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Cleopatra: A Life (2010)

by Stacy Schiff

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
3,4891622,610 (3.68)1 / 346
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.
  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
    Antony and Cleopatra by Adrian Goldsworthy (bookfitz)
  3. 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.
  4. 10
    Personal History by Katharine Graham (Menagerie)
    Menagerie: Two strong women that lived centuries apart but faced many of the same obstacles.
  5. 10
    The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern World by Justin Pollard (davesmind)

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» See also 346 mentions

English (160)  Spanish (1)  Swedish (1)  All languages (162)
Showing 1-5 of 160 (next | show all)
Cleopatra is perhaps one of the most famous women in history. She ruled an empire, was fabulously wealthy, and slept with the most famous Roman men of her time. However, history is written by the conquerors, and ultimately Cleopatra lost. Her story has been shifted, misinterpreted, and changed to suit those in power. In this book, the author attempts to separate fact from fiction, and unravel the truth behind Cleopatra.

This book was well researched and presented. Like most non-fiction books, this book was slow and tedious at times however, it was able to hold my attention. The author did a good job of blending what was written about Cleopatra, and speculating about the truth. Overall, 4 out of 5 stars. ( )
  JanaRose1 | Oct 1, 2020 |
I am so grateful for a group read I participated in because I never would have finished this book. I didn’t like the author’s style. She’s pretentious and often assumes you already know so much already, when she throws sentences in with a wink and a nod like we’re in on her personal remark. But that aside, I learned so much and I’m glad for it. I generally liked Cleopatra—she wielded power and wealth considerably well under extremely trying times. ( )
  KarenMonsen | Aug 2, 2020 |
Recommended for anyone interested in Egyptian or Roman history. Also recommended for feminists of all ages! ( )
  Chrissylou62 | Aug 1, 2020 |
38. Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
reader: Robin Miles
published: 2010
format: 14:16 audible audiobook (369 pages in hardcover)
acquired: Jun 22
listened: Jun 23 – Jul 16
rating: 3
locations: Roman Empire
about the author born 1961 in Adams, MA

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


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


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


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


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

https://www.librarything.com/topic/322920#7230486 ( )
  dchaikin | Aug 1, 2020 |
Started this on audio, but switched to paper which was easy to read and absorb the content. The author displayed an enormous amount of research on a story that has been told many ways. Her emphasis is on Cleopatra, the woman and less on the "legend" that surrounds her other histories. ( )
  beebeereads | Jul 17, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 160 (next | show all)
" Ideally, as Stacy Schiff observes in her magnificent re-creation of both an extraordinary woman, and her times, our sense of Cleopatra would be heightened by her dramatic appearance as the doomed heroine of a sumptuous opera (Puccini, preferably)."
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.

"Successfully dissipating all the perfume, Schiff finds a remarkably complex woman—brutal and loving, dependent and independent, immensely strong but finally vulnerable."
added by bookfitz | editKirkus Reviews (Sep 15, 2010)

» Add other authors (5 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Stacy Schiffprimary authorall editionscalculated
Ahlström, LarsTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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Finally, for Max, Millie, and Jo
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Among the most famous women to have lived, Cleopatra VII ruled Egypt for twenty-two years.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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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. Though her life spanned fewer than 40 years, it reshaped the contours of the ancient world.

No library descriptions found.

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

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