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Cleopatra: A Life

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Overview

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.

Winner of the 2011 PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography
One of the New York Times Book Review's Top 10 Books of 2010
One of the Best Books of the Year: Time Magazine, The New Yorker, Los Angeles Times, NPR's Alan Cheuse Best Books of Winter, Bloomberg, The Week Magazine

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Her life spanned fewer than 40 years, but she was the last Egyptian pharaoh and one of the most influential women of the age. She married twice, each time to a brother; she poisoned one and waged a war against the other. To this day, the life of Cleopatra VII (69-30 B.C.) intrigues us. This adept biography by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff tells us why it should. The true story of the woman behind the myth.

Kimberly Cutter
"In [Stacy Schiff's] terrific new biography of history's favorite sex-crazed, power-mad hussy, called simply Cleopatra, Schiff tosses out centuries' worth of envy, misogyny, and plain old snark to unearth the brilliant Macedonian ruler and restore the golden luster of Cleopatra VII's reign in Egypt....As gripping as the story of [Cleopatra's] 22-year reign over Egypt is (especially once Mark Antony arrives in his breastplate), the greatest pleasure comes from reading Schiff's lavishly detailed scenes of banquets (think roasted peacocks and storks), processions of elephants in golden slippers, and political intrigue. The Cleopatra who emerges had a talent for making an impression, a genius for diplomacy, and more flat-out Girl Power per pound than any woman before or since."
Mary Gordon
"Stacy Schiff's meticulous research, the depth and deftness of her portrayal, have given us a Cleopatra far richer and more satisfying than the myths and fantasies that we have mistaken for true nourishment. This Cleopatra is an invaluable contribution to our understanding of the history and lives of women."
Simon Winchester
"This is an astonishing, scrupulously researched, meticulously assembled retelling of one of the world's most famous lives--and it will become a classic."
Cullen Murphy
"Schiff, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Véra Nabokov, set out to the extract the real Cleopatra from the mythic figure.... Schiff's learning is immense, but worn lightly and with an assured grasp of human nature."
Kitty Kelley
"Stacy Schiff, a Pulitzer Prize winner, sets the gold standard for all biographers, and her latest, Cleopatra, is a feast--a mouth-watering feast."
Tracy Kidder
"Cleopatra is buried under centuries of lies, and Stacy Schiff calls on her considerable powers to bring her back to life for us. With wit, clarity, and grace, Schiff has done what only the best writers can do: she has made the world new, again."
Jon Meacham
"An epic subject requires a writer of epic skill and scope, and we have a perfect pairing in Cleopatra and Stacy Schiff. Absorbing and illuminating, this new biography will endure."
Ron Chernow
"Even if forced to at gunpoint, Stacy Schiff would be incapable of writing a dull page or a lame sentence. Here she trains her satirical eye and sterling erudition on Cleopatra. Schiff's luminous prose evokes the ancient world with vivid splendor, whether it be the cosmopolitan charms of Alexandria or the murderous feuds of Rome. Her portraits of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony are fresh and provocative. Best of all, Cleopatra emerges as much more than the voluptuous seductress of legend and comes across as a shrewd, cunning, and highly competent monarch who knew how to thrive in a Mediterranean world of savage politics."
Azar Nafisi
"What dazzles us in Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra are not the alluring mythologies about the evasive queen, but the astonishing if rare historical facts that Schiff has meticulously and lovingly excavated, linking one to the other like precious pieces of an ancient artifact. Cleopatra becomes 'real' as do the major (and minor) characters at her side. In language that is filled with insights and yet is seductive, lithe, and eloquent, Schiff offers not just Cleopatra's story but the story of an amazing era, one that has vanished but still affects us, questioning the way we look at myth, history and ourselves."
Miranda Seymour
"[A] magnificent re-creation of both an extraordinary woman, and her times...No previous image, visual or verbal, matches up to the inspiring, frightening, ruthless woman conjured by Schiff from an inspired combination of carefully parsed texts, new research, and pulse-quickening descriptive writing....Schiff uses a method that borrows much from the cinema. Zooming in on a dramatic event, she then pulls back to reveal the larger picture; the back story; the setting....Schiff proves brilliant at peeling away the layers of myth in which earlier storytellers shrouded the Egyptian queen."
Susannah Cahalan
"Engaging and meticulously researched."
Lisa Orkin Emmanuel
"It's as though Cleopatra lives and breathes once again in the pages of Stacy Schiff's exquisitely researched and well-written Cleopatra: A Life. The book injects the Egyptian queen with a complexity and humanity that has long since been forgotten....[it] glows with details."
Mary Ann Gwinn
"[Schiff] portrays Cleopatra as the ambitious and talented ruler she was and puts her affairs with Caesar and Mark Antony in their proper political context. The Romans, the early writers of Cleopatra's history, portrayed her as a lascivious power-grabbing hussy. But Schiff works hard and successfully to get beyond the anti-Cleopatra propaganda."
Carmela Ciuraru
"An extraordinary achievement in biography. [Schiff's] book explores themes of female ambition and power-issues that seem just as vexing now as they did 2,000 years ago....Along with tracing Cleopatra's rise to power, her loss of Caesar (by assassination) and Mark Antony (to suicide) and the epic story of her empire, this biography is filled with fascinating and amusing details of the era....Lacking any primary sources whatsoever, it is admirable that Schiff could create such a drama-filled and accessible narrative, especially one so rich in detail. It's true that Cleopatra's story has long been 'constructed as much of male fear as fantasy,' but with Cleopatra, Schiff has produced a compelling and authoritative correction in its place."
\Dan Vergano
"Wraps up classical scholarship about the famed Queen of the Nile into an enthralling tale"
Rick Riordan
"Stacy Schiff is that rare combination: a first-rate historian and a brilliant storyteller. Using a wide range of sources, she spins straw into gold, conjuring the world of Ptolemaic Egypt in full vibrant color, and returning the voice of one of the most powerful, fascinating, and maligned women in history. CLEOPATRA is impossible to put down."
John McMurtrie
"An engrossing and well-researched biography, full of delicious details."
Anne Bartlett
"Schiff brings alive not only the personalities but the ambience of the gilded Hellenistic Middle East and still-crude Rome. Her writing beautifully evokes Cleopatra's stupendous capital Alexandria."
Kathryn Harrison
"[Cleopatra's] first biographers never met her, and she deliberately hid her real self behind vulgar display. A cautious writer would never consider her as a subject. Stacy Schiff, however, has risen to the bait, with deserved confidence ....Schiff's rendering of [Alexandria] is so juicy and cinematic it leaves one with the sense of having visited a hopped-up ancient Las Vegas, with a busy harbor and a really good library....It's dizzying to contemplate the thicket of prejudices, personalities and propaganda Schiff penetrated to reconstruct a woman whose style, ambition and audacity make her a subject worthy of her latest biographer. After all, Stacy Schiff's writing is distinguished by those very same virtues."
Louisa Thomas
"Startling. Rarely have so distant a time and obscured a place come so powerfully to life. It is a great achievement. It is also a provocative one. Faced with the perplexing question of how to write about a person when the evidence is sketchy and often misleading, Schiff has hit on an ingenious solution. She has written a biography in negative, describing the outlines of what she cannot know by brilliantly coloring around the queen."
Joanne B. Mulcahy
"A rollicking good read... Schiff shares the talents that made her subject such a standout in her time: wit, rhetorical skill and keen intelligence."
Craig Seligman
"[Schiff] handles the politics of the ancient world from 48 to 30 BC with the immediacy she might bring to a book about the Clinton or Bush administrations...Schiff's enthralling book has its own feminist agenda: to save this 'capable, clear-eyed sovereign' from the slanders of history...More than a biography, Schiff has written a Fodor's of the ancient world, with stops in its most famous cities."
Stephen Sondheim
"Stacy Schiff has created a masterpiece and firmly cemented a new Cleopatra in our minds--one who had enough sex appeal to sleep with the two most powerful men in the world, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony....eminently readable."
Maureen Dowd
"Enthralling."
Kevin Nance
"Magnificent...Never in 30 years of reading biographies have I encountered so much limpid, authoritative and supremely elegant writing sustained so consistently. I drooled over nearly every sentence; to single out the juicy parts would be to recite the text entire. Schiff's command of her material is Olympian, her manner quietly dramatic, the sentences often building on each other like movements of a symphony....the best book of the year."
Alan Cheuse
"One of the most highly praised nonfiction books of the autumn. Schiff deftly separates fact from legend, legend from poetry, and creates a model of methodology and compelling story. She re-creates a place and time in a praiseworthy leap from scholarship to narration."
Tina Brown
"Cleopatra is a fascinating woman and always has been. Stacy Schiff, who is a brilliant writer, has created a book that is so well-written that it's almost like a novel in its juicy literary flair...The city [of Alexandria] is evoked so brilliantly...Wonderful stuff."
Meredith Maran
"Vivid...Schiff offers and equally colorful history of Egypt, ca. 30 B.C....she reveals a Cleopatra we've not yet seen: a fierce, sensuous and complicated queen who ruled in a time and place as fascinating as she was."
Jenny McPhee
"Schiff impressively recreates the myth of Cleopatra while deconstructing the legend and unveiling its sources -- a handwritten word, a few coins, sparse first-hand testimony, many second-third-fourth hand accounts, and plenty of gossip....Schiff efficiently and entertainingly debunks attempts by historians, poets, politicians, and playwrights (all male) throughout the ages to reduce Cleopatra to a nymphomaniac with a diadem....Stacy Schiff's eloquent, important book makes it eminently clear that the Cleopatra phenomenon throughout the ages has less to do with the Egyptian queen's extraordinary accomplishments as a ruler and politician, than to the pervasive and apparently eradicable male fear of powerful women."
Angie Drobnic Holan

"For the past 2,000 years or so, history has painted a sexy, scheming veneer on the queen of Egypt known as Cleopatra, so discarding the propaganda is no easy task. But Stacy Schiff's new biography scrapes away the grime to reveal a smart political strategist, a first-rate military contractor, a proud mother and a witty conversationalist. It's a startling, invigorating look at a history that has mostly blamed Cleopatra for the fall of great Romans....The most pleasing sense of Schiff's biography is a fine sense of balance. She reminds us of the particulars of the ancient world we might have forgotten, but she also assumes we have some familiarity with world history and doesn't get bogged down in the basics.... She is authoritative while open to other interpretations. And she answers fun questions, like what happened to the wives of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony while the men were hanging out with Cleopatra.... Schiff's restoration reveals a finer portrait of the woman known as Cleopatra."

Judith Thurman
"Exceptionally artful...Imaginative attunement with a subject, however, does not have to compromise a vigilant biographer's critical detachment, and Schiff's beautiful writing hums with that tension...ambitious...It is an edifice of speculation and conjecture--like every Cleopatra ever written. But unlike nearly all of them it is a work of literature."
Ralph Eubanks
"Schiff rises to the challenge and creates an engaging biography by relentlessly stitching together the pieces of her subject's broader life and making connections between them...reveals through colorful details and clearly written prose."
Sarah Ruden
"Stacy Schiff draws a portrait worthy of her subject's own wit and learning...Ms. Schiff manages to tell Cleopatra's story with a balance of the tragic and the hilarious...[and] does a rare thing: She gives us a book we'd miss if it didn't exist."
Marie Arana
"If you think two millennia of dusty research and hoary legend have told us all we need to know about this woman, you're in for a surprise...[Schiff] has dug through the earliest sources on Cleopatra, sorted through myth and misapprehension, tossed out the chaff of gossip, and delivered up a spirited life...Schiff has a magpie's eye for detail...it is a great, glorious spree of a story."
Deirdre Donahue
"[Cleopatra] sizzles with passion, intrigue... Mixing contemporary sources, beautiful writing and psychological insight, Schiff makes us empathize with the heroine of this tale of togas, territorial conquest and hot love."
Liz Smith
"The most compelling biography of the year....Miss Schiff can really write....persuasive and entertaining."
Steve Donoghue
"[Stacy Schiff's] book is a masterpiece of lightly-worn learning and scintillating deduction. It's thrillingly, brazenly written. It rises in a single movement above the whole sea of Cleopatra biographies and gives us in some ways an entirely new woman for a new century....[Schiff] is the liveliest of narrators, going over every detail not only with an array of sources at her fingertips...but with an alert eye for the real, human story lurking under the ancient narratives. She cheerfully relates the propaganda of the era, but she is not fooled by it. She knows that virtually every detail she's relating could be false or falsified, but she relates them with a knowing exuberance anyway, since they're all we have....Reading her for page after enormously fun page, we're ashamed at how often we've been lectured into forgetting that history is first and always a story of people. This is a book full of living, savage, thriving, laughing, dying people."
Mary Pols
"In Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff is authoritative and confident...Schiff makes a convincing case against the traditional, male-chauvinist take on Cleopatra as a power-hungry seductress. It's a stance that puts her at odds with 2,000 years' worth of Cleopatra chronicles, and she's aware of it."
Wendy Smith
"Superb...Cleopatra led an epic life, and Schiff captures its sweep and scope in a vigorous narrative aimed at the general reader yet firmly anchored in modern scholarship. The author's greatest strengths remain the lucid intelligence and subtle analysis of personality...Schiff reanimates [Cleopatra] as a living, breathing woman: utterly extraordinary, to be sure, but recognizably human."
Bookslut
“Schiff impressively recreates the myth of Cleopatra while deconstructing the legend and unveiling its sources -- a handwritten word, a few coins, sparse first-hand testimony, many second-third-fourth hand accounts, and plenty of gossip….Schiff efficiently and entertainingly debunks attempts by historians, poets, politicians, and playwrights (all male) throughout the ages to reduce Cleopatra to a nymphomaniac with a diadem….Stacy Schiff’s eloquent, important book makes it eminently clear that the Cleopatra phenomenon throughout the ages has less to do with the Egyptian queen’s extraordinary accomplishments as a ruler and politician, than to the pervasive and apparently eradicable male fear of powerful women.” (Jenny McPhee)
San Francisco Chronicle
“An extraordinary achievement in biography. [Schiff’s] book explores themes of female ambition and power—issues that seem just as vexing now as they did 2,000 years ago….Along with tracing Cleopatra’s rise to power, her loss of Caesar (by assassination) and Mark Antony (to suicide) and the epic story of her empire, this biography is filled with fascinating and amusing details of the era….Lacking any primary sources whatsoever, it is admirable that Schiff could create such a drama-filled and accessible narrative, especially one so rich in detail. It’s true that Cleopatra’s story has long been ‘constructed as much of male fear as fantasy,’ but with Cleopatra, Schiff has produced a compelling and authoritative correction in its place.” (Carmela Ciuraru)
New York Post
Engaging and meticulously researched.” (Susannah Cahalan)
USA Today
“Wraps up classical scholarship about the famed Queen of the Nile into an enthralling tale” (Dan Vergano)

"[Cleopatra] sizzles with passion, intrigue... Mixing contemporary sources, beautiful writing and psychological insight, Schiff makes us empathize with the heroine of this tale of togas, territorial conquest and hot love." (Deirdre Donahue, USA Today )

Associated Press
“It’s as though Cleopatra lives and breathes once again in the pages of Stacy Schiff’s exquisitely researched and well-written Cleopatra: A Life. The book injects the Egyptian queen with a complexity and humanity that has long since been forgotten….[it] glows with details.” (Lisa Orkin Emmanuel)
The Seattle Times
“[Schiff] portrays Cleopatra as the ambitious and talented ruler she was and puts her affairs with Caesar and Mark Antony in their proper political context. The Romans, the early writers of Cleopatra’s history, portrayed her as a lascivious power-grabbing hussy. But Schiff works hard and successfully to get beyond the anti-Cleopatra propaganda.” (Mary Ann Gwinn)
St. Petersburg Times
“For the past 2,000 years or so, history has painted a sexy, scheming veneer on the queen of Egypt known as Cleopatra, so discarding the propaganda is no easy task. But Stacy Schiff’s new biography scrapes away the grime to reveal a smart political strategist, a first-rate military contractor, a proud mother and a witty conversationalist. It’s a startling, invigorating look at a history that has mostly blamed Cleopatra for the fall of great Romans….The most pleasing sense of Schiff’s biography is a fine sense of balance. She reminds us of the particulars of the ancient world we might have forgotten, but she also assumes we have some familiarity with world history and doesn’t get bogged down in the basics…. She is authoritative while open to other interpretations. And she answers fun questions, like what happened to the wives of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony while the men were hanging out with Cleopatra…. Schiff’s restoration reveals a finer portrait of the woman known as Cleopatra.” (Angie Drobnic Holan)
People
“Vivid…Schiff offers and equally colorful history of Egypt, ca. 30 B.C….she reveals a Cleopatra we’ve not yet seen: a fierce, sensuous and complicated queen who ruled in a time and place as fascinating as she was.” (Meredith Maran)
NPR.com
"One of the most highly praised nonfiction books of the autumn. Schiff deftly separates fact from legend, legend from poetry, and creates a model of methodology and compelling story. She re-creates a place and time in a praiseworthy leap from scholarship to narration." (Alan Cheuse, NPR.com,"Best Books of Winter”)

"Schiff rises to the challenge and creates an engaging biography by relentlessly stitching together the pieces of her subject's broader life and making connections between them...reveals through colorful details and clearly written prose." (Ralph Eubanks, NPR.org )

The Daily Beast
"Stacy Schiff has created a masterpiece and firmly cemented a new Cleopatra in our minds--one who had enough sex appeal to sleep with the two most powerful men in the world, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony....eminently readable." (Stephen Sondheim )

"Cleopatra is a fascinating woman and always has been. Stacy Schiff, who is a brilliant writer, has created a book that is so well-written that it's almost like a novel in its juicy literary flair...The city [of Alexandria] is evoked so brilliantly...Wonderful stuff." (Tina Brown )

"With a clear eye, great courage, and formidable erudition, Stacy Schiff has succeeded in removing...many misconceptions...and replacing them with the fascinating portrait of an altogether more substantial woman...Stacy Schiff has managed to create a masterpiece: both a hugely readable portrait of a fascinating, unscrupulous and powerful woman, and a brilliant explanation of the politics that lay behind her actions....she writes with verve, tongue-in-cheek humor, and elegance....she has brought to life Cleopatra." (Michael Korda)

The New Yorker
"Exceptionally artful...Imaginative attunement with a subject, however, does not have to compromise a vigilant biographer's critical detachment, and Schiff's beautiful writing hums with that tension...ambitious...It is an edifice of speculation and conjecture--like every Cleopatra ever written. But unlike nearly all of them it is a work of literature." (Judith Thurman)
TIME Magazine
"In Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff is authoritative and confident...Schiff makes a convincing case against the traditional, male-chauvinist take on Cleopatra as a power-hungry seductress. It's a stance that puts her at odds with 2,000 years' worth of Cleopatra chronicles, and she's aware of it." (Mary Pols )
Redbook
"Schiff uses her amazing descriptive powers to make the infamous queen's story even juicier....Cleopatra fascinates."
Wowowow.com
"The most compelling biography of the year....Miss Schiff can really write....persuasive and entertaining." (Liz Smith)
Publishers Weekly starred review
"[An] excellent, myth-busting biography...Schiff enters so completely into the time and place, especially the beauty and luxury of the 'great metropolis' of Alexandria, Cleopatra's capital, describing it in almost cinematic detail. And though we all know the outcome, Schiff's account of Cleopatra's and Antony's desperate efforts to manipulate their triumphant enemy, Octavian, make for tragic, page-turning reading. No one will think of Cleopatra in quite the same way after reading this vivid, provocative book."
Vanity Fair
"Schiff, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Véra Nabokov, set out to the extract the real Cleopatra from the mythic figure.... Schiff's learning is immense, but worn lightly and with an assured grasp of human nature." (Cullen Murphy)
Mary Gordon
"Stacy Schiff's meticulous research, the depth and deftness of her portrayal, have given us a Cleopatra far richer and more satisfying than the myths and fantasies that we have mistaken for true nourishment. This Cleopatra is an invaluable contribution to our understanding of the history and lives of women." (Mary Gordon, author of Circling My Mother )
More
"Stacy Schiff's dazzling, meticulous biography, Cleopatra, reclaims the queen from myth and gives her back her brain." (Caryn James)
Los Angeles Times
"Superb...Cleopatra led an epic life, and Schiff captures its sweep and scope in a vigorous narrative aimed at the general reader yet firmly anchored in modern scholarship. The author's greatest strengths remain the lucid intelligence and subtle analysis of personality...Schiff reanimates [Cleopatra] as a living, breathing woman: utterly extraordinary, to be sure, but recognizably human." (Wendy Smith )
Open Letters Monthly
"[Stacy Schiff's] book is a masterpiece of lightly-worn learning and scintillating deduction. It's thrillingly, brazenly written. It rises in a single movement above the whole sea of Cleopatra biographies and gives us in some ways an entirely new woman for a new century....[Schiff] is the liveliest of narrators, going over every detail not only with an array of sources at her fingertips...but with an alert eye for the real, human story lurking under the ancient narratives. She cheerfully relates the propaganda of the era, but she is not fooled by it. She knows that virtually every detail she's relating could be false or falsified, but she relates them with a knowing exuberance anyway, since they're all we have....Reading her for page after enormously fun page, we're ashamed at how often we've been lectured into forgetting that history is first and always a story of people. This is a book full of living, savage, thriving, laughing, dying people." (Steve Donoghue )
The Wall Street Journal
"Stacy Schiff draws a portrait worthy of her subject's own wit and learning...Ms. Schiff manages to tell Cleopatra's story with a balance of the tragic and the hilarious...[and] does a rare thing: She gives us a book we'd miss if it didn't exist." (Sarah Ruden)
Salon.com
"Stacy Schiff...writes against the fabulous grain....For the discerning history buff, here is a biography of the most notorious woman of all time that's worldly, shrewd and indefatigable in its pursuit of the truth...There are countless books about Cleopatra, but this one, I suspect, would have been one of her favorites." (Laura Miller )
The Sunday Oregonian
"A rollicking good read... Schiff shares the talents that made her subject such a standout in her time: wit, rhetorical skill and keen intelligence." (Joanne B. Mulcahy )
Bloomberg News
"[Schiff] handles the politics of the ancient world from 48 to 30 BC with the immediacy she might bring to a book about the Clinton or Bush administrations...Schiff's enthralling book has its own feminist agenda: to save this 'capable, clear-eyed sovereign' from the slanders of history...More than a biography, Schiff has written a Fodor's of the ancient world, with stops in its most famous cities." (Craig Seligman)
Book Page
"Schiff brings alive not only the personalities but the ambience of the gilded Hellenistic Middle East and still-crude Rome. Her writing beautifully evokes Cleopatra's stupendous capital Alexandria." (Anne Bartlett)
Good Housekeeping
"Refreshingly, [Cleopatra] looks beyond the myths and into the realities of Cleo's audacious empire-building."
Marie Claire
"In [Stacy Schiff's] terrific new biography of history's favorite sex-crazed, power-mad hussy, called simply Cleopatra, Schiff tosses out centuries' worth of envy, misogyny, and plain old snark to unearth the brilliant Macedonian ruler and restore the golden luster of Cleopatra VII's reign in Egypt....As gripping as the story of [Cleopatra's] 22-year reign over Egypt is (especially once Mark Antony arrives in his breastplate), the greatest pleasure comes from reading Schiff's lavishly detailed scenes of banquets (think roasted peacocks and storks), processions of elephants in golden slippers, and political intrigue. The Cleopatra who emerges had a talent for making an impression, a genius for diplomacy, and more flat-out Girl Power per pound than any woman before or since." (Kimberly Cutter )
Elle
"Schiff excavates truth from myth with vivid eloquence, taking us back to a life in a time and place that was both 'an orgy of pillage and murder' and 'the Paris of the ancient world.'... Schiff's portrayal brings to life a charismatic figure who spoke eight languages fluently, and for 22 years, until her legendarily gruesome death, ruled a glittering city-state of astronomical wealth." (Natasha Clark)
Newsweek
"Startling. Rarely have so distant a time and obscured a place come so powerfully to life. It is a great achievement. It is also a provocative one. Faced with the perplexing question of how to write about a person when the evidence is sketchy and often misleading, Schiff has hit on an ingenious solution. She has written a biography in negative, describing the outlines of what she cannot know by brilliantly coloring around the queen." (Louisa Thomas)
The New York Times
Enthralling." (Maureen Dowd )
Evan Thomas
"Great historians can make the discovery of the real story more exciting than the romantic myth. Stacy Schiff, a great historian as well as a wonderful writer, peels away the layers to reveal the true Cleopatra--a much more interesting woman than the Hollywood version, and, as it turns out, a formidable queen after all."
Marc Vincent
"What makes [Cleopatra] so compelling is Schiff's masterful evocation of broader questions: the roles of women in Egyptian and Roman societies; the annual cycles of the Egyptian economy, so dependent on the Nile; and the famous and incomparable library of Alexandria, a bustling ancient city...riveting."
Vogue
"Hugely compelling...Schiff sifts through gauzy mythology to uncover a brilliant young woman."
Good Housekeeping
"Refreshingly, [Cleopatra] looks beyond the myths and into the realities of Cleo's audacious empire-building."
Redbook
"Schiff uses her amazing descriptive powers to make the infamous queen's story even juicier....Cleopatra fascinates."
Washington Examiner
"[An] excellent, myth-busting biography....Schiff enters so completely into the time and place, especially the beauty and luxury of the 'great metropolis' of Alexandria, Cleopatra's capital, describing it in almost cinematic detail....No one will think of Cleopatra in quite the same way after reading this vivid, provocative book."
Library Journal - BookSmack!
In her peerless voice-clear, eloquent, and lively-Schiff all but reanimates Cleopatra, bringing forth the person behind the historical myth and the seductive veil of Hollywood. The Cleopatra readers encounter is brutal and cunning, well able to hold her own in the shifting and dangerous political waters that routinely consumed men of great talent and power. Cleopatra is also revealed to be diplomatic and brilliant, focused on building her empire and making her claim. In her biography, Schiff does more than replay the Julius Caesar and Mark Antony interactions (though she does both brilliantly); she brings forward from the pageantry and puffery of a biased history a woman who was far more complex than her few chroniclers would admit or her legend allows. While Schiff has done a masterful job in creating a well-researched (with what little authoritative sources there are) and nuanced portrait of the woman, she has also, as all the best biographers do, illuminated the times and place of Cleopatra. Gold almost drips from the book, and elephants come close to parading off the pages as Schiff describes the lavish court of Cleopatra and the spectacle that was her Alexandria. Neal Wyatt, "RA Crossroads", Booksmack!, 11/4/10
Library Journal
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Schiff (Véra [Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov]) offers another fine biography here. Though few reliable records remain regarding the Egyptian queen, this book peels back the layers of mystery surrounding Cleopatra and attempts to reveal a legend in her own time. While Schiff takes a few liberties by ascribing emotion to her subject, she demonstrates an immense amount of research. Her narrative does not so much bring forward anything new about Cleopatra as it presents her to the contemporary reader in a more accessible and, indeed, engrossing way. The results complement Diana Preston's Cleopatra and Antony: Power, Love, and Politics in the Ancient World, which examined the reality behind the first "celebrity couple," also with an eye to contemporary readers. VERDICT With her new book, Schiff showcases her skill at capturing a life. Her prose is elegant but easy to read and briskly paced. In spite of extensive research, Schiff's projection of emotions and motivations onto her subject tilts the results more toward pop history than real scholarship. Undergraduates, lovers of biography or ancient history, and those seeking an introduction to Cleopatra will delight in this take on the near-mythical last queen of Egypt. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/10.]—Crystal Goldman, San Jose St. Univ. Lib., CA
Kirkus Reviews

A Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer presents a swift, sympathetic life of one of history's most maligned and legendary women.

New Yorker contributor Schiff (A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, 2005, etc.) acknowledges that our image of Cleopatra VII arrives through the distorted lenses of biased (male, Roman) history, romanticized and melodramatic stage productions and films and the distortion of time itself. Cleopatra, a suicide at 39—despite the legend of the asp bite, it was probably poison, writes the author—ruled for 22 years. During that time, she took into her bed some of the most powerful men in history (Julius Caesar, Mark Antony), maneuvered through a male world with intelligence, skill and sanguinary brutality, met and failed to charm Herod and bore children to both Caesar and Antony. Schiff reminds us that Cleopatra and her family were not related to the Egyptian pharaohs but descended from Ptolemy, a Macedonian general with Alexander the Great. She also reminds us that Caesar's Rome was not the Rome of later glories and depravities. The Coliseum did not yet stand, nor did the Pantheon or any number of other Roman architectural marvels. Born in 69 BCE, Cleopatra entered a family for whom the word internecine was surely invented—killing family members standing in the way was routine, and Cleopatra was not above it. The young girl was intellectually quick, savvy and willing to learn, and she soon made her first significant conquest: Caesar. She came to Rome to see him, causing uproar, for Rome was an empire that had a gender test for human rights (women need not apply). Schiff notes that Caesar's assassination was a political disaster for Cleopatra, but she quickly recovered, won Antony and enjoyed a number of amazingly powerful and profligate years before history and the forces of Octavian brought her down.

Successfully dissipating all the perfume, Schiff finds a remarkably complex woman—brutal and loving, dependent and independent, immensely strong but finally vulnerable.

Kathryn Harrison
Although it's not Schiff's purpose to present us with a feminist revision of a life plucked from antiquity, in order to "restore" Cleopatra—to see her at all—one must strip away an "encrusted myth" created by those for whom "citing her sexual prowess was evidently less discomfiting than acknowledging her intellectual gifts"…It's dizzying to contemplate the thicket of prejudices, personalities and propaganda Schiff penetrated to reconstruct a woman whose style, ambition and audacity make her a subject worthy of her latest biographer. After all, Stacy Schiff's writing is distinguished by those very same virtues.
—The New York Times Book Review
Michiko Kakutani
…captivating…a cinematic portrait of a historical figure far more complex and compelling than any fictional creation, and a wide, panning, panoramic picture of her world…Ms. Schiff seems to have inhaled everything there is to know about Cleopatra and her times, and she uses her authoritative knowledge of the era—and her instinctive understanding of her central players—to assess shrewdly probable and possible motives and outcomes…Ms. Schiff also demonstrates a magician's ability to conjure the worlds her subject inhabited with fluent sleight of hand.
—The New York Times
Marie Arana
If you think two millennia of dusty research and hoary legend have told us all we need to know about this woman, you're in for a surprise. Stacy Schiff…has dug through the earliest sources on Cleopatra, sorted through myth and misapprehension, tossed out the chaff of gossip, and delivered up a spirited life…for all its splendor of detail, Schiff's book is a model of concision, and its brisk, vividly written chapters move with a swiftness the Nile never enjoyed…a great, glorious spree of a story.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
From its opening strains of music, this audiobook of Schiff's stellar biography of the Egyptian queen rewards the intellect and the senses. As Schiff dusts away history's spider webs, romance's distortions, and sexism's corruptions to reveal the true (or at least the truest possible) portrait of Cleopatra, Robin Miles's voice is deep, confiding, the perfect instrument to introduce a history that has been variously forgotten, misunderstood, or suppressed. Her enunciation is crisp, her pacing pure charm: she wrings every sentence for meaning, irony, and wit, taking us through pages of description or analysis with a stately pace. A Little, Brown hardcover. (Nov.)
Michael Korda
"Stacy Schiff has managed to create a masterpiece."
Natasha Clark
"Schiff excavates truth from myth with vivid eloquence, taking us back to a life in a time and place that was both 'an orgy of pillage and murder' and 'the Paris of the ancient world.'"
Vogue
"Hugely compelling...Schiff sifts through gauzy mythology to uncover a brilliant young woman."
Washington Examiner
"[An] excellent, myth-busting biography....No one will think of Cleopatra in quite the same way after reading this vivid, provocative book."
Michiko Kakutani
"Captivating...Ms. Schiff strips away the accretions of myth that have built up around the Egyptian queen and plucks off the imaginative embroiderings of Shakespeare, Shaw and Elizabeth Taylor. In doing so, she gives us a cinematic portrait of a historical figure far more complex and compelling than any fictional creation, and a wide, panning, panoramic picture of her world."
Laura Miller
"[Schiff] writes against the fabulous grain...There are countless books about Cleopatra, but this one, I suspect, would have been one of her favorites."
Caryn James
"[A] dazzling, meticulous biography."
From the Publisher
ACCLAIM FOR STACY SCHIFF:

SAINT-EXUPERY (1994):

"Superb, spirited, enthralling. For anyone who enjoys a fascinating life-story well told, this is a book not to be missed."—David McCullough

VERA (1999):

"Schiff's sentences are magnificent, deceptively complex, full of insight and fact and distance and wry humor, so that every page is a kind of mini feast."—Anita Shreve

A GREAT IMPROVISATION (2005):

"This is a book to savor. Schiff has given a genuine jolt to the recent surge of interest in Franklin, along the way demonstrating why she is generally regarded as one of the most gifted storytellers writing today."—Joseph J. Ellis

"What a brilliant book. Stacy Schiff has written a masterpiece."—Amanda Foreman

Joseph J. Ellis
"This is a book to savor. Schiff has given a genuine jolt to the recent surge of interest in Franklin, along the way demonstrating why she is generally regarded as one of the most gifted storytellers writing today."
Amanda Foreman
"What a brilliant book. Stacy Schiff has written a masterpiece."
David McCullough
"Superb, spirited, enthralling. For anyone who enjoys a fascinating life-story well told, this is a book not to be missed."
Anita Shreve
"Schiff's sentences are magnificent, deceptively complex, full of insight and fact and distance and wry humor, so that every page is a kind of mini feast."
Library Journal
Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer Schiff (Véra) finally frees us of our two-dimensional understanding of Cleopatra, bringing to life an extremely fascinating woman at once intelligent, ruthless, resourceful, and cunning. She further enhances this vivid portrait with descriptions of life in ancient Egypt and Rome, providing a detailed history that includes many of the important names of the time. Audio is the ideal format to highlight Schiff's monumental research in this massive undertaking; actress/Audie Award nominee Robin Miles's appealing voice works well with the sparkling descriptions. Even the footnotes, so easy to skip when reading, are a pleasure to hear. Biography, Egyptology, and ancient history buffs will be highly rewarded by this fascinating biography. [Includes a bonus PDF of historical documents; the Little, Brown hc was recommended for "undergraduates, lovers of biography or ancient history, and those seeking an introduction to Cleopatra," LJ 9/1/10.—Ed.]—Susan G. Baird, formerly with Oak Lawn P.L., IL
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780316001922
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • Publication date: 11/1/2010
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 395,898
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Stacy Schiff
Stacy Schiff is the author of Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), winner of the Pulitzer Prize; Saint-Exupéry, a Pulitzer Prize finalist; and A Great Improvisation, winner of the George Washington Book Prize and the Ambassador Book Award. She has been a Guggenheim Fellow, and a fellow at the center for Scholars & Writers, and received an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Schiff has contributed to The New Yorker andThe New York Times, where she has been an op-ed columnist. She lives in New York City.

Biography

Stacy Schiff is the author of Vera (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), which won the Pulitzer Prize for biography in 2000, and Saint-Exupery. which was a finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize. Schiff's work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, and The Times Literary Supplement. She has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. She lives in New York City.

Author biograpy courtesy of Henry Holt and Company.

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    1. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      October 26, 1961
    2. Place of Birth:
      Adams, Massachusetts
    1. Education:
      B.A., Williams College, 1982
    2. Website:

Read an Excerpt

Cleopatra

A Life
By Schiff, Stacy

Little, Brown and Company

Copyright © 2010 Schiff, Stacy All right reserved.
ISBN: 9780316001922

I

THAT EGYPTIAN WOMAN

“Man’s most valuable trait is a judicious sense of what not to believe.”

—EURIPIDES

AMONG THE MOST famous women to have lived, Cleopatra VII ruled Egypt for twenty-two years. She lost a kingdom once, regained it, nearly lost it again, amassed an empire, lost it all. A goddess as a child, a queen at eighteen, a celebrity soon thereafter, she was an object of speculation and veneration, gossip and legend, even in her own time. At the height of her power she controlled virtually the entire eastern Mediterranean coast, the last great kingdom of any Egyptian ruler. For a fleeting moment she held the fate of the Western world in her hands. She had a child with a married man, three more with another. She died at thirty-nine, a generation before the birth of Christ. Catastrophe reliably cements a reputation, and Cleopatra’s end was sudden and sensational. She has lodged herself in our imaginations ever since. Many people have spoken for her, including the greatest playwrights and poets; we have been putting words in her mouth for two thousand years. In one of the busiest afterlives in history she has gone on to become an asteroid, a video game, a cliché, a cigarette, a slot machine, a strip club, a synonym for Elizabeth Taylor. Shakespeare attested to Cleopatra’s infinite variety. He had no idea.

If the name is indelible, the image is blurry. Cleopatra may be one of the most recognizable figures in history but we have little idea of what she actually looked like. Only her coin portraits—issued in her lifetime, and which she likely approved—can be accepted as authentic. We remember her too for the wrong reasons. A capable, clear-eyed sovereign, she knew how to build a fleet, suppress an insurrection, control a currency, alleviate a famine. An eminent Roman general vouched for her grasp of military affairs. Even at a time when women rulers were no rarity she stood out, the sole female of the ancient world to rule alone and to play a role in Western affairs. She was incomparably richer than anyone else in the Mediterranean. And she enjoyed greater prestige than any other woman of her age, as an excitable rival king was reminded when he called, during her stay at his court, for her assassination. (In light of her stature, it could not be done.) Cleopatra descended from a long line of murderers and faithfully upheld the family tradition but was, for her time and place, remarkably well behaved. She nonetheless survives as a wanton temptress, not the last time a genuinely powerful woman has been transmuted into a shamelessly seductive one.

Like all lives that lend themselves to poetry, Cleopatra’s was one of dislocations and disappointments. She grew up amid unsurpassed luxury, to inherit a kingdom in decline. For ten generations her family had styled themselves pharaohs. The Ptolemies were in fact Macedonian Greek, which makes Cleopatra approximately as Egyptian as Elizabeth Taylor. At eighteen Cleopatra and her ten-year-old brother assumed control of a country with a weighty past and a wobbly future. Thirteen hundred years separate Cleopatra from Nefertiti. The pyramids—to which Cleopatra almost certainly introduced Julius Caesar—already sported graffiti. The Sphinx had undergone a major restoration, a thousand years earlier. And the glory of the once great Ptolemaic Empire had dimmed. Cleopatra came of age in a world shadowed by Rome, which in the course of her childhood extended its rule to Egypt’s borders. When Cleopatra was eleven, Caesar reminded his officers that if they did not make war, if they did not obtain riches and rule others, they were not Romans. An Eastern sovereign who waged an epic battle of his own against Rome articulated what would become Cleopatra’s predicament differently: The Romans had the temperament of wolves. They hated the great kings. Everything they possessed they had plundered. They intended to seize all, and would “either destroy everything or perish in the attempt.” The implications for the last remaining wealthy country in Rome’s sphere of influence were clear. Egypt had distinguished itself for its nimble negotiating; for the most part, it retained its autonomy. It had also already embroiled itself in Roman affairs.

For a staggering sum of money, Cleopatra’s father had secured the official designation “friend and ally of the Roman people.” His daughter would discover that it was not sufficient to be a friend to that people and their Senate; it was essential to befriend the most powerful Roman of the day. That made for a bewildering assignment in the late Republic, wracked by civil wars. They flared up regularly throughout Cleopatra’s lifetime, pitting a succession of Roman commanders against one another in what was essentially a hot-tempered contest of personal ambition, twice unexpectedly decided on Egyptian soil. Each convulsion left the Mediterranean world shuddering, scrambling to correct its loyalties and redirect its tributes. Cleopatra’s father had thrown in his lot with Pompey the Great, the brilliant Roman general on whom good fortune seemed eternally to shine. He became the family patron. He also entered into a civil war against Julius Caesar just as, across the Mediterranean, Cleopatra ascended to the throne. In the summer of 48 BC Caesar dealt Pompey a crushing defeat in central Greece; Pompey fled to Egypt, to be stabbed and decapitated on an Egyptian beach. Cleopatra was twenty-one. She had no choice but to ingratiate herself with the new master of the Roman world. She did so differently from most other client kings, whose names, not incidentally, are forgotten today. For the next years she struggled to turn the implacable Roman tide to her advantage, changing patrons again after Caesar’s murder, ultimately to wind up with his protégé, Mark Antony. From a distance her reign amounts to a reprieve. Her story was essentially over before it began, although that is of course not the way she would have seen it. With her death Egypt became a Roman province. It would not recover its autonomy until the twentieth century.

Can anything good be said of a woman who slept with the two most powerful men of her time? Possibly, but not in an age when Rome controlled the narrative. Cleopatra stood at one of the most dangerous intersections in history: that of women and power. Clever women, Euripides had warned hundreds of years earlier, were dangerous. A Roman historian was perfectly happy to write off a Judaean queen as a mere figurehead and—six pages later—to condemn her for her reckless ambition, her indecent embrace of authority. A more disarming brand of power made itself felt as well. In a first-century BC marriage contract, a bride promised to be faithful and affectionate. She further vowed not to add love potions to her husband’s food or drink. We do not know if Cleopatra loved either Antony or Caesar, but we do know that she got each to do her bidding. From the Roman point of view she “enslaved” them both. Already it was a zero-sum game: a woman’s authority spelled a man’s deception. Asked how she had obtained her influence over Augustus, the first Roman emperor, his wife purportedly replied that she had done so “by being scrupulously chaste herself, doing gladly whatever pleased him, not meddling with any of his affairs, and, in particular, by pretending neither to hear of nor to notice the favorites that were the objects of his passion.” There is no reason to accept that formula at face value. On the other hand, Cleopatra was cut from very different cloth. In the course of a leisurely fishing trip, under a languid Alexandrian sun, she had no trouble suggesting that the most celebrated Roman general of the day tend to his responsibilities.

To a Roman, license and lawlessness were Greek preserves. Cleopatra was twice suspect, once for hailing from a culture known for its “natural talent for deception,” again for her Alexandrian address. A Roman could not pry apart the exotic and the erotic; Cleopatra was a stand-in for the occult, alchemical East, for her sinuous, sensuous land, as perverse and original as its astonishment of a river. Men who came in contact with her seem to have lost their heads, or at least to have rethought their agendas. She runs away even with Plutarch’s biography of Mark Antony. She works the same effect on a nineteenth-century historian, who describes her, on meeting Caesar, as “a loose girl of sixteen.” (She was rather an intensely focused woman of twenty-one.) The siren call of the East long predated Cleopatra, but no matter; she hailed from the intoxicating land of sex and excess. It is not difficult to understand why Caesar became history, Cleopatra a legend.

Our view is further obscured by the fact that the Romans who told Cleopatra’s story very nearly knew their ancient history too well. Repeatedly it seeps into their accounts. Like Mark Twain in the overwhelming, overstuffed Vatican, we sometimes prefer the copies to the original. So did the classical authors. They conflated accounts, refurbishing old tales. They saddled Cleopatra with the vices of other miscreants. History existed to be retold, with more panache but not necessarily greater accuracy. In the ancient texts the villains always wear a particularly vulgar purple, eat too much roasted peacock, douse themselves in rare unguents, melt down pearls. Whether you were a transgressive, power-hungry Egyptian queen or a ruthless pirate, you were known for the “odious extravagance” of your accessories. Iniquity and opulence went hand in hand; your world blazed purple and gold. Nor did it help that history bled into mythology, the human into the divine. Cleopatra’s was a world in which you could visit the relics of Orpheus’s lyre, or view the egg from which Helen of Troy had hatched. (It was in Sparta.)

History is written not only by posterity, but for posterity as well. Our most comprehensive sources never met Cleopatra. Plutarch was born seventy-six years after she died. (He was working at the same time as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.) Appian wrote at a remove of more than a century; Dio of well over two. Cleopatra’s story differs from most women’s stories in that the men who shaped it—for their own reasons—enlarged rather than erased her role. Her relationship with Mark Antony was the longest of her life, but her relationship with his rival, Augustus, was the most enduring. He would defeat Antony and Cleopatra. To Rome, to enhance the glory, he delivered up the tabloid version of an Egyptian queen, insatiable, treacherous, bloodthirsty, power-crazed. He magnified Cleopatra to hyperbolic proportions so as to do the same with his victory—and so as to smuggle his real enemy, his former brother-in-law, out of the picture. The end result is a nineteenth-century British life of Napoleon or a twentieth-century history of America, were it to have been written by Chairman Mao.

To the team of extraordinarily tendentious historians, add an extraordinarily spotty record. No papyri from Alexandria survive. Almost nothing of the ancient city survives aboveground. We have, perhaps and at most, one written word of Cleopatra’s. (In 33 BC either she or a scribe signed off on a royal decree with the Greek word ginesthoi, meaning, “Let it be done.”) Classical authors were indifferent to statistics and occasionally even to logic; their accounts contradict one another and themselves. Appian is careless with details, Josephus hopeless with chronology. Dio preferred rhetoric to exactitude. The lacunae are so regular as to seem deliberate; there is very nearly a conspiracy of silences. How is it possible that we do not have an authoritative bust of Cleopatra from an age of accomplished, realistic portraiture? Cicero’s letters of the first months of 44 BC—when Caesar and Cleopatra were together in Rome—were never published. The longest Greek history of the era glosses over the tumultuous period at hand. It is difficult to say what we miss most. Appian promises more of Caesar and Cleopatra in his four books of Egyptian history, which do not survive. Livy’s account breaks off a century before Cleopatra. We know the detailed work of her personal physician only from Plutarch’s references. Dellius’s chronicle has vanished, along with the raunchy letters Cleopatra was said to have written him. Even Lucan comes to an abrupt, infuriating halt partway through his epic poem, leaving Caesar trapped in Cleopatra’s palace at the outset of the Alexandrian War. And in the absence of facts, myth rushes in, the kudzu of history.

The holes in the record present one hazard, what we have constructed around them another. Affairs of state have fallen away, leaving us with affairs of the heart. A commanding woman versed in politics, diplomacy, and governance; fluent in nine languages; silver-tongued and charismatic, Cleopatra nonetheless seems the joint creation of Roman propagandists and Hollywood directors. She is left to put a vintage label on something we have always known existed: potent female sexuality. And her timing was lousy. Not only was her history written by her enemies, but it was her misfortune to have been on everyone’s minds just as Latin poetry came into its own. She survives literarily in a language hostile to her. The fictions have only proliferated. George Bernard Shaw lists among his sources for Caesar and Cleopatra his own imagination. Plenty of historians have deferred to Shakespeare, which is understandable but a little like taking George C. Scott’s word for Patton’s.

To restore Cleopatra is as much to salvage the few facts as to peel away the encrusted myth and the hoary propaganda. She was a Greek woman whose history fell to men whose futures lay with Rome, the majority of them officials of the empire. Their historical methods are opaque to us. They seldom named their sources. They relied to a great extent on memory. They are by modern standards polemicists, apologists, moralists, fabulists, recyclers, cut-and-pasters, hacks. For all its erudition, Cleopatra’s Egypt produced no fine historian. One can only read accordingly. The sources may be flawed, but they are the only sources we have. There is no universal agreement on most of the basic details of her life, no consensus on who her mother was, how long Cleopatra lived in Rome, how often she was pregnant, whether she and Antony married, what transpired at the battle that sealed her fate, how she died. I have tried here to bear in mind who was a former librarian and who a Page Sixer, who had actually set eyes on Egypt, who despised the place and who was born there, who had a problem with women, who wrote with the zeal of a Roman convert, who meant to settle a score, please his emperor, perfect his hexameter. (I have relied little on Lucan. He was early on the scene, before Plutarch, Appian, or Dio. He was also a poet, and a sensationalist.) Even when they are neither tendentious nor tangled, the accounts are often overblown. As has been noted, there were no plain, unvarnished stories in antiquity. The point was to dazzle. I have not attempted to fill in the blanks, though on occasion I have corralled the possibilities. What looks merely probable remains here merely probable—though opinions differ radically even on the probabilities. The irreconcilable remains unreconciled. Mostly I have restored context. Indeed Cleopatra murdered her siblings, but Herod murdered his children. (He afterward wailed that he was “the most unfortunate of fathers.”) And as Plutarch reminds us, such behavior was axiomatic among sovereigns. Cleopatra was not necessarily beautiful, but her wealth—and her palace—left a Roman gasping. All read very differently on one side of the Mediterranean from the other. The last decades of research on women in antiquity and on Hellenistic Egypt substantially illuminate the picture. I have tried to pluck the gauze of melodrama from the final scenes of the life, which reduce even sober chroniclers to soap opera. Sometimes high drama prevails for a reason, however. Cleopatra’s was an era of outsize, intriguing personalities. At its end the greatest actors of the age exit abruptly. A world comes crashing down after them.

WHILE THERE IS a great deal we do not know about Cleopatra, there is a great deal she did not know either. She knew neither that she was living in the first century BC nor in the Hellenistic Age, both of them later constructs. (The Hellenistic Age begins with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and ends in 30 BC, with the death of Cleopatra. It has been perhaps best defined as a Greek era in which the Greeks played no role.) She did not know she was Cleopatra VII for several reasons, one of which is that she was actually the sixth Cleopatra. She never knew anyone named Octavian. The man who vanquished and deposed her, prompted her suicide, and largely packaged her for posterity was born Gaius Octavius. By the time he entered Cleopatra’s life in a meaningful way he called himself Gaius Julius Caesar, after his illustrious great-uncle, her lover, who adopted him in his will. We know him today as Augustus, a title he assumed only three years after Cleopatra’s death. He appears here as Octavian, two Caesars remaining, as ever, one too many.

Most place names have changed since antiquity. I have followed Lionel Casson’s sensible lead in opting for familiarity over consistency. Hence Berytus is here Beirut, while Pelusium—which no longer exists, but would today be just east of Port Said, at the entrance to the Suez Canal—remains Pelusium. Similarly I have opted for English spellings over transliterations. Caesar’s rival appears as Pompey rather than Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, Caesar’s deputy as Mark Antony rather than Marcus Antonius. In many respects geography has changed, shorelines have sunk, marshes dried, hills crumbled. Alexandria is flatter today than it was in Cleopatra’s lifetime. It is oblivious to its ancient street plan; it no longer gleams white. The Nile is nearly two miles farther east. The dust, the sultry sea air, Alexandria’s melting purple sunsets, are unchanged. Human nature remains remarkably consistent, the physics of history immutable. Firsthand accounts continue to diverge wildly. For well over two thousand years, a myth has been able to outrun and outlive a fact. Except where noted, all dates are BC.

Continues...


Excerpted from Cleopatra by Schiff, Stacy Copyright © 2010 by Schiff, Stacy. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Interviews & Essays

A conversation with James Mustich, Editor-in-Chief of The Barnes & Noble Review

"No one sits on the stoop when she's a kid and thinks, 'I want to be a biographer when I grow up,'" Stacy Schiff told me when we met over breakfast on the upper East Side of Manhattan a few weeks ago to discuss her newest book, Cleopatra: A Life. Schiff was drawn to the vocation herself by her interest in Antoine Saint-Exupéry, an attraction which exerted such a strong pull that she ultimately left her career as an editor at Simon & Schuster to compose her first book, a life of the French aviation pioneer and the author of such classics as The Little Prince and Wind, Sand, and Stars.

Schiff followed the success of Saint-Exupéry with Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Biography in 2000, and A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, winner of the George Washington Book Prize. Despite their disparate subjects, Schiff's books share a literary character and integrity -- in addition to their meticulous scholarship -- that make them both rewarding and a pleasure to read. Cleopatra is no exception, and our discussion of its composition and its contents proved to be animated, stimulating, and enlivened with her palpable fascination with the life and legend of her latest protagonist. What follows in an edited transcript of our conversation.            -- James Mustich


James Mustich: It's been five years since your book about Benjamin Franklin, A Great Improvisation, came out. Have you been working on Cleopatra all that time?

Stacy Schiff: For the most part, if you don't count carting kids to hockey practice. This idea had been on my mind for a long time. I spent most of the summer after the Franklin book trying to talk myself out of it, toying with more traditional and more contemporary subjects. But I kept circling back to Cleopatra, who had been an obsession even before Franklin. She's the most compelling of subjects, and her story is without equal. I just couldn't figure out how to write about her: was it possible to construct a straight biography given the holes in the story and the tendentious sources?

JM: It's a different kind of subject for you. Your first two books, Saint-Exupéry and Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), were pretty firmly set in the twentieth century, and, given their literary pedigree, provided you with plenty of documents to work with.

SS: And they were legible documents too. [LAUGHING] Not moldy, and not in code, unlike the Ben Franklin material.

JM: But I imagine that even for Franklin there must have been a plethora of documents.

SS: Well, let me suggest something, and not entirely in jest. Insofar as there is an anxiety of influence for a biographer, it may be that each new book is undertaken in reaction to the previous book. There is an overload in the archives on Franklin. The French materials for Franklin's life are about two-and-a-half times as great as those for the rest of his life put together, and that's not counting the spy reports -- the French spy reports and on top of them the British spy reports -- or the voluminous records of the French foreign ministry. Even with all that, however, you still come away with basic questions unanswered. I think there was something about that, consciously or not, that made me wonder, "How about a book where the sources are scant? What would the difference be?" Sometimes, too many accounts spoil the truth. So there may have been a certain intentional wading away from another vast swamp of documentation.

JM: How do you embark on something like this? Once you decided to write about Cleopatra, did you do some preliminary scouting of the landscape to see what sources would be available and useful to you?

SS: I checked to see if there'd been a really good book published in the last few decades. Then I started with what Cleopatra would have read, asking myself, "What can we know about her education?" It turns out to be a very great deal, and bizarrely, no one had written about that before. It may seem an esoteric topic, but it tell us how she would have thought, the questions with which she would have conjured, what the themes of the day would have been. The fact that she could quote Homer, and that she knew her Euripides and her Aeschylus every bit as well as did Julius Caesar already tells you a great deal about her.

JM: The section on her education in the book is fascinating.

SS: I'm glad. I had so much fun writing that, based on some new and excellent Hellenistic scholarship.

JM: For some reason, even though people know she was a contemporary of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, there's something about her story -- I guess it's just the Egyptian setting -- that leads you to imagine Cleopatra much further back in history. But actually, as you explain, she wasn't Egyptian; she was Greek, and had an education shaped by the same cultural ethos that shaped Caesar.

SS: Exactly. In the version most of us have in our heads, they're opposites, exotics to each other. But the truth of the matter is that they were essentially graduates of the same elite institution. They could quote the same poetry; they had read the same books and pondered the same questions. They just happen to be meeting for the first time.

JM: Talk a bit about what the curriculum was. Homer was a big part of it.

SS: Homer was the keystone. Basically, the steady diet was Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and with them a vast training in rhetoric -- how to speak, how to present yourself, how to express yourself properly. It was a speechifying culture. Which, especially if you're being groomed for the throne, is something you would have taken seriously.

JM: And Cleopatra knew eight languages?

SS: Nine if you include Greek. We don't know if or how well she spoke Latin, however. My guess is that she would have spoken it well, but with an accent of some kind. But that's sheer speculation.

JM: Surprisingly, she was the first Egyptian monarch in some time who actually knew Egyptian. Right? She made a point of learning it.

SS: Plutarch credits her with being the first Ptolemy to have bothered to learn the language of the people over whom she ruled. Who knows why? Maybe her father suggested it, or maybe she was particularly gifted for languages, as Plutarch asserts. But whatever the reason, it came in handy, because she had to hire troops and to maintain peace in a country that was very restive at the time; it would have been an enormous advantage to be able to speak Egyptian. As we know, it makes a strong impression when our leaders reach out to us, and on our terms.

There's another thing I should have mentioned when you asked me about scouting the landscape, as you put it. I once interviewed David Herbert Donald, the Lincoln historian, and we talked about how one deals with the secondary sources and the previous biographies. He said something which kept coming back to me as I worked on Cleopatra, which was: "There's no further new material; there are only new questions." There is a huge amount of new scholarship on, for example, Hellenistic education, and on women in the Hellenistic world, but little primary material is likely to emerge. Cleopatra's diary isn't going to suddenly show up in the Alexandrian harbor. [LAUGHS] But I did, however, have new questions. The first was how she conveyed herself from her desert exile back to the Alexandrian palace to meet Caesar, a question that stumped a few of the scholars I consulted.

JM: If you could have had a primary source for one incident or conversation, what would it have been?

SS: As you know, she was in Rome when Caesar was murdered. Those two facts are so tantalizing. We don't really know all the reasons behind Caesar's murder. We know he's comporting himself like an autocrat, and paying little attention to the political climate. Honors are being heaped on him as if he's some kind of deity, which rubs the good republicans in Rome the wrong way. But does the fact that he has the Egyptian Queen living across town, with his child, in his villa, have any bearing on what happens? There the silence speaks volumes; none of Caesar's admirers had any reason to write Cleopatra into his life. And after his death, he is deified. No place for an Egyptian queen in that story.

So my answer to your question would be: she is up in his villa, he's murdered mid-day. Someone has to hustle there very quickly to deliver the news. She and Egypt have banked on this man; everything is riding on him. What's her reaction? It's so frustrating not to have any sense of what that moment might have been like.

She would have been in danger at that point. And she knows she will have to start again from scratch. She has no idea what's going to happen. The desperation must have been pretty great. She's a woman who doesn't usually lose her cool. How did she react?

JM: In your other three books, you clearly have a sense of your subjects' voices, which you share with the reader through their letters and the like. There's a literary record in each case, allied to the reader's knowledge, at least in the case of Saint-Exupéry and Franklin, of these people outside your pages, so they are present in a way Cleopatra cannot be. With Cleopatra, you have a protagonist from whom only one word has come down to us, an approval of a royal decree: Ginestho, meaning "Let it be done."

SS: If that. I'm pretty skeptical about it.

JM: Did this make you approach the composition differently? Because you have voices entwined in the narratives of the other books that you don't have here.

SS: That's a really good question. Someone asked me recently, "When did you know the book could be written?" The answer to that is, "When I finished writing it." [LAUGHS] Seriously. After I'd written a chapter, I thought, "OK, maybe," but only when I finished the entire manuscript was I certain. Or at least as certain as I ever get. But what made me realize it could be written were the few lines of dialogue in Plutarch, and then only after I'd gone back to Plutarch two or three times did I really see them. It's a sultry Alexandrian afternoon: Cleopatra and Mark Antony are out fishing with their friends. To retaliate for a prank he has pulled on her, Cleopatra tricks Antony by attaching a salted herring on his line. This he delivers up to laughter all around. Then she delivers this wifely speech: "But darling, you shouldn't be fishing; you should be out conquering kingdoms." There was something in the voice that rang so true to me, a little like, "You shouldn't be golfing; you should be with the kids." I thought, "But really, we have two-thousand-year-old dialogue!" Suddenly I felt you could set a scene. You actually had a sense of Cleopatra's coyness and her sauciness and her wit. Even from those very, very few lines, I thought you could begin to glimpse a personality.

Otherwise, the answer is: I feel as if this one required more work from the biographer, much more of the biographer's voice. When the subject is inert, or coy, or for that matter missing from her own life, the biographer engages in a lot more legwork. I had a similar problem with Véra, where I had to spiral around an unwilling subject to animate he and coax her out. With Cleopatra obviously it was worse; you can't get very close. The result is that there is more of my voice in this book, which is not a coincidence, as I was in the first place looking to write something looser, more essayistic, than I had previously.

JM: Were there moments when you attempted to speculate or invent a scene?

SS: No.

JM: You couldn't even rely on geography.

SS: Tell me about it.

JM: Alexandria has changed a great deal since Cleopatra's day, hasn't it?

SS: Right. The Nile is in the wrong place.

JM: The Nile moved?

SS: The culture is different, the religion is different, and yes, even the Nile has moved. It's nearly two miles further east. Alexandria is flatter today; Cleopatra's palace, museum, library have all disappeared. The sky is the same. I went to Alexandria for two weeks, and as I sat there I thought: the weather is the same, the tides are the same, the sunsets are the same, and the color is the same. After that, all bets are off.

The one time I felt that this wasn't true was when I went out to where Cleopatra would have been camped in the desert, in exile on account of her war with her brother, at the moment with which the biography opens. Today that spot is just east of the Suez Canal. Now, the coast isn't in the same place as it was, and the fortress is in ruins (although it's being excavated -- it's actually quite astonishing), but you can get a real sense what it would have been like in the first century B.C. Also, parts of the coast of Turkey remain undeveloped today and look precisely as they would have 2,000 years ago. Otherwise you're on your own. Fortunately, many of the visitors to Alexandria in and around Cleopatra's time wrote about it in fabulous detail.

JM: There's one section in which you describe quite vividly the rambunctiousness of the ancient populace -- the volatility with which the city reacted to its leaders' actions or failures to act.

SS: That's entirely from the ancient sources. The problem, obviously, is that almost every one is inimical to Egypt or to the East or to Cleopatra. So when someone writes, a century later, "Oh, those incredibly lawless Egyptians," you have to remember that he's a Roman officer and is by definition going to say as much. But even Alexandrian natives and others from the Greek world talked about Alexandria as people now talk about New York: a city where you got your wallet stolen at the corner of 57th and 5th, and where everyone is always talking loudly and at once. It's precisely the way John Adams described New Yorkers in the eighteenth century. [LAUGHS]

The accounts of Alexandria are perfectly consistent. Also, they make palpable the physical details of that world. So even though we see none of it today -- there's a little bit of Roman Alexandria left, but almost nothing of Greek Alexandria -- the accounts are so vivid and sumptuous that it was easy to reconstruct a city from them.

JM: "Caesar became history," you write at one point. "Cleopatra became legend." That seems to me to provide the split seed from which the narrative grows; it's a narrative line in which the main trunk of events is entwined with vines of sexuality and exoticism. What an interesting historical moment, when the famously matter-of-fact Roman world meets another, which, if Cleopatra is any guide, was just as pragmatic, but has never been seen as such.

SS: Right.

JM: Perhaps it's because the shadow of the pyramids falls over anything we think about Egypt; whatever takes place in the shadow of those mysterious monuments is exotic to us. And the sexual dimension of Caesar and Antony's experience in Egypt certainly mystifies any simple idea of conquest. One of the things that's compelling about the book is the way you reveal Cleopatra to be their equal as a leader and a strategist; she may have been doyenne of romance, but she was certainly a master of realpolitik.

SS: Yes. Interesting that she happened to fall in with the two most powerful Romans of the day, no? Quite a coincidence. [LAUGHS]

Much of what I hoped to thread through the book, in a way that wouldn't interrupt the narrative if at all possible, was the idea that history comes down to us as propaganda and hearsay. The sources should always be read in that light. How history gets written is as important as what it tells us. In this case, three things unnerved the Romans: the occult, alien East; its perceived femininity, and with that a female sovereign; and Egypt's mind-boggling wealth. No Roman ever set eyes on the palace of Alexandria without finding he was without the vocabulary to describe it; it made for an extraordinary contrast with first century B.C. Rome, primitive by comparison. Cleopatra's personal allure aside, her rich and opulent country, her fortune, were in themselves rather compelling. Compelling and jealous-making, I should say.

JM: And anxiety-producing. There's a wonderful line towards the end of the book: "She made Rome feel uncouth, insecure, and poor, sufficient case for anxiety without adding sexuality to the mix." The conquering Caesars may have been on the road to becoming Gods, but she was a God.

SS: She was there already. And worse, she was a woman.

JM: Confronted with her wealth and her stature and her sophistication, the Romans didn't know how to behave. They were uncomfortable on her terrain.

SS: I was just writing a piece in which I was drawing a parallel between how the Romans felt about Cleopatra's retinue and how we feel today in Paris or London, when that convoy of Maybachs with the security detail descend on our neighborhood café. That's the impression that Cleopatra would have made.

Everything in Egypt belonged to her. Nothing left that country without enriching her coffers. Her corn supply is to some extent the ancient version of the Middle Eastern oil supply today. Rome stood to an uncomfortable extent at her mercy.

JM: You don't say it quite like this, but you imply that the era designated as B.C. could as easily be called "Before Cleopatra" as "Before Christ." I think you say you could date the modern world from the death of Cleopatra.

SS: There's a punctuation point there, yes. What's funny is that everything for which she is held up as a bad example -- she's a decadent woman who spends heedlessly and kills off relatives, who holds court in an opulent world of impure morals -- all of this, of course, becomes true of the Roman Empire itself within a minute-and-a-half of her death. The fact that the Roman Republic, in its pious, pure state, pretty much ends with Augustus, which is to say with the death of Cleopatra, is telling. She leaves quite an impression on Rome after her suicide.

It seems to me that this was the first real grappling of East and West, one with which we still conjure today. Here we are two thousand years later, and the geography has changed, the division of East and West has changed, religion has clouded the picture, but the issues remain constant. There's something still very sexualized and dissolute and primitive to our minds when we look East, while we consider ourselves forward-thinking paragons of rectitude.

JM: Also, the Romans, as we do, had a hard time imagining sophistication elsewhere.

SS: Precisely.

JM: One of my favorite passages in the book is your description of the preparations for a sea battle, during which the Egyptians built a fleet bigger than Rome's in two weeks. Out of spare parts, more or less.

SS: To a Roman, ingenuity was a Roman specialty. It bothered him that Alexandria was such an advanced civilization, and that Rome was a backwater in comparison. That, too, will change within a minute, and that shift fascinated me. How could life have been so incredibly sophisticated in the first century B.C. in Egypt, and then how could we have lost so much of that culture for so many hundreds of years? Similarly, how could it take two thousand years for women to become independent members of society again, as they were to a great extent in Cleopatra's day? And could we go backward again?

JM: We have a hard time thinking of the Roman Empire as doing anything other than bestriding the ancient world with confidence. But as you say, they were encountering a civilization more sophisticated, more splendid, and older than theirs. So they were kind of the innocents abroad, if you will.

SS: Well [LAUGHING], that's why Mark Twain creeps into the book a couple of times. The reaction to Cleopatra's world was akin to that of an American going abroad in Twain's time, and trying to decide, "Is this barbarism or is this decadence?" They couldn't imagine any other option, because they were so discomfited by what they were looking at.

That's one of the reasons I had so much fun with Cicero. He never has a good thing to say about anyone. He has problems with women. He can't stand anyone who has a better library than he does. And he has a deep aversion to wealth and to royalty. He resists an appointment to Egypt because he thinks posterity might think less of him for taking it. So you can guess how he would have felt about Cleopatra. It's very easy to see how he would fail to take to this woman, no matter what she did to him. Cicero came as a relief, too, because with him I finally had a voice, and an immensely quotable one.

JM: Much of Cicero's considerable interest, and not just in the case of Cleopatra, is the way his unparalleled eloquence is transporting, and yet, ultimately, no match for the blunter truths of his contemporaries.

SS: Insofar as I have a weakness for discontents, I love him. It's just great how he always delivers that little twist of the knife.

JM: I do, too. What's next for you? Have you decided what you...

SS: Do you have an idea for me?

JM: [LAUGHING] I wish I did.

SS: I don't know. I'm very bad at predicting. After I finished my first book, I told myself that the second subject would have had to speak a Romance language, have as fine a sense of humor as did Saint-Exupéry, and have left great letters. Those were the three criteria, none of which applied to Mrs. Nabokov, about whom I wrote next. She had a limited sense of humor, her letters to her husband have never turned up, and she did not lead her life in a Romance language. So I wouldn't put any faith in any prediction I make now. Well, I would venture one prediction: give me a massive archive, please. Legible, typewritten, and mold-free. And preferably within 100 miles of my front door.

JM: What do you find compelling about biography? What draws you to it?

SS: Well, it has been called gossip with footnotes for a reason. I like to read my history through the lens of a personality. I don't think I'm alone in that. To be able somehow to view historical events through their impact on and through the eyes of an individual thrills me. Then, of course, there is always a beginning, a middle, and an end in biography. And there's a particular gratification to the genre: ultimately you get to kill off your subject. [LAUGHS]

As a biographer, you see things that the subject never saw. Nabokov writes to his mistress using the same words that he'd used fourteen years earlier to write to his future wife. I'm sure he never realized that. But I know that. Being able to locate the thematic consistencies throughout the life, to illuminate motivations and explain decisions as the person living the life could never have done, delights. It's a marvelous intellectual puzzle, if one you by definition can't solve for yourself.

--October 18, 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.

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  • 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.

    41 out of 47 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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