The New York Times Book Review
Cleopatra: A Lifeby Stacy Schiff
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.
- Editorial Reviews
- Product Details
- Related Subjects
- Read an Excerpt
- What People Are Saying
- Meet the author
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.
The New York Times Book Review
The New York Times
The Washington Post
"[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 )
"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 )
"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)
Superb, spirited, enthralling. For anyone who enjoys a fascinating life-story well told, this is a book not to be missed."David McCullough
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
"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."
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.
- Little, Brown and Company
- Publication date:
- Sold by:
- Hachette Digital, Inc.
- NOOK Book
- Sales rank:
- File size:
- 2 MB
Read an Excerpt
By Schiff, Stacy
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2010 Schiff, Stacy All right reserved.
THAT EGYPTIAN WOMAN
“Man’s most valuable trait is a judicious sense of what not to believe.”
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.
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.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are saying about this
Meet the Author
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: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, winner of the George Washington Book Prize and the Ambassador Book Award. Schiff 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. The recipient of an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she lives in New York City.
- New York, New York
- Date of Birth:
- October 26, 1961
- Place of Birth:
- Adams, Massachusetts
- B.A., Williams College, 1982
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >
"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.
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.
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.....
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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".
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.
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.
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....
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.
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.
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.
Who fathered her child was considered her husbands and next in line but if boy he had to marry wasn t so much incest as adultry before dna the rule was calf goes to the cow not bull for a realy awful bio read blackland by kerry greenwood think she had twins forty was considered a good age then considering disease fevers and infantcide like floating them off in baskets on nile
I thought this book was very interesting. I did not know the details of this time period. It was an exciting book, and I am very happy I read it!
This is a wonderfully witty and readable book of history. As others have mentioned, the author is careful to note what we do and don't know about Cleopatra and with what degree of certitude. If this bothers you, then what you want is historical fiction, not history. It's unfair to evaluate this book according to the criterea of historical fiction. The vocabulary can be demanding, so read the first few pages to see if this is for you. I loved this book, but you might not want to bring it to the beach.
Easy to read, lively writing style, incredibly interesting account of this period of history. Especially interesting for women.
We chose this book for our book club book. All of us picked it thinking it would be wonder. And every single one of us disliked this book. It was a horrible read. She tried to cram way too many details into every sentence. And really agree with another reader that there really isn't enough information for it to be considered a biography. NO one in our book club liked this book. Now we know why it was on the discount table at B&N for $6.98. None of us would recommend this book to anyone. We would suggest, The Kitchen House - a far better book.
Ms. Schiff attempts to create a biography of Cleopatra where little written history has survived the ages. She does an admirable job, but don't expect this to be the definitive history of Cleopatra. She must speculate often due to lack of facts, which can be disconcerting. I found the writing in this book difficult to adjust to initially. I felt the writing was pretentious -- lots of big words that didn't add value to the story -- and often somewhat flip. I did enjoy learning more about the times of Cleopatra. Let's face it, we all know how the story ends...this fills in the gaps.
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!!
"Cleopatra: A Life" by Stacy Schiff is a Pulitzer winning biography of the famous Egyptian Queen. This is a well researched and dense book -it is not easy to read. Stacy Schiff provides a new insight into the life of history's most elusive famous person. Cleopatra is portrayed as an intelligent, educated power broker who knew how to persuade kings to come to her side and her people to support her. This biography tries to separate the woman from the myth. In "Cleopatra: A Life" Stacy Schiff tries to reconstruct the biography of the of the most fascinating woman in history. History has remembered Cleopatra as a queen of great beauty who trapped in her tangled web to of the most powerful Romans in history. Ms. Schiff tells us right off the bat to hedge our bets and forget what we know. There are simply very little primary sources about this fascinating woman, much of it has been lost and the rest has been written by her enemies. It is a travesty of history that we know so little of the last Pharaoh of Egypt, who also happened to be one of the wealthiest women of all times (and certainly the wealthiest person on earth during her reign). It was disappointing to learn that there are very few primary sources and that Ms. Schiff based her research, amazing and detailed as it is, on mostly three secondary sources, Appian, Lucius Cassius Dio Cocceianus and Plutarch - all Roman, were not of the same generation and contradict one another. Even Julius Caesar bearly mentions Cleopatra in his writing. Other then Cleopatra's profile on coins, we don't even have a picture of the queen. Lack of primary sources is certainly a huge obstacle to overcome in a serious history book and Ms. Schiff does her best, unfortunately the first 150 pages (or so) are filled with "maybe", "we can guess." and "probably". For me that was very frustrating and tedious as the book is very detailed in every aspect of the Alexandrian life - but not so much on Cleopatra's early life. The book becomes fascinating when Julius Caesar enters the picture, but really - what doesn't? However, the real story gets rolling when Mark Anthony meets Cleopatra. The intriguing relationship between the world's most riches person and the world's most honored solider gets a whole new perspective from Ms. Schiff. The author didn't really believe that there was a great romance between Cleopatra and Anthony - but they used one another (money for protection) and she does bring very persuasive analysis to bring the reader to at least consider, if not agree, with her point of view. The details of Anthony and Cleopatra's life together are much more fascinating and exciting than the "maybes" and "probablys" of the first half of the book. The final chapters, which details the showdown between Octavian and Antony are an absolute joy to read. This is a serious history book written by a superb historian and not a light read - consider that before purchasing. An excellent book not for those just interested in Cleopatra but also in Roman history in general. For more book reviews please visit ManOfLaBook dot com
I read fast and I read often, and this slowed me down tremendously! If I hadn't bought it, I wouldn't have continued but, having paid for it (why didn't I head for the library??), I felt obligated to get to the end. In a word: BORING! How did it earn such fabulous reviews? Not much new, most of the "facts" are supposition, and, although I usually find history fascinating, this missed the boat. The moral of the story is: critics are not always to be trusted.
stiff reading didn't like as much .as Margaret George's Memoirs of Cleopratra