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Cleopatra: A Life

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Most Helpful Favorable Review

40 out of 46 people found this review helpful.

Beautifully researched and historically accurate

Full disclosure: My Ph.D. dissertation (Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, 1976) was an examination of the persona of Cleopatra in the plays in English about her from 1592 to 1898, including the famous plays by Shakespeare, Dryden, and Shaw. While Stacy Schiff ...
Full disclosure: My Ph.D. dissertation (Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, 1976) was an examination of the persona of Cleopatra in the plays in English about her from 1592 to 1898, including the famous plays by Shakespeare, Dryden, and Shaw. While Stacy Schiff uses the same resources I did-primarily the Roman and early Christian propagandists-she also has the advantage of books published as recently as 2008. The level of her scholarship is one thing that makes this book so good. It includes maps of Alexandria and the Mediterranean world in Cleopatra's day, extensive notes, and color plates of statues and coins that show us what the queen may have looked like. Some years ago there was a movement to reclaim ancient Egypt's people and civilization for sub-Saharan Africa. It's possible that the pyramid builders were black Africans, but Cleopatra was no more Egyptian, Schiff writes, than Elizabeth Taylor. The queen was Macedonian Greek. The founder of the Ptolemaic Dynasty was a childhood friend of Alexander the so-called Great and founder of the great city of Alexandria (which is now mostly under water). The Ptolemies engaged not only in patricide, matricide, fratricide, and sororicide, but also in incest; in the opening chapters of Cleopatra, Schiff untangles the history and shenanigans of this dynasty, which puts the Borgias to shame, and describes its long and troubled relationship with the Roman Republic. Cleopatra is most famous, of course, for her love affairs with two of the most famous and more or less noblest Romans. Julius Caesar put her back on her throne in about 48 BCE after she'd been exiled by her brother (Ptolemy XIII) and his henchmen. She was in Rome in 44 when Caesar was assassinated and sailed home to Alexandria soon after the Ides of March. She probably met Mark Antony in Rome, but she didn't engage his interest until after he and Octavian (Caesar's heir) had dispatched Brutus and Cassius at Philippi in Asia Minor. Antony now summoned the queen to Tarsus. The events of the final years of Cleopatra's life, from the Donations of Alexandria (late 34) until her death in 30, were enormously complex. Schiff meticulously combs through the ancient sources to distinguish Roman propaganda from history. At the Donations, Antony gave Cleopatra the title Queen of Kings, promoted Caesarion to King of Kings, and gave their three children lands from Parthia (now northern Iran) to Cyrenaica (now Libya). To say the Donations angered Octavian is a vast understatement; the Roman civil war blazed up again and was not quenched until, following the battle of Actium in 31 from which the queen so famously sailed away, the Romans invaded Egypt and Antony and Cleopatra both killed themselves. With the death of the richest woman in the world, Octavian had no more competition. He renamed himself Augustus and founded the Roman Empire. Quill says: After you've read this beautifully researched and historically accurate biography, have some fun. Rent the bloated 1963 Elizabeth Taylor movie. Play film critic. Comment on the historical errors, the anachronisms, and the utter nonsense.

posted by FeatheredQuillBookReviews on November 17, 2010

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Most Helpful Critical Review

52 out of 56 people found this review helpful.

Not enough information to qualify as biography

"Cleopatra: A Life" is not scholarly enough to qualify as a biography--there simply isn't enough information extant about Cleopatra to fill a 300+ page book. All her sources wrote well past Cleopatra's time, or were Roman enemies. Schiff acknowledges the almost total la...
"Cleopatra: A Life" is not scholarly enough to qualify as a biography--there simply isn't enough information extant about Cleopatra to fill a 300+ page book. All her sources wrote well past Cleopatra's time, or were Roman enemies. Schiff acknowledges the almost total lack of reliable information right from the start, but can't quite overcome the enormity of that obstacle. Her prose is often stilted as she fills pages with everything but Cleopatra's life. We learn what her education probably consisted of, what the people of Alexandria ate and therefore what Cleopatra probably ate; she fills page after page with sentences beginning with "she probably", "she may have," "she might have," "we can guess she..." This becomes both frustrating and tedious to read. The first half of the book deals with all but the last years of Cleopatra's life, the ten years with Antony, but as there is next to nothing known of these years, there's next to no substance being covered here. Schiff gives a lively picture of Alexandria, and a great deal of time is spent reading Cicero's denunciations of Cleopatra, but there's nothing new, nothing of very great interest, very little "biography." The second half of the book is about the years with Antony, and is dedicated to the exploration of that most intriguing of relationships, though Schiff doesn't seem to subscribe to the idea of theirs being a great romance. She doesn't really seem to have a point of view about many things, including the source of Cleopatra's great power over two of the greatest men of her age. Instead, she presents various accounts about all the major events of the last ten years of Cleopatra's life, during which she was Antony's faithful lover and mother to three children by him in addition to her son, Caesarion, by Julius Caesar (his only son and only living child), and Antony's eldest children by an early marriage. The details of their life together-as much as can be known-are covered well, and the tension mounts as they plummet headlong into war and the final, fatal, showdown with Octavian. All of this is well-written and interesting to read; clearly, when Ms. Schiff has something to write about, she writes well. And this is a story worth telling-- whether Cleopatra and Antony partnered out of passion, or politics, or both, it is certainly one of the great couplings of all time. The bewildering and disastrous Battle of Actium, Cleopatra's building of her own Mausoleum, Antony's botched suicide and subsequent death in Cleopatra's arms are the stuff of high opera. Octavian's cold, ruthless gamesmanship versus Cleopatra's determined, intelligent survivalism made for a dramatic end-game, regardless of the veracity of the varying accounts (poison or an unlikely, very handy, cobra? Cleopatra's suicide or murder by Octavian?). In the end the book is neither scholarly enough to qualify as a biography, nor well-enough presented to qualify as a good read. Schiff reads no Greek or Latin, and does not appear to have traveled to any of the areas she's written about or visited museums to talk with scholars or to see artifacts that may have helped her to get a real handle on her subject. There is no new information, and Schiff gets a bit side-tracked by her irritation with Liz Taylor for having played Cleopatra on screen, hardly an important detail for a serious biographer. There seems to be a great deal of effort going into promoting this book, but it just isn't a very creditable effort.

posted by TracyHodson on November 20, 2010

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  • Posted November 20, 2010

    Not enough information to qualify as biography

    "Cleopatra: A Life" is not scholarly enough to qualify as a biography--there simply isn't enough information extant about Cleopatra to fill a 300+ page book. All her sources wrote well past Cleopatra's time, or were Roman enemies. Schiff acknowledges the almost total lack of reliable information right from the start, but can't quite overcome the enormity of that obstacle. Her prose is often stilted as she fills pages with everything but Cleopatra's life. We learn what her education probably consisted of, what the people of Alexandria ate and therefore what Cleopatra probably ate; she fills page after page with sentences beginning with "she probably", "she may have," "she might have," "we can guess she..." This becomes both frustrating and tedious to read. The first half of the book deals with all but the last years of Cleopatra's life, the ten years with Antony, but as there is next to nothing known of these years, there's next to no substance being covered here. Schiff gives a lively picture of Alexandria, and a great deal of time is spent reading Cicero's denunciations of Cleopatra, but there's nothing new, nothing of very great interest, very little "biography." The second half of the book is about the years with Antony, and is dedicated to the exploration of that most intriguing of relationships, though Schiff doesn't seem to subscribe to the idea of theirs being a great romance. She doesn't really seem to have a point of view about many things, including the source of Cleopatra's great power over two of the greatest men of her age. Instead, she presents various accounts about all the major events of the last ten years of Cleopatra's life, during which she was Antony's faithful lover and mother to three children by him in addition to her son, Caesarion, by Julius Caesar (his only son and only living child), and Antony's eldest children by an early marriage. The details of their life together-as much as can be known-are covered well, and the tension mounts as they plummet headlong into war and the final, fatal, showdown with Octavian. All of this is well-written and interesting to read; clearly, when Ms. Schiff has something to write about, she writes well. And this is a story worth telling-- whether Cleopatra and Antony partnered out of passion, or politics, or both, it is certainly one of the great couplings of all time. The bewildering and disastrous Battle of Actium, Cleopatra's building of her own Mausoleum, Antony's botched suicide and subsequent death in Cleopatra's arms are the stuff of high opera. Octavian's cold, ruthless gamesmanship versus Cleopatra's determined, intelligent survivalism made for a dramatic end-game, regardless of the veracity of the varying accounts (poison or an unlikely, very handy, cobra? Cleopatra's suicide or murder by Octavian?). In the end the book is neither scholarly enough to qualify as a biography, nor well-enough presented to qualify as a good read. Schiff reads no Greek or Latin, and does not appear to have traveled to any of the areas she's written about or visited museums to talk with scholars or to see artifacts that may have helped her to get a real handle on her subject. There is no new information, and Schiff gets a bit side-tracked by her irritation with Liz Taylor for having played Cleopatra on screen, hardly an important detail for a serious biographer. There seems to be a great deal of effort going into promoting this book, but it just isn't a very creditable effort.

    52 out of 56 people found this review helpful.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted November 17, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Beautifully researched and historically accurate

    Full disclosure: My Ph.D. dissertation (Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, 1976) was an examination of the persona of Cleopatra in the plays in English about her from 1592 to 1898, including the famous plays by Shakespeare, Dryden, and Shaw. While Stacy Schiff uses the same resources I did-primarily the Roman and early Christian propagandists-she also has the advantage of books published as recently as 2008. The level of her scholarship is one thing that makes this book so good. It includes maps of Alexandria and the Mediterranean world in Cleopatra's day, extensive notes, and color plates of statues and coins that show us what the queen may have looked like. Some years ago there was a movement to reclaim ancient Egypt's people and civilization for sub-Saharan Africa. It's possible that the pyramid builders were black Africans, but Cleopatra was no more Egyptian, Schiff writes, than Elizabeth Taylor. The queen was Macedonian Greek. The founder of the Ptolemaic Dynasty was a childhood friend of Alexander the so-called Great and founder of the great city of Alexandria (which is now mostly under water). The Ptolemies engaged not only in patricide, matricide, fratricide, and sororicide, but also in incest; in the opening chapters of Cleopatra, Schiff untangles the history and shenanigans of this dynasty, which puts the Borgias to shame, and describes its long and troubled relationship with the Roman Republic. Cleopatra is most famous, of course, for her love affairs with two of the most famous and more or less noblest Romans. Julius Caesar put her back on her throne in about 48 BCE after she'd been exiled by her brother (Ptolemy XIII) and his henchmen. She was in Rome in 44 when Caesar was assassinated and sailed home to Alexandria soon after the Ides of March. She probably met Mark Antony in Rome, but she didn't engage his interest until after he and Octavian (Caesar's heir) had dispatched Brutus and Cassius at Philippi in Asia Minor. Antony now summoned the queen to Tarsus. The events of the final years of Cleopatra's life, from the Donations of Alexandria (late 34) until her death in 30, were enormously complex. Schiff meticulously combs through the ancient sources to distinguish Roman propaganda from history. At the Donations, Antony gave Cleopatra the title Queen of Kings, promoted Caesarion to King of Kings, and gave their three children lands from Parthia (now northern Iran) to Cyrenaica (now Libya). To say the Donations angered Octavian is a vast understatement; the Roman civil war blazed up again and was not quenched until, following the battle of Actium in 31 from which the queen so famously sailed away, the Romans invaded Egypt and Antony and Cleopatra both killed themselves. With the death of the richest woman in the world, Octavian had no more competition. He renamed himself Augustus and founded the Roman Empire. Quill says: After you've read this beautifully researched and historically accurate biography, have some fun. Rent the bloated 1963 Elizabeth Taylor movie. Play film critic. Comment on the historical errors, the anachronisms, and the utter nonsense.

    40 out of 46 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 4, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Not your father's pulitzer prize

    It would take more space than what has been provided here to do critical justice to this abuse of historical interpretation. Anachronisms abound. Ms Schiff can't seem to get over the misogyny of the Roman culture. She levels the charge of orientalism against the Romans as if their attitude toward the eastern Mediterranean of the first century BC was comparable in context to the European view of the 'Orient' of Edward Said's late 20th century - another anachronism. She makes the absurd statement on page 295 that one can date the modern era from the death of Cleopatra. Excuse me? Based on what? I could understand how one might mark the beginning of the Pax Romana from the death of Cleopatra, but the modern era? Cleopatra left us no philosophical school, no religious movement, no political innovation, no unique technological breakthrough. Ms. Schiff is obsessed with rehabilitating her idol from the charge of being some kind of ancient Matahari. The problem with any serious study of this period - the Fall of the Roman Republic and corresponding rise of the Principate - is the quality and quantity of the data available. It is nearly impossible to faithfully reconstruct the political, cultural and social contexts of the events with any reliability. Most of the historians of this era had their own social and political biases and fears, and they wrote years after the events. The one independent contemporary voice of the period is Velleius Paterculus. A text of his "Compendium" was discovered in a monastery in 1515. It has been described as corrupted, poorly written, and filled with errors. Indeed, we no longer have the 'discovered' manuscript. Why Caesar decided to linger in Alexandria when the Civil War was far from over, why Antony seemed to ignore the rising power of his rival Octavian in Rome, what were the political maneuverings behind the scenes in the Senate - all these contexts are lost to posterity. Making assertions about what motivated the major players of this era is a supposititious exercise at best and utter arrogance at worst. It behooves the historian to travel cautiously thru the material. Yet Ms Schiff plows forward unheedingly. She guesses, she composes, she weaves - the story interesting and well-written. But the foundation is shaky. She manages to take at least one potshot at Sir Ronald Syme for his take on one particular incident only to affirm his point a couple pages later. Pulitzer material? Hardly.

    29 out of 40 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 4, 2011

    A HUGE disappointment........

    With all the hype surrounding a Pulitzer-prize-winning author coupled with my curiousity concerning this historical figure, I bought this book with great anticipation. However, I really struggled to get through it and I am a person that will generally read -- and get something out of -- just about anything. The synopsis of the book as presented in the BN listing tells just about as much as the entire book does and your high school classes in Ancient History tells you the rest. I think I even learned more from Elizabeth Taylor.......

    While Schiff's research may be impeccable, it is a thumping bore to get through and at the end, we still don't learn much about Cleopatra that we didn't already know. I wasn't expecting a tabloid page-turner but I also wasn't expecting a book that took such effort to just reach the end. I can't honestly recommend it.....

    27 out of 30 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 21, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    GREAT RESEARCH AND GREAT UNDERSTANDING WENT INTO THIS MASTERPIECE!

    Apparently there is so much more to Cleopatra than the pre-conceived notions of the American public. The author does a wonderful job defending Cleopatra and her actions. I'm sure history is much to do with hear-say and gossip of the time. Unless you've actually lived it you really don't know all of the true details. This book portrays a clear understanding of the mind and life of a great leader and paints a vivid and successful picture of the treacherous, barbaric world she lived in. I love that she comes to Cleopatra's defense, dispelling the myths and foiling legend that may or may not be true. I'd much rather see the good in people than the bad. This book is nothing less than amazing, fascinating and enlightening. Great research and great understanding went into this masterpiece!

    17 out of 20 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 18, 2010

    Caution - not everything is included

    I book was good but I was disappointed in that the plates -pictures- which are in the book are NOT included in the electronic version. Other books -like e.g., Manhunt- do include the plates. The ebook should have everything the hard back version has --NO exceptions.

    Also, I paid 14.95 for this book at B&N and then found it on sale -with the color plates- at Costco for 19.95. Yes, I feel "ripped off".

    16 out of 27 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 16, 2011

    Disappointment with ebook for my Nookcolor

    I found the story to be interesting. However when I discovered there were illustrartion acknoledgments listed at the end of the book, I was disappointed the illustrations were not available for viewing in this electronic version. I would not have purchased this book had I known in advance. I feel I was mislead that I was getting the full book. I purchased the Nookcolor with intent of viewing books with color plats. This book would be a good read for anyone who has the original Nook and likes history. If you have the Nookcolor don't both getting this book if you expect to see pictures. They aren't there.

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 7, 2011

    Difficult, Confusing, not an enjoyable read

    The book seemed to jump all over the place, read like a text book
    and not at all easy to read. Don't judge this book by its cover. ouch!

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 8, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Not easy reading

    this might be an interesting life, but it was written in a hard format, often telling the same episode in a couple different ways, depending on the source. It is not easy reading, like reading a fictionalized version, but hard reading, like a textbook. It was sort of interesting, but there must be better ways to write about it.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 24, 2010

    Fascinating and beautifully written

    One of the best biographies I have ever read, and among the best portrayals of life in the ancient world, on a par with Robert Graves. Schiff brings alive not only Cleopatra's personal history and what we can discern about her personality, but also her role in one of the most significant political events in history, the transformation of the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire. Schiff is a masterful writer. Some of her passages make you go back and re-read just to see how she did it. More than a biography, this is literature.

    5 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 24, 2010

    A delightful read!

    I just love how the writer weaves her tale of the often misunderstood Cleopatra. I cant help but find myself smiling while reading this book. The author gives such wonderful, historical details of the period and of the players in this classic drama. Its a must read for those who enjoy reading of the last Queen of Egypt.

    4 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 20, 2011

    Boring

    Although my daughter and I love all things Egyptian we both found this book very tedious. The writer obviously did a lot of research on the subject but that left us with too many innuendos and maybe she did this or maybe she did that. We were prepared to love this book and were really disappointed. After getting about 3/4 of the way through, I gave up. The good thing I can say is that there was a lot of description of life as it was in Cleopatra's time.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 30, 2010

    Fantastic

    For some it may seem a bit dull, but i find it amazing. I adore history and especially that dealing with female rulers considering they were so rare. This is a must for all history buffs.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 12, 2010

    I could not wait to get home from work to read this book!

    I was glad to get home each night to see my husband and child, but I could not wait to keep reading this book. It draws you in to the local drama. Very hard to put down for the night, I read it in less than a week.

    It is amazaing to see that a woman was allowed to rise to such prominence and exert her exceptional leadership skills so far back in history. Great lessons in this story.

    3 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 22, 2010

    It's Okay...

    It's an okay book if you aren't easily bored or mind having a dictionary beside you.

    3 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 2, 2012

    Words words words

    Informative, but extremely wordy. I am a HUGE history lover, but this author managed to make one of my favourite things incredibly boring. This reads like a college textbook; I thought it would be more like a novel. It just drags on.... an on.... and on....

    2 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 16, 2012

    I think the author tried very hard to impress...but fell miserab

    I think the author tried very hard to impress...but fell miserably short of her goal. Yes, the book was thoroughly researched, but as others have said, read like a textbook. Pulitzer Prize? Why?!?!?! I think it could have been WAY more interesting, and didn't offer more information than other books I've read on Cleopatra, just a different perspective...the author's.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 25, 2011

    Don't waste your money!

    A real snore and bore! This author is really grasping at the few straws of reliable historical info about Cleopatra to attempt to make this an epic novel. One plus: the fabulous jacket photo will probably sell more books than the content!!

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 3, 2010

    book

    I think its a very nice book...

    2 out of 77 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 15, 2012

    Would not recommemd

    Way too slow of a read, too much technical information. Probably great if you were doing research, but for the average reader too, too much.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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