Her palace shimmered with onyx and gold but was richer still in political and sexual intrigue. Above all else, Cleopatra was a shrewd strategist and an ingenious negotiator. She was married twice, each time to a brother. She waged a brutal civil war against the first and poisoned the second; incest and assassination were family specialties. She had children by Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, two of the most prominent Romans of the day. With Antony she would attempt to forge a new empire, in an alliance that spelled both their ends. Famous long before she was notorious, Cleopatra has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons. Her supple personality and the drama of her circumstances have been lost. In a masterly return to the classical sources, Stacy Schiff boldly separates fact from fiction to rescue the magnetic queen whose death ushered in a new world order.
About 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.
Hometown:New York, New York
Date of Birth:October 26, 1961
Place of Birth:Adams, Massachusetts
Education:B.A., Williams College, 1982
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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.
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What People are Saying About This
"This is an astonishing, scrupulously researched, meticulously assembled retelling of one of the world's most famous lives--and it will become a classic." (Simon Winchester, author of The Man Who Loved China )
Superb, spirited, enthralling. For anyone who enjoys a fascinating life-story well told, this is a book not to be missed.
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. (Tracy Kidder, author of Strength in What Remains)
Stacy Schiff, a Pulitzer Prize winner, sets the gold standard for all biographers, and her latest, Cleopatra, is a feasta mouth-watering feast. (Kitty Kelley, author of Oprah: A Biography)
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.
Stacy 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. (Ron Chernow, author of Alexander Hamilton and Washington: A Life)
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 Cleopatraa much more interesting woman than the Hollywood version, and, as it turns out, a formidable queen after all. (Evan Thomas, author of The War Lovers)
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. (Jon Meacham, author of American Lion)
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. (Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran and Things I've Been Silent About)
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.
What a brilliant book. Stacy Schiff has written a masterpiece.
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?
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.
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.
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
Most Helpful 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.
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.
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!
Easy to read, lively writing style, incredibly interesting account of this period of history. Especially interesting for women.
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.
"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
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.
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.
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.
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.
This biography, by necessity, contains a lot of speculation. There is very little archival material on Cleopatra, and many sources are unreliable. At times, it seemed as if the author had to grasp at evidence. However, I especially enjoyed the material on how Egypt functioned in Cleopatra's time. Notwithstanding the challenges of writing a biography with little to go on, I enjoyed this book. It has portrayed Cleopatra in a way the fiction of Shaw or Shakespeare did not. Ms. Schiff has a wonderful, accessible writing style. She is imaginative and coherent. She acknowledges the gaps in source material and creates a credible portrait of Cleopatra. She also leaves the reader free to determine the truth. Hard-core history buffs will likely find the book a bit long for the amount of substantive information is includes, but biography fans will enjoy it, I think.
I never had much knowledge of Cleopatra, though I presumed that the evil seductress/siren image was overblown. It turns out that she was a truly remarkable woman who managed to keep her people in an uneasy coexistence with the Romans for twenty years. This is a fascinating biography which sheds a lot of light on the entire Mediterranean world shortly before the birth of Christ.Thanks for recommending it, JoAnn.
An interesting foray into the life of Cleopatra VII. Throughout the book, Schiff switches back and forth between historical accounts and story telling. It is a good way to help the reader stay interested in the overall history of Cleopatra, though Schiff makes it known that there is not a lot of accurate historical accounts of Cleopatra's life that has survived through the ages. I'm glad that Schiff pulls apart the "created" images of Cleopatra that may not be accurate, and sticks to the hard facts of her life. Schiff doesn't embellish too much. History, however, is forever full of mystery and I think the biggest problem with this book, though not Schiff's fault, is that there are too many holes in Cleopatra's life. So many, that you end up using your imagination to fill in the sordid details that were not written. The book is very well written and Stacy Schiff is a wonderful historical author. The only problem is that the topic itself has too many holes because there are so few accurate accounts of Cleopatra's life during the time that she was alive. And the majority of the accounts during her time is now lost or destroyed.
A fascinating take on the life of Cleopatra. History (written by men with their own agendas) has not been kind to her, and Schiff does a good job of pointing out where they just may have gotten it wrong. I think now I would put her at the top of my list for that "if you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead" party question.
Stacy Schiff did an amazing job of, not quite discrediting the classical writings, but instead putting them into perspective of the time period. She painted a far more complete picture of woman fighting for her right to rule, and the amazing job she did of it. Although the end result was not what she wanted she did take a rich country and make it richer and for a brief period stable. She stepped into a predominantly male role and did it better than her counterparts. Her error was allowing her heart (or loins, who knows) to back a losing horse. Stacy Schiff did a great job in being rounded in her arguments and giving an appraising, positive picture of an woman who should be admired and applauded, not reviled like the history accounts tell it.