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Cleopatra: A Life

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Most Helpful Favorable Review

41 out of 47 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 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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  • Posted January 14, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    A Serious History Book

    "Cleopatra: A Life" by Stacy Schiff is a Pulitzer winning biography of the famous Egyptian Queen. This is a well researched and dense book -it is not easy to read.

    Stacy Schiff provides a new insight into the life of history's most elusive famous person. Cleopatra is portrayed as an intelligent, educated power broker who knew how to persuade kings to come to her side and her people to support her. This biography tries to separate the woman from the myth.

    In "Cleopatra: A Life" Stacy Schiff tries to reconstruct the biography of the of the most fascinating woman in history. History has remembered Cleopatra as a queen of great beauty who trapped in her tangled web to of the most powerful Romans in history.

    Ms. Schiff tells us right off the bat to hedge our bets and forget what we know. There are simply very little primary sources about this fascinating woman, much of it has been lost and the rest has been written by her enemies. It is a travesty of history that we know so little of the last Pharaoh of Egypt, who also happened to be one of the wealthiest women of all times (and certainly the wealthiest person on earth during her reign).

    It was disappointing to learn that there are very few primary sources and that Ms. Schiff based her research, amazing and detailed as it is, on mostly three secondary sources, Appian, Lucius Cassius Dio Cocceianus and Plutarch - all Roman, were not of the same generation and contradict one another. Even Julius Caesar bearly mentions Cleopatra in his writing.

    Other then Cleopatra's profile on coins, we don't even have a picture of the queen.

    Lack of primary sources is certainly a huge obstacle to overcome in a serious history book and Ms. Schiff does her best, unfortunately the first 150 pages (or so) are filled with "maybe", "we can guess." and "probably". For me that was very frustrating and tedious as the book is very detailed in every aspect of the Alexandrian life - but not so much on Cleopatra's early life.

    The book becomes fascinating when Julius Caesar enters the picture, but really - what doesn't?

    However, the real story gets rolling when Mark Anthony meets Cleopatra. The intriguing relationship between the world's most riches person and the world's most honored solider gets a whole new perspective from Ms. Schiff. The author didn't really believe that there was a great romance between Cleopatra and Anthony - but they used one another (money for protection) and she does bring very persuasive analysis to bring the reader to at least consider, if not agree, with her point of view.

    The details of Anthony and Cleopatra's life together are much more fascinating and exciting than the "maybes" and "probablys" of the first half of the book. The final chapters, which details the showdown between Octavian and Antony are an absolute joy to read.

    This is a serious history book written by a superb historian and not a light read - consider that before purchasing. An excellent book not for those just interested in Cleopatra but also in Roman history in general.


    For more book reviews please visit ManOfLaBook dot com

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 28, 2013

    To whom may concren:

    I really in joy this book.

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  • Posted July 23, 2013

    more from this reviewer

    When most people, including me, think of Cleopatra, we think of

    When most people, including me, think of Cleopatra, we think of sex, snakes, Elizabeth Taylor, and, possibly, Shakespeare.

    This author dissects the layers of myth and fictional invention to give us a glimpse of a powerful and brilliant ruler who inherited a country of tremendous resources, but also deeply in debt and disarray. Cleopatra managed to survive growing up a Ptolemy, which family dynamic was something like the Hunger Games of first century BC, full of incestuous marriage and murder.

    While much of any biography filling in the gaps in what we know of Cleopatra has to be based on educated guesses, Schiff does a convincing job "selling" her version, and her style is light, readable and quite witty. Referring to the ruse by which Cleopatra had herself smuggled into Julius Caesar's presence via carpet or carpet sack:

    "Apollodorus came, Caesar saw, Cleopatra conquered…"

    She paints an extensive portrait of the world as it was in Cleopatra's time, the conflicts with Rome, the contrast between Alexandria - the New York of the ancient world, Rome, and the rest of Egypt, the staggering wealth of Egypt, the various Roman personalities who would have such a great impact on Cleopatra, both friends and foes.

    She points out that for all the stories of Cleopatra as an accomplished seductress and manipulator of men, both of the two men she is accused of "seducing" had considerable sexual history long before they met her. Cleopatra is much more famous for the legend of suicide-by-asp (probably not true) than for ruling Egypt successfully for almost twenty years, or her command of nine languages, including Egyptian (she was the first Ptolemy to bother to learn it).

    "It has always been preferable to attribute a woman’s success to her beauty rather than brains. We seem convinced that men strategize while women scheme. Men are authoritative while women are shrill."

    If you are curious about this period of history, or Cleopatra herself, this book is well worth the read.

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  • Posted May 21, 2012

    Fascinating

    The enormous amount of information was almost overwhelming but at the same time fascinating. Because there was no story line, as in fiction and because we all know the ending, it was difficult to keep reading through the 400 + pages. But every time I picked it up to read, there was always some amazing piece of information about Cleopatra's life and the time in which she lived. The author's delightful humor was a refreshing break from the tome of events, unfamiliar names and backward progressing dates.
    Other folks in my book club who had the "hardcopy", as opposed to my Nook copy, had interesting pictures which would have been nice. Also, my Nook copy is not lendable and my son would like to read it. I wish now I had purchased the paperback.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 9, 2012

    A new and different perspective

    Puts a whole new spin on Cleopatra and the historical context of the time. Very interesting.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 3, 2011

    Good read

    Fascinating portrait of Cleopatra from scarce historical records. Book starts slow but once the action picks up with Ceasar murder it never stops.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 24, 2011

    Feminist perspective

    I really learned so much about not only
    Cleopatra but the cultures of
    Rome and
    Alexandria and the precursors of modern
    P
    R and spin

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 19, 2011

    Test

    Good read

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 20, 2011

    Very Thorough Biography

    This was a very well-researched and laid out biography of Cleopatra, and it will appeal mostly to the true historian or lover of biographies.

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  • Posted August 7, 2011

    Well written

    Dont usually read non fiction but this was good

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  • Posted August 4, 2011

    Excellent history

    I enjoy historical books and this one was a plethora of information. A fast read , however when I downloaded the book into my e reader, none of the graphics, maps, photo, drawings were included. A big disappointment since I often like to refer to the maps, especially, when determining where battles, and locations are described.

    SuzanneMS

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  • Posted March 29, 2011

    Love it!

    I was a little hesitant about this book when I read reviews stating it was more like a textbook, but very glad I gave it a try. True, it is not written in story form, but it IS a factual, interesting and easy to read biography of a very misunderstood historical figure. Needless to say, after the free sample I immediately purchased the NOOKbook and had trouble putting it down.

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  • Posted March 24, 2011

    Fascinating

    This is a very well-written and well-researched biography. I never knew much about Cleopatra or even Casear and Antony. Schiff is a gifted writer and makes ancient history interesting. It boggles the mind to read accounts of events that occurred before Christ was born. I would definately recommend this book. If you like to read fiction that draws on true events, I would also recommend Philippa Gregory as well as The Pillars of the Earth and Worth Without End by Ken Follet.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 5, 2011

    Feminist Take

    This is a good book, but it's clearly a feminist take on Cleopatra's life. I compared the NookBook with the printed version. The printed version has many interesting illustrations that do not appear in the Nook version. The purchaser ought to be informed. Also, the maps are hard to read in the Nook version, because they don't enlarge and you can't look at them in landscape mode.

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  • Posted January 3, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Fascinating Introduction to How History is Made for Popular Audience

    A fascinating introduction to how history is made---by historians as well as historic actors. The book invites critical thinking and reveals our contemporary cultural biases as well as timeless biases (such as the femme fatale) in interpreting historic scenarios and imagining motives. I enjoyed Schiff's method of presentation---outlining the vying grandiose theories then recapping the simple, few known facts---allowing readers to draw their own conclusions (or sustain the mystery). The book is aimed at a popular audience (good, sometimes riveting story-telling), but gives a nod to academic conventions (uses high brow vocabulary such as "inanition," "cupidity," "equably" and jargon such as "mise en scene," and is well footnoted.) The book humanizes the classical marble characters at the beginning of Western Civilization and inspires interest in their grander context, for instance by driving home Alexander the Great's enduring influence centuries after his death and the dismantling of his empire. (You probably will end this book wanting to read one about Alexander or the Roman Empire after Augustus.) If pressed, my only criticism is stylistic (and nitpicky): Schiff constantly uses relative and dependent clauses to open her multi-claused sentences. I frequently had to reread the clauses in reverse to discern what the opener modified, (and near the book's end there is an unclear antecedent which momentarily leaves the reader wondering if Octavian or Herod ends in suicide.) In sum, the book is worth reading for the fascinating story, the rendition of historic revisionism, the unmasking of histrionics, and the concise use of broadening vocabulary (keep a dictionary handy--Nook does not have definitions for many of the terms used).

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  • Posted December 29, 2010

    eeee

    ddddy

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 27, 2010

    fantastic

    jhcjgcjcjc

    0 out of 13 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 20, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted July 24, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

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