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Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
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Cleopatra: A Life (2010)

by Stacy Schiff

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
3,1811542,681 (3.69)1 / 340
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
    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
    Personal History by Katharine Graham (Menagerie)
    Menagerie: Two strong women that lived centuries apart but faced many of the same obstacles.
  4. 10
    The Rise and Fall of Alexandria: Birthplace of the Modern World by Justin Pollard (davesmind)
  5. 00
    Antony and Cleopatra by Adrian Goldsworthy (bookfitz)
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Showing 1-5 of 152 (next | show all)
“It is not difficult to understand why Caesar became history, Cleopatra a legend.”

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’s a bad habit of mine.) The whole kerfuffle over Sony’s film adaptation brought it back to my attention.

Stacy Schiff gleefully debunks everything you thought you knew about Cleopatra. No, she wasn’t 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’t 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’t 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 – or as Schiff charmingly calls it, “the kudzu of history” – there’s 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’s writings remain. Surviving historical records don’t 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 155–235) has no qualms portraying her as a scheming, greedy hussy. (Keep in mind that Dio was greatly influenced by Octavian, Cleopatra’s 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’t 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 – yes, that Herod – gets a pretty in-depth aside.

If it ever gets off the ground, I’m curious about what the movie would do with Cleopatra’s story. It’s 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 | Jul 31, 2019 |
In one word, fascinating. This biography delves into the world's most "wicked woman"and arguably the least understood woman. What little survives of her was written by men, Romans who would eventually annex Egypt and misremember, misattribute, and slander Cleopatra. What people remember about this bad-ass queen, is not her wit, fierceness, and shrewd leadership; rather they remember her as a beautiful seductress who managed to snag two of the most powerful men in the world. Stacy Schiff delves deep to set the record straight in this amazing (admittedly a little dense at times) biography. I always thought Cleopatra was cool (what little I knew about her), but after reading this I realized that she is the feminist boss babe I needed in my life right now. In her lifetime she sat a table of leaders, all men - and reigned supreme. ( )
  ecataldi | Jul 29, 2019 |
Solud retelling of Cleipatra from different sources. Enough action to keep it going and make this goddess human. ( )
  kakadoo202 | Jul 27, 2019 |
I don't often read ancient history because, well, it often lacks the kinds of sources historians can rely for more recent eras to analyze motives and dispel myths. Cleopatra's story has little to no eyewitness accounts and the few sources existing come from the centuries after her death. Still, in this biography, Stacy Schiff makes a good effort at getting down to the facts of Cleopatra's life and the practical motives she would have had for her actions. Plenty of the romance is gone - Cleopatra does have to disguise herself in a sack to sneak into the palace to meet Julius Caesar, but the author points out this disguise would not have enhanced Cleopatra's seductive powers (if she had any to start with). All together, this is the kind of biography I like to find - the romance is dispelled, the seductress is gone and one is left with a powerful, practical woman who tried but failed to stand up to the Roman Empire. ( )
  wagner.sarah35 | Jul 14, 2019 |
Mostly satisfactory book about the famous Egyptian queen. The author is very much sympathetic to her subject, and I think it does cloud her judgement just a little bit; she gives Cleopatra VII a great deal of credit for being smart and clever, and even accounting for the awkward times in which she ruled, that's something of a hard sell. One of the points the author makes, and you have to keep this in mind when reading the book, is that very little survives of Cleopatra in her own voice -- even her very image (the real, historical one) is open to doubt. Mostly recommended. ( )
  EricCostello | Jul 7, 2019 |
Showing 1-5 of 152 (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)
 

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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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Book description
Biography of the Egyptian Queen, Cleopatra, VII

CONTENTS:

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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