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Cleopatra: A Life (2010)

by Stacy Schiff

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
3,7101692,597 (3.67)1 / 349
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 349 mentions

English (167)  Spanish (1)  Swedish (1)  All languages (169)
Showing 1-5 of 167 (next | show all)
I have tried to read this book twice and always put it up a hundred pages through. I honestly do not know why. It is not badly written. ( )
  Joe73 | Oct 19, 2021 |
“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 | Aug 20, 2021 |
Schiff does a fantastic job in bringing Cleopatra to life: the drama, the sensuality, the politics. However, I did end up giving this 4 out of 5 stars because, in the way I was reading it, she doesn’t try to bring Cleopatra back from the brink that society has put her at; in my opinion, modern society has overly sexualized Cleopatra and turned her into a bad/wicked woman because she was ambitious and openly sought power. Schiff doesn’t try to break that mold, which slightly bothers me. However, I do realize that this may not have been the intent of the book.
I did really like this overall, and it was very interesting to learn about the more detailed aspects of Cleopatra’s live, especially given the fact that she is closer in time to us than she is to the pyramids. I liked how Schiff included quotes at the beginning of each chapter. ( )
  historybookreads | Jul 26, 2021 |
Adult nonfiction/biography. I'm as much a fan of history as the next guy, but--wait, let me take that back, I'm not really into history. I did get the impression that Schiff had done extensive research into the subject matter, though with records being as spotty as they were, there's still a lot left to speculate on. ( )
  reader1009 | Jul 3, 2021 |
Without a doubt, this is a biased biography, though I am hard-pressed to recall any non-fiction that isn't. As they say, history is written by the victors (generally synonymous with "oppressors" in some fashion), and if it means challenging the patriarchal storytelling of one of the most powerful women in history, well then, I'm listening.

This was an unintentional timely read (listen) on my part, which made it all the more gratifying and frustrating with the events of the past week. Even though Cleopatra proved a strong Ptolemaic ruler, a strategist to the end, an intellectual, a pragmatist, historians have largely stripped her of any real agency--as Schiff points out--other than as the lover/manipulator of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. That is certainly the only light I had cast her in prior to this book. I am grateful to Schiff for laying out Cleopatra's life and reign and examining the motives behind why her achievements go overlooked.

Bonus: if you're a sucker for Hellenistic/Roman empire dramarama, high five! You're going to be in heaven.

Whether or not you are as taken by this biography as I was, I would be surprised if you come out on the other side without a voice in your head forever questioning why our histories are told the way they are. ( )
  LibroLindsay | Jun 18, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 167 (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 (37 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Stacy Schiffprimary authorall editionscalculated
Ahlström, LarsTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Decréau, LaurenceTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Miles, RobinNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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« Sagesse et méfiance, il n’est rien ici-bas qui soit plus profitable ! »
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Among the most famous women to have lived, Cleopatra VII ruled Egypt for twenty-two years.
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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.

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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

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Average: (3.67)
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Hachette Book Group

3 editions of this book were published by Hachette Book Group.

Editions: 0316001929, 0316120448, 1607887010


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