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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
3,0321502,706 (3.69)1 / 336
  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 148 (next | show all)
We don't know much about Cleopatra's life, much about her is fabricated and embellished. Stacy Schiff manages to create a compelling portrait that's biggest accomplishment is to put her life into the context of her time, into the juncture of the ending of an era and the beginning of the next, the meeting of East and West, the subversion of one ancient and immensely rich, advanced and superior culture by an upstart barbarian military power. Ironically, Rome adopts much of Egypt's culture and wealth - and suffers the same fate as Cleopatra's Egypt by the hands of militarily superior barbarians some 500 years later.

This is as good an account of Cleopatra's life as one could find. Good read for the first half but bogs down in the second. I liked the effortless style, the rich descriptions of the context of the time, the flowing narrative at the beginning, but later the fluidity often got in the way of clarity. At one point you had to figure that a battle was lost due to her referring to the difficulties of retreat, instead of directly saying what happened. Towards the end, the feminist outlook started to get on my nerves. The need to refute the injustice in her treatment by male historians ironically does Cleopatra a disservice. Egypt's downfall is an inevitable fall of a great empire to an upstart. I would have liked more parallels to other great empires' falls - and ends of great emperors/empresses - rather than an emphasis on how unkind history has been to her because she was female. She left on history a most magnificent image - the like of which very few male rulers (if any) have left. Were the last Ptolemy a male - the image would have been less bedazzling, but the result would have been the same - Egypt would have fallen to the Romans.

She remains large in history less due to her sex but the role she played in the age where empires were coming to a head, where personalities decided empires' fate. After Caesar's death, she was the strongest personality on the scene - neither Octavian nor Antony was as astute, intelligent, well-liked, naturally level-headed, self-confident. She ruled her kingdom by all accounts much better than any previous Ptolemies, better than Octavian ruled Rome. Had she been a general - had she been allowed to command an army - they would not have wasted away their advantage at Actium. Her decisions might not have been better, but one thing is sure - she would not have set idly, she would not have lost a battle due to indecision and hesitation.

Cleopatra does emerge as full-bodied person from this account. I do wish Stacy Schiff spent less time fighting gender battles, though. As much as she charges the male historians with anti-woman sentiment, she herself ends up focusing on the injustice of that, instead of rising above it and paint the life of one of history's most fascinating persons, as opposed to one of its women.
( )
  Gezemice | Oct 29, 2018 |
I learned a lot of stuff from this book! I'm not prone to reading a ton of non-fiction - I'm working on it - so when I decided to up my intake of non-fiction, I turned to a recommendation from my history-loving friend Jeannine, who loves Stacy Schiff and recommended this book specifically.

I can't say that I loved this book, but I did enjoy what I got out of it immensely. I never really realized how little I knew about ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece until I read this book; it had never quite stuck with me how closely intertwined they all were. Stacy Schiff does an excellent job of laying out the relationships between the countries, the norms of the time, both in Rome and Egypt, and generally the context of Cleopatra's life. She also makes very clear how the story of Cleopatra that has made its way to modernity has been twisted and embellished to suit various agendas, all of them patriarchal.

I found especially interesting the sections about Isis worship, and women's equality with men in Egypt, and the comparisons with how women were treated in Rome, where they had the same rights as, say, a chicken, and the worship of Isis was outlawed. I would LOVE to read a book on Isis worship in the ancient world.

Definitely would recommend this book if you're interested in Cleopatra, and willing to read a relatively large and slightly dry book. ( )
  VLarkinAnderson | Sep 24, 2018 |
Perhaps of all the historic characters we think we know, but don’t, Cleopatra ranks at the top of the list. Sometimes a legend is so well-known that we lose track of the fact that a real human being was living this story, fighting these battles, and harboring these emotions. What an extraordinary person she must have been to have lived through so much in her short thirty-nine years and to have influenced history in the way that she did.

First fact that I did not know. She was Cleopatra VII. There were five before her, but someone screwed up the count and she was officially #7. I think we would all agree that regardless of that fact, there was only ONE Cleopatra. Nothing like her has existed since the year 30 BC.

She was the exceptional woman who knew how to play with the men and come out on top. She was absolutely as smart as she was beautiful, and probably more so, since her beauty is not mentioned as often as her charm. She came to power in what might be termed a cruel and ruthless manner, being directly involved in the death of her siblings, but reality is that it was more a matter of survival than choice.

That her fate became linked with Marc Antony’s might have as much to do with playing the political game as it ever did with love or passion. She bore him three children, however, and it is hard to imagine that she did not feel very strong bonds with him beyond those of their interlaced political ambitions.

There exists but one word actually written by Cleopatra herself. Everything we know of her comes to us from other sources. Cicero, who despised her, is a major source, as is Plutarch, who lived between 45 and 120 AD. It takes a lot of research in multiple sources to assemble a true picture of her life, and Stacy Schiff has done the work. She has managed at the same time to make the account interesting and never boring or stale.

In the final insult to my knowledge of Cleopatra, I learned that it was most likely NOT an asp that killed her. The story does, however, date back to almost the moment of her death and was spread by Octavian for his own reasons. It fit so perfectly with the legend that already begun to spin around her and the images that were associated with the Ptolemies, that it stuck like glue.

“Before her came Eve, Medusa, Electra, and the Erinyes; when a woman teams up with a snake, a moral storm threatens somewhere.” Says Schiff. It explains well why historians preferred to pass along the fiction instead of the truth.

“Our fascination with Cleopatra has only increased as a result; she is all the more mythic for her disappearance. The holes in the story keep us under her spell.” She bewitches us from beyond the grave perhaps because we know so little about her personally and that gives us a blank slate on which we can write our own version of Cleopatra.

Having now finished this biography, I am anxious to find time to revisit my favorite Cleopatra story, the one penned by William Shakespeare. I will read it with an eye to how it differs from the truths we know about this enigmatic woman.
( )
  phantomswife | Jul 6, 2018 |
Cleopatra ruled Egypt as queen for 22 years within the 50 years before the common era (BCE). She was a strong and smart woman.

Women were pretty much equal in this time and place – at least in Egypt, though not necessarily in Rome or elsewhere at the time. Unfortunately, though, there is not a lot of contemporary/primary source material on Cleopatra. Also unfortunately for me, I do prefer reading about historical women, not men. This book (by necessity, I think) told mostly of the men who ruled at the time of Cleopatra (Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Octavius…) and for purposes of trying to recreate her life, it feels like she’s an afterthought in the book, always where she is and what she’s doing in relation to these ruling men. Because of that, I tended to lose some interest in the book. It’s too bad, because I really don’t know much about her. I know a bit more now, and I’m still rating it “ok”, but I was a bit disappointed that there wasn’t more about her. ( )
  LibraryCin | Jun 24, 2018 |
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. ( )
  GaylaBassham | May 27, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 148 (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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Wikipedia in English (2)

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.

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