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Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

Cleopatra: A Life (2010)

by Stacy Schiff

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
2,7961422,089 (3.7)1 / 328
  1. 30
    The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George (Anonymous user)
    Anonymous user: Although long, this is an excellent book. Written in first person and thoroughly researched, it really opens your eyes to what an outstanding person Cleopatra was.
  2. 10
    The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome's Deadliest Enemy by Adrienne Mayor (CGlanovsky)
    CGlanovsky: Both offer an outsider's (and antagonist's) perspective on Roman history.
  3. 10
    The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern World by Justin Pollard (davesmind)
  4. 10
    Personal History by Katharine Graham (Menagerie)
    Menagerie: Two strong women that lived centuries apart but faced many of the same obstacles.

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Showing 1-5 of 140 (next | show all)
Until reading this book I knew little about Cleopatra beyond the word on the street, which is based more on Elizabeth Taylor's portrayal than on Cleopatra. Schiff's meticulous biography is fascinating. She covers all kinds of detail: life, culture, medicine, politics, government, warfare, and education. She also describes a lavish opulence that is - and was at the time - astonishing. But what Schiff does best is to disparage the image of Cleopatra as a wicked temptress, instead showing the reader a more credible picture of a remarkably intelligent woman and powerful monarch who brought prosperity to her country. This is a compelling book with balanced opinions that I will keep to read again, and for reference. Highly recommended.

"Her power has been made to derive from her sexuality... 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."

"There was a glamour and a grandeur to her story well before Octavian or Shakespeare got his hands on it."
( )
  VivienneR | Oct 18, 2017 |
What do you think of when you think of Cleopatra? The asp? The siren lure of Egypt? Danielle de Niese, dripping with jewels? Elizabeth Taylor? Whatever we think of, it’s almost certainly incorrect. In this beautifully-written biography, Stacy Schiff tries to peel away the centuries of accretions in the form of purple prose, propaganda and the overheated male gaze, to reveal the ruler beneath. Don’t judge this book by its cover. The publisher has done the author no service in that respect. It’s packaged like a lightweight historical novel, with the traditional faceless woman in historical costume and lashings of pink and gold. It deserves better. Intelligent, gripping and extremely readable, this is the best biography I’ve read in some time...

For the full review, please see my blog:
https://theidlewoman.net/2017/07/28/cleopatra-a-life-stacy-schiff/ ( )
  TheIdleWoman | Jul 28, 2017 |
I know this book has many fans (Peggy being among them), but I'm sorry to say I just found it boring. I had to listen to it in bits and pieces because otherwise I stopped paying attention. Too much about Roman politics and not enough about the woman herself, though as I understand it, there's not much to go on as far as any factual information, as no document at all remains from her living memory. I guess fiction will serve me better? One anecdote I especially appreciated was in referring to a king and his family who had been captured (the details are already lost to me on who and where and so on). In deference to their status, Schiff says, their captors gave them chains of gold to be carried in. Nice touch. ( )
1 vote Smiler69 | Nov 29, 2016 |
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It's well-written and easy to follow even if you don't know a lot about the time period. Schiff does a good job of explaining her conjectures and theories. And it's absolutely fascinating. ( )
  gayla.bassham | Nov 7, 2016 |
ÛÏIt is not difficult to understand why Caesar became history, Cleopatra a legend.‰Û

I heard of this book thanks to The Daily Show. I love bios about royal women and the author is obviously super-smart. So I went out and bought the book, and I promptly left it unread for a couple of years. (That‰Ûªs a bad habit of mine.) The whole kerfuffle over Sony‰Ûªs film adaptation brought it back to my attention.

Stacy Schiff gleefully debunks everything you thought you knew about Cleopatra. No, she wasn‰Ûªt Egyptian. Not only was she Greek, she came from the same Macedonian stock as Alexander the Great. Yes, Cleopatra slept with both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, but she probably didn‰Ûªt have to work hard to seduce two known womanizers decades older than she. No, her appeal did not come from drop-dead gorgeousness, but rather from intelligence, wit, and a sexy voice. (Actually, Cleopatra wasn‰Ûªt described as a great beauty until after her death. It surely helped with the narrative of a man-eating, power-hungry femme fatale.)

But once you scrape away the myth ‰ÛÒ or as Schiff charmingly calls it, ‰ÛÏthe kudzu of history‰Û ‰ÛÒ there‰Ûªs not a lot of meat left. Schiff is very upfront about not having much to work with. Unlike with Caesar or Mark Anthony, none of Cleopatra‰Ûªs writings remain. Surviving historical records don‰Ûªt appear until more than a century after her death in 30 BC, and their accuracy is questionable to say the least. While Plutarch (AD 46-120) admires her and takes a more flattering approach, Cassius Dio (AD 155‰ÛÒ235) has no qualms portraying her as a scheming, greedy hussy. (Keep in mind that Dio was greatly influenced by Octavian, Cleopatra‰Ûªs nemesis and the conquerer of Egypt. As always, history is written by the victors.)

So what does that mean for this particular bio? Essentially, Schiff is reinterpreting biased accounts. Her method is to present a solid fact, and then reasonably conjecture around that fact. Cleopatra was born in 69 BC. Her upbringing would have been like this. Cleopatra regained control of the throne in 47 BC. On a typical day she would have done this. These passages are enlightening, yes, but focus on Cleopatra herself tends to get lost in them. It doesn‰Ûªt help that she is surrounded by men whose stories are better documented. Mark Antony and Octavian probably get as much page time as the leading lady. Even Herod ‰ÛÒ yes, that Herod ‰ÛÒ gets a pretty in-depth aside.

If it ever gets off the ground, I‰Ûªm curious about what the movie would do with Cleopatra‰Ûªs story. It‰Ûªs more entertaining, as well as easier, to depict this powerful woman as a sexpot rather than a politician or CEO. Her transformation is the most fascinating part of this book. History, as written by men, stripped her of every power except her sexuality, and then condemned her for using that sexuality. Three and a half stars. ( )
  doryfish | Aug 15, 2016 |
Showing 1-5 of 140 (next | show all)
Her life of Cleopatra is slightly soft-focused, as if she has applied Vaseline to the lens. It leaves the impression that, like a student taking an exam, she knows only a little more than what she writes. Sometimes she nods; to say, as she does, that Roman women were without legal rights is incorrect, although they were not allowed to hold political office. That said, she has done her homework and writes elegantly and wittily, creating truly evocative word pictures.


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Among the most famous women to have lived, Cleopatra VII ruled Egypt for twenty-two years.
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Book description
Biography of the Egyptian Queen, Cleopatra, VII


That Egyptian woman

Dead men don't bite
Cleopatra captures the old man by magic
The golden age never was the present age
Man is by nature a political creature
We must often shift the sails when we wish to arrive in port
An object of gossip for the whole world
Illicit affairs and bastard children
The wickedest woman in history.
Haiku summary

Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0316001929, Hardcover)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:10:52 -0400)

(see all 6 descriptions)

The Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer brings to life the most intriguing woman in the history of the world: Cleopatra, the last queen of Egypt. Though her life spanned fewer than 40 years, it reshaped the contours of the ancient world.

» see all 7 descriptions

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