexander the Great’s empire after his death. Cleopatra wore brightly colored fabrics. Her hair was styled in a Greek manner (think of ancient statues), upswept, decorated by jewels, ringlets escaping from her diadem. (In Cleopatra’s case, the everyday emblem of her royalty is a white cloth band, almost a headband.) All coins with Cleopatra’s image show Greco-Roman styling.

    There is a decent amount of extant writings that mention Cleopatra, written during her life or shortly after. But the trouble is that much of it was written by disapproving Romans or those currying favor with the Romans. The largest sources date from 60 years after her death. So it can be easy to go with the myth. Or, as Schiff relates: “George Bernard Shaw lists, among his sources for “Caesar and Cleopatra”, his own imagination.”

    There is so much more to Cleopatra than as simply a seducer, a conniving “that Egyptian woman” of no morals who liked to flaunt herself as much as her wealth. As a matter of fact, when you gather all the facts, the seducer part doesn’t make much sense. For example, Julius Caesar was a powerful confident man known for his infidelities and gestures such as spending a fortune on a single pearl for a mistress. By the time he met Cleopatra he also had massive debts, including an army that fought for him for 10 years and now needed to be paid. (Traditionally, soldiers were only paid at the end of a campaign.) Cleopatra and her brother ruled the wealthiest country in his world. As Schiff explains, Cleopatra also had an outstanding finely-educated brain and a charismatic personality (even abusive biographers admitted this). She was almost certainly a virgin when she met Caesar and it is in no way a slam dunk that she did the seducing.

    Of course, being cool-headed and pragmatic can mean different things in different times. Cleopatra did, over a length of time, manage to have a few of her siblings murdered. If you were royal or wanted to be royal, it was the way to stay ahead or get ahead. [Schiff relates that during the same period, Herod murdered his children. And afterwards wailed that he was "the most unfortunate of fathers".] Understanding the period and the whys and wherefors is excellently enabled in Schiff’s narrative.

    I was a bit surprised to read that there probably was no asp/cobra at the end. Schiff explains the pros and cons, concluding, “Cleopatra’s asp is the cherry tree of ancient history.”

    Cleopatra VII lived from 69 BCE to 30 BCE. She ruled Egypt for 21 years. A remarkable woman. I could sit here and write a lot more about what I read, because there is so much intriguing detail, but that would make for a tedious review. Instead, I recommend reading this book for the real story of Cleopatra, one not “mauled by historians”.

  14. Terri J. Rice
    June 8th, 2012 at 18:50 | #14


    Her ancestry is,”an ungainly shrub of a family tree,” full of incest. Cleopatra’s great-grandmother was both wife and niece of Ptolemy VIII. Cleopatra’s own husband was also her brother and a mere boy at the start of their marriage, ten years old to her eighteen years. Of the fifteen family marriages, ten were full brother-sister unions. Two other Ptolemies married nieces or cousins.

    Schiff has done an admirable job of taking the reputable historians accounts, chopped away at the absurd and pandering or those filled with a particular hatred and whittled Cleopatra’s life down to a fascinating and believable historical account.

    What of that story wherein Cleopatra arrives in the palace of Caesar wrapped in a hemp rug to curry favor for her reign over that of her husband/brother? Did she really seduce Caesar and thereby bear his son? Or was it Caesar who seduced her.

    Stacy Schiff herself admits, “there is not universal agreement on most of even the basic details of Cleopatra’s life. So much of this history is simply not known. Childhood was simply not a subject worthy of papyrus and further, papyrus did not survive the ravages of time. So even Schiff is often left with, “may have’s,” “may well have’s,” and must have’s” in an attempt to piece together the life of an alluring woman that began in 69 BC.

    Schiff’s conclusions are fair and well researched making this a historical account of great significance, however, there is so little absolute verifiable information about Cleopatra that Schiff and all other historians are left to make an educated guess at best about actual details of her life.

    If you are looking for a light read about this fascinating woman the cover art might fool you into believing this is the book for you. It is not, if however, you are looking for an historical account full of minutiae and conjecture this will delight you.

  15. Burgmicester
    June 10th, 2012 at 17:28 | #15


    When you pick up a book by a Pulitzer Prize winning author, there is a certain amount expectation that the reader has a right to feel. When the subject matter is titled: Cleopatra – A Life, you expect after all these years and hundreds of books on Cleopatra to find new and wonderful things. Ancient Egypt and the Queen of the Nile lead to expectations that interesting and titillating discoveries are at your finger tips. And maybe that is why this book fails on many levels. It fails to excite. It fails to engage. It fails to make the reader yearn for more. It is an underwhelming work that lives up to none of the expectations. It might be well researched, and thoughtfully put together, but there is nothing in this work that speaks to the fact that this is just another book about Cleopatra and a backhanded writing at that.

    First, there are very little specifics to Cleopatra’s life that are revealed. The first 100 pages are mainly pulled from works having to do with Caesar and the generalizations that describe Egyptian and Roman life in the first century BC. The second 100 pages are mostly about Mark Antony with Cleopatra thrown in. The author goes through great pains to explain that much that has previously been written about Cleopatra is simply made up. If nothing new is being offered other than to decry that which has already been written, why bother to write this book. Was it because author had done the research but could not uncover anything new and would not let all of that research go to waste? This is one reader that just doesn’t get it. And to put it over the top, the author goes to great lengths to put in writing what others have written and how it may or may not be true. In this back and forth method, this reader was often lost.

    The author like to use mixed chronological metaphors – “He wrote off extravagance as detrimental to body and mind, sounding like no one so much as Mark Twain resisting the siren call of Europe.” What the heck is that? These are used by the author several times. What they manage to do is to move the reader from the time of the story and put them into another era losing the momentum and completely breaking any engagement the reader had with the first century BC.

    Unfortunately the only part of the book that is more Cleopatra than Rome is the last 100 pages. However, she shares billing with the Antony/Octavian climatic battle. Equally unfortunately, the book reads like an encyclopedia or textbook. Additionally, it is overlaid with guesswork (i.e. {paraphrasing} We do not know what Cleopatra did, but we can guess that she used…..). The writing is extremely tedious and laborious to read. There are certainly factual pieces of information in this volume, but there quite simply very little information about Cleopatra. Much of the last chapter related to deaths of Antony and Cleopatra is written in a fashion that debates the histories written by Plutarch and Dio. This makes for a truly confusing, lengthy and mostly lecture-like finale. This reader did not appreciate this method of story telling.

    If you are interested in the time and era, then you might find this book to be worth reading. But beware that the focus of it is more Cleopatra’s relationship with Rome than a biography on Cleopatra. And while I realize that one goes with the other, this could have been a history of Caesar, Antony and Octavian rather than Cleopatra.

    I cannot recommend this book to anyone other than a researcher looking for confirmation from these sources.

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