Cleopatra: A Life

Cleopatra: A Life

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, garnet, 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,...

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Title:Cleopatra: A Life
Author:Stacy Schiff
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Edition Language:English

Cleopatra: A Life Reviews

  • Donna

    First and foremost this is a history book. The plot is taken from real time 2,000 years ago. It hasn't been bloated with fantastical elements or intense drama. In fact, if you were reading this book as you would a work of fiction, you'll find yourself sadly lacking that same kind of connection to Cleopatra as you would to a main character in a novel. Why? Because Cleopatra is nearly unknowable. And she's not a fictional character. She's spoken of from a distance, seen more through the eyes of me

    First and foremost this is a history book. The plot is taken from real time 2,000 years ago. It hasn't been bloated with fantastical elements or intense drama. In fact, if you were reading this book as you would a work of fiction, you'll find yourself sadly lacking that same kind of connection to Cleopatra as you would to a main character in a novel. Why? Because Cleopatra is nearly unknowable. And she's not a fictional character. She's spoken of from a distance, seen more through the eyes of men around her than through her own lenses. If you're not interested in Caesarian Roman or Ptolemaic Egyptian history, you might not get much out of this book. But if you are, and you want to know more about the elusive Cleopatra, not the Elizabeth Taylor or Shakespeare version but the real person garnered from first hand accounts and a few words out of her own mouth, you'll guzzle this book up as if it were your life force.

    The person of Cleopatra is the center of this book's universe with which all other events orbit. Unfortunately, the only way we can truly get to know Cleopatra now is by analyzing the events happening around her through the eyes of the people she's come in contact with. As I said above, this creates a sort of distance from her but it allows for a more objective look into her life. With these elements Schiff allows you to dissect her life and get a better hint of who Cleopatra was as a person, what her personality really was like and whether something of those scandalizing rumors really were true. Augustus Caesar did a good job of striking her from the history books. But not good enough. Here she remains to this day and Schiff did an excellent job of digging up the truth behind this woman we know next to nothing about. We barely even know what she looks like save for some sanctioned Ptolemaic coinage with her bust stamped onto it.

    Despite the rampant incest (holy god, we're talking about a family stump here, ew) and homicidal tendencies, Cleopatra's ability to rule a kingdom was astonishing compared to any ruler, let alone a woman living, quite literally, in a man's world. That's not to say her reign was full of smooth sailing, but she knew how to talk, walk and act in order to get what she needed for her country. She put her country first above all else (except maybe her children). Just like the accounts of this book orbit around Cleopatra, every piece of minutiae of Cleopatra's life orbited around the success of her kingdom. It's hard to determine if she did something genuinely out of love or if it was show, but it was all for Egypt, ultimately. Even when she tried negotiating with the immovable Augustus after she swindled Antony into his own suicide, it was all political. It was Antony's only way to die on his terms and Cleopatra's last hope of saving her country.

    Despite the distance I say this book creates between the reader and Cleopatra, it does an excellent job of forming a more accurate image of her in your mind's eye. That Elizabeth Taylor hussy image gets pushed aside as all of these missing pieces replace it, forming this real live person that feels more a part of history itself than just Hollywood. While the puzzle isn't complete, and probably never will be, Schiff does an fantastic job of digging up absolutely everything she can on this amazing woman and giving it to us as straight as can be. She doesn't hide what Cleopatra is, or what she potentially was. No secret is safe, nor even skewed. I felt like I was back during her reign, sitting on a cloud with the gods and watching all of these events unfold. Some of the images were blurry but they were clear enough to determine just what was going on.

    While it took a little while for me to get through, this book is an excellent historical read. A must read for anyone interested in the life and times of Cleopatra without the fabrications of storytelling and millennia of innuendo. It's raw, it's unforgiving and you will come away from it being more knowledgeable about such a shadowy figure in history. And then you'll want to read it again to be sure you picked up all of the historical tidbits you may have missed.

    If you want a good piece of fiction to follow this book with, you should pick up Cleopatra's Daughter by Michelle Moran. It picks up almost right where Cleopatra ends and Moran sticks pretty closely to the facts Schiff writes about. Honestly, I don't think you'll be able to stop at the end of Cleopatra. She's just far too interesting of a person.

  • Sara

    Perhaps of all the historic characters we think we know, but don’t, Cleopatra ranks at the top of the list. Sometimes a legend is so well-known that we lose track of the fact that a real human being was living this story, fighting these battles, and harboring these emotions. What an extraordinary person she must have been to have lived through so much in her short thirty-nine years and to have influenced history in the way that she did.

    First fact that I did not know. She was Cleopatra VII. Ther

    Perhaps of all the historic characters we think we know, but don’t, Cleopatra ranks at the top of the list. Sometimes a legend is so well-known that we lose track of the fact that a real human being was living this story, fighting these battles, and harboring these emotions. What an extraordinary person she must have been to have lived through so much in her short thirty-nine years and to have influenced history in the way that she did.

    First fact that I did not know. She was Cleopatra VII. There were five before her, but someone screwed up the count and she was officially #7. I think we would all agree that regardless of that fact, there was only ONE Cleopatra. Nothing like her has existed since the year 30 BC.

    She was the exceptional woman who knew how to play with the men and come out on top. She was absolutely as smart as she was beautiful, and probably more so, since her beauty is not mentioned as often as her charm. She came to power in what might be termed a cruel and ruthless manner, being directly involved in the death of her siblings, but reality is that it was more a matter of survival than choice.

    That her fate became linked with Marc Antony’s might have as much to do with playing the political game as it ever did with love or passion. She bore him three children, however, and it is hard to imagine that she did not feel very strong bonds with him beyond those of their interlaced political ambitions.

    There exists but one word actually written by Cleopatra herself. Everything we know of her comes to us from other sources. Cicero, who despised her, is a major source, as is Plutarch, who lived between 45 and 120 AD. It takes a lot of research in multiple sources to assemble a true picture of her life, and Stacy Schiff has done the work. She has managed at the same time to make the account interesting and never boring or stale.

    In the final insult to my knowledge of Cleopatra, I learned that it was most likely NOT an asp that killed her. The story does, however, date back to almost the moment of her death and was spread by Octavian for his own reasons. It fit so perfectly with the legend that already begun to spin around her and the images that were associated with the Ptolemies, that it stuck like glue.

    Says Schiff. It explains well why historians preferred to pass along the fiction instead of the truth.

    She bewitches us from beyond the grave perhaps because we know so little about her personally and that gives us a blank slate on which we can write our own version of Cleopatra.

    Having now finished this biography, I am anxious to find time to revisit my favorite Cleopatra story, the one penned by William Shakespeare. I will read it with an eye to how it differs from the truths we know about this enigmatic woman.

  • Navidad Thelamour

    Released to rave reviews and the full packaging monty of its publisher, Stacy Schiff’s

    took the NYT by storm in 2011, remaining there for months. And no wonder! This kamikaze of masterly writing, meticulous and thorough research, and humanizing hand of the author did a spectacular job of unmasking the woman behind the myth and debunking the lies we today call slander.

    This is the biography of Queen Cleopatra VII Philopator (as the title implies) but it is done unlike any other. (PLEAS

    Released to rave reviews and the full packaging monty of its publisher, Stacy Schiff’s

    took the NYT by storm in 2011, remaining there for months. And no wonder! This kamikaze of masterly writing, meticulous and thorough research, and humanizing hand of the author did a spectacular job of unmasking the woman behind the myth and debunking the lies we today call slander.

    This is the biography of Queen Cleopatra VII Philopator (as the title implies) but it is done unlike any other. (PLEASE) remove the images of Liz Taylor in near-drag from your mind as you embark on this one, for this work is a truly stunning portrayal of the woman behind the parable. This biography delves into her marriages, her political decisions, her rise and her downfall. The flap said it all. In fact, it was the dazzling summary in the book flap that drew me in (rather than the razzle dazzle of Schiff’s renowned name on the cover and spine):

    Honestly, I couldn’t have summed this one up better myself (and whoever wrote that flap summary, in its entirety, should be commended themselves).

    This biography, mind you, was released before the (in my opinion) disastrous exposé that Schiff did on

    , back when I’d never heard of this Pulitzer Prize winner and my mind was free of all bias for what those pages might hold, for how her style of writing would or would not stimulate and intrigue me. So, I was delighted to find that even the very first line drew me in with a skill rivaling the best in fiction, and her knack for weaving a story out of the hard research and history lost—rather than numbing the reader’s mind with dull and tiresome fact after fact—kept me reading, and hooked.

    Thus go the very first two lines of this biographical

    . Schiff weaves the tale in three dimensions. The world—Cleopatra’s world—that she depicts is rich with detail, color, noise. Intrigue, scandal, but, best of all, skillful and methodical stripping away of the myths that surround the legend. Page by page, Schiff untangles the Queen from the lies that have torn her down and muddied her name and her legacy, her intelligence and her political savvy. She dissects the hard decisions made in the name of sovereignty and survival that have painted Cleopatra both the witch and the harlot for centuries, truly, millennia—detailing the actions that made the Queen while giving the reader the perspective of the Queen who made the actions.

    No surprise that the same methods used to villainize women both today and historically were used to dismantle the legacy of a great ruler of that era; indeed, the last ruler of that era. But Schiff’s

    did not cower behind the wall of generations of myth and salaciousness. Everything from her genealogy and skin tone (about as disputed as that of Christ himself’s) to education and precarious upbringing were explored, and Schiff’s work did a masterly job of giving the reader a view of Cleopatra’s life from a thrilling perch, as if right on her shoulder the entire time.

    Because of this work, I will most certainly give Schiff’s writing another chance. This page turner (I literally finished half of it in one sitting) made me laugh with the satirical jabs that Schiff managed to aim at the lies surrounding her muse. It brought me to tears—yes, real ones!—at the climactic conclusion that left a queen and her lover dead and an era at an end. And the clever style of writing itself was witty, intellectual, adroit and entertaining to say the least. My copy was left full of highlighted passages and marginal notes; the best kind of read, if you ask me. 5 stars *****

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  • Diane

    Stacy Schiff has a serious girl crush on Cleopatra. If you want to read 300 pages about how awesome Queen Cleo was, then this is the book for you!

    I remembered little about the famous Egyptian ruler from world history class in high school, and I don't think the Elizabeth Taylor movie counts as a documentary, so Schiff's book felt like my introduction to Cleopatra. The book covers her family, her childhood, her education, her ability to charm and manipulate, her relationships with Julius Caesar an

    Stacy Schiff has a serious girl crush on Cleopatra. If you want to read 300 pages about how awesome Queen Cleo was, then this is the book for you!

    I remembered little about the famous Egyptian ruler from world history class in high school, and I don't think the Elizabeth Taylor movie counts as a documentary, so Schiff's book felt like my introduction to Cleopatra. The book covers her family, her childhood, her education, her ability to charm and manipulate, her relationships with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, the political climate in Rome and Alexandria, her death, and her enduring appeal.

    "Among the most famous women to have lived, Cleopatra VII ruled Egypt for 22 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 18, 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 39, 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."

    Throughout the book, Schiff relates what various historians and storytellers have written over the years about Cleopatra, pointing out inconsistencies or motives, and she also offers her own ideas about the queen. I appreciated this inclusion of narratives, especially since some writers had their own agenda. Schiff's opinions were generally about how smart and shrewd Cleopatra was, and how she could orchestrate events to her liking or how she could manipulate political figures (mostly).

    My complaint about the book was how dense it could be; Schiff sometimes got bogged down in too many trivial details that slowed down the narrative. But overall, the prose is lovely and engaging, and I enjoyed listening to this on audio, read by Robin Miles. I would recommend this to fans of history and girl power, obviously.

    "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."

    "From an early age she enjoyed the best education available in the Hellenistic world, at the hands of the most gifted scholars, in what was incontestably the greatest center of learning in existence: The library of Alexandria and its attached museum were literally in her backyard. The most prestigious of its scholars were her tutors, its men of science her doctors. She did not have to venture far for a prescription, a eulogy, a mechanical toy, a map."

    "Two thousand years of bad press and overheated prose, of film and opera, cannot conceal the fact that Cleopatra was a remarkably capable queen, canny and opportunistic in the extreme, a strategist of the first rank. Her career began with one brazen act of defiance and ended with another ... Boldly and bodily, she inserted herself into world politics, with wide-reaching consequences. She convinced her people that a twilight was a dawn and — with all her might — struggled to make it so. In a desperate situation, she improvised wildly, then improvised afresh, for some a definition of genius. There was a glamour and a grandeur to her story well before either Octavian or Shakespeare got his hands on it. Hers was an exhilarating presence; before she sent Plutarch many pages out of his way she had the same effect on his countrymen. From our first glimpse of her to the last, she dazzles for her ability to set the scene. To the end she was mistress of herself, astute, spirited, inconceivably rich, pampered yet ambitious."

  • Jason Koivu

    Stacy Schiff's

    is speculative, borderline revisionist history. It is unabashedly pro-Cleopatra, and ya know what? That's okay!

    Schiff looks at all the historical accounts - many of which did not paint the Egyptian queen in a kindly light - and attempts to distort the image so that the portrait favors her subject much more than history has. For all that, Schiff offers sound speculation. Her what-ifs and perhapses chime with the ring of truth. After all, history is written by the

    Stacy Schiff's

    is speculative, borderline revisionist history. It is unabashedly pro-Cleopatra, and ya know what? That's okay!

    Schiff looks at all the historical accounts - many of which did not paint the Egyptian queen in a kindly light - and attempts to distort the image so that the portrait favors her subject much more than history has. For all that, Schiff offers sound speculation. Her what-ifs and perhapses chime with the ring of truth. After all, history is written by the victors and in the end Cleopatra was written about by those Romans who were victorious over her.

    What saves Schiff's work from utter sycophancy is that she always lets the reader know that she is offering up alternative possibilities to what may or may not have happened. She never tricks the reader into thinking her statements are fact. Any guess is stated as such.

    It's a tall order writing about a woman 2000 years dead, about whom little is truly known even though she's arguably the most famous woman in history. Even without much concrete evidence to go on, Schiff was still able to put together a relatively lengthy biography, and an enjoyably written one at that. It gives just enough background info through numerous footnotes on the movers-and-shakers and the momentous moments of the day. Life in the Mediterranean two millennia ago for the rulers and ruled, with Cleopatra at the center of all things, is richly related within.

    Highly recommended for those with an interest in learning about only the most famous woman ever!

  • Matt

    Beginning a month (or forty days) of biographies, I thought I would work through this buddy read. In her biography of Cleopatra, Schiff takes the reader along a winding adventure into the world before the Common Era, where actions to unite came at the cost of land and life, both bloody endeavours. Born into the Ptolemaic dynasty that ruled Egypt, Cleopatra was of Macedonia Greek origin at a time of much political and geographic change. Her family ruled over the region with an iron fist and would

    Beginning a month (or forty days) of biographies, I thought I would work through this buddy read. In her biography of Cleopatra, Schiff takes the reader along a winding adventure into the world before the Common Era, where actions to unite came at the cost of land and life, both bloody endeavours. Born into the Ptolemaic dynasty that ruled Egypt, Cleopatra was of Macedonia Greek origin at a time of much political and geographic change. Her family ruled over the region with an iron fist and would not diminish themselves to speak Egyptian, choosing Greek for their daily interactions. However, Cleopatra did eventually learn the language and customs of the locals, if only to further strengthen her time as ruler of the region. After the death of her father, Ptolemy XII, Cleopatra was required to serve as co-ruler of Egypt with her brothers, Ptolemy XIII and Ptolemy XIV, both of whom she had to marry, as per Egyptian custom. However, neither liaison brought about children and Cleopatra was soon able to cast them off and reigned alone, ingratiating herself with the locals by citing that she was the reincarnated Egyptian goddess, Isis. With Egypt being eyed by Rome as a potential item of acquisition, Cleopatra headed to Europe to liaise with Julius Caesar, an event that led to a secret tryst, leaving Cleopatra the Emperor's mistress. Nine months later, Cleopatra bore a son from this union, whom she named Caesarian, or little Caesar. Upon Caesar's assassination in the Roman Senate, Cleopatra found herself in an interesting position, both as the mother of the Emperor's child and as ruler of Egypt; she had to choose a side to fill the Roman void. Turning to back Marc Antony, Cleopatra and all of Egypt held their collective breath as the Roman Civil War grew in fervour, pitting Antony against Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus (later known as Augustus). While events in Rome were becoming bloodier, Egypt stood in the middle as the prized possession of both factions, with Cleopatra still holding the reins of power. Her backing Antony turned romantic and Cleopatra bore him twins, Cleopatra II and Alexander Helios, as well as another son, Ptolemy Philadelphus. Their passion was strong and Schiff left the impression that it might have helped Cleopatra see Egypt as both fertile in its political and cultural heterogeneity. Schiff discusses a fairly significant hierarchy between the common Egyptian and the upper-class Greeks and Mesopotamian. During the Roman Civil War, Schiff also discusses Cleopatra fervour to exact revenge on enemies within the state, quelling any who spoke out against her, including a sister that threatened her hold on power, and sentiments that might have been interpreted as against Antony's forces. After the loss at a key battle, Antony attempted suicide in shame, though the historical narrative differs at this point, depending on which account the reader might follow. Schiff presents both the idea that Cleopatra learned of her lover's death and killed herself, or had Marc Antony brought to her on the verge of death and witnessed his final breath, before allowing herself to be bitten by an asp. The reader can parse through this and some of the other accounts to come up with their own personal finale, but all the same, Cleopatra's life centred around reigning the land eventually subsumed into the new Roman Empire and her passionate connection with two famous Romans, both firmly established in the record books. A biography thick with information, nuances, and powerful symbolism, Schiff is sure to impress any reader to dares take the time to investigate the life and times of this most famous Egyptian ruler.

    This is my second Schiff biography, which seeks to shed light on powerful and controversial women in history. The attentive reader will no doubt realise the onerous task of trying to amass a biography of a woman as popular as Cleopatra. Misnomers pepper the historical record, making the discovery of a true story all the more difficult, though Schiff does a formidable job in collecting a thread by which the reader can follow events somewhat fluidly. Additionally, all formal documents were created either in that time before the Common Era or within a hundred years thereafter, let alone that many were penned in languages that have either since died or been significantly altered. Schiff shows readers why she is worthy of another Pulitzer for her detailed work in weaving a digestible biography, adding fact to a narrative chock full of dates and political happenings. I found things difficult to follow at times, which could be a mix of my own mental acuity and the amount of information each chapter presented, though Schiff is not to blame for my lack of cognizance. I only wish I could have latched on better to what was being presented, as I am sure I could have ascertained even more out of this wonderful piece. Told frankly and succinctly, Schiff does a masterful job that anyone with a passion and curiosity for biographies will find endearing and truly captivating.

    Kudos, Madam Schiff for another wonderful biography. I am eager to find more that you have written down the road as I continue to expand my knowledge of areas in which I am interested but know very little.

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  • Kelly A.

    The number one thing that I learned from Cleopatra: A Life was this: I had deceived myself in thinking I knew anything about her before reading this book. Stacy Schiff digs deep into the life of one of the most well-known, yet misunderstood women in history. Most of us know her as the Egyptian queen who had affairs/children with both Caesar and Mark Antony, the two most powerful men of their age. She herself was much, much more than that.

    Cleopatra was a fa

    The number one thing that I learned from Cleopatra: A Life was this: I had deceived myself in thinking I knew anything about her before reading this book. Stacy Schiff digs deep into the life of one of the most well-known, yet misunderstood women in history. Most of us know her as the Egyptian queen who had affairs/children with both Caesar and Mark Antony, the two most powerful men of their age. She herself was much, much more than that.

    Cleopatra was a fabulously rich woman. In contemporary terms, her net worth would be around $95.8 billion dollars. She was worth more than three Queen Elizabeth IIs. Amazingly, she also lived in a culture were women were greatly empowered. A woman in first century B.C. could choose her own husband, own property, grant their own divorces, operate businesses, and serve as priests. As much as one third of Egypt was controlled by female hands.

    There are many other things that stick out to me about Cleopatra's life. The biggest was her incestuous family ties. Her grandparents were uncle and niece, her parents were brother and sister, and Cleopatra herself was married to both of her brothers. I question how there were no physical or mental deformations! Another interesting point pertains to her beauty. Third century A.D. records call her "strikingly exquisite" in appearance, while those of the Middle Ages say she was "famous for nothing but her beauty." Shakespeare raves about her looks. However, her contemporaries, those who actually knew and saw her, say nothing about her beauty. In fact, her appearance was called "not remarkable." Quite different from what most of us have heard about her!

    Stacy Schiff wrote an extremely entertaining book full of fun, interesting facts. I loved her sarcastic voice and the humor she injected into the characters. I will say that it seems to drag on forever at the end. The story began to focus too much on Mark Antony and the military, which quickly lost my interest. I skimmed the last 100 pages. That being said, I'd rate it 3.5 stars; the plethora of amazing facts was overshadowed by the fact that I felt I had to force myself to even finish it.

  • Grace Tjan

    Cleo might have used her wiles to seduce them, but both Julius and Mark were hardly paragons of chastity themselves: Julius specialized in seducing “aristocratic wives”, while Mark had numerous affairs with both single and married women.

    We just don’t really know how she looked.

    Cleo might have used her wiles to seduce them, but both Julius and Mark were hardly paragons of chastity themselves: Julius specialized in seducing “aristocratic wives”, while Mark had numerous affairs with both single and married women.

    We just don’t really know how she looked. The only surviving images of her are stylized coin portraits. Accounts that were written during or shortly after her lifetime didn’t say much about her looks, while later sources seems to have exaggerated her beauty to fit the vampy seductress mold. However, as a Macedonian Greek, she must have looked Caucasian, thus probably closer to the aforementioned Ms. Taylor than say, Queen Latifah.

    Mark Antony was “broad-shouldered, bull-necked, ridiculously handsome, with a thick head of curls and aquiline features.” Who knows, he might have looked like a certain Welsh actor. They both surely drank a lot.

    As a Ptolemaic princess, Cleo received a first rate education by ancient standards, which is to say that she was well versed in mathematics, astronomy/astrology, Greek philosophy and literature, and rhetoric. According to Plutarch, she spoke nine languages, in addition to Egyptian, which other Ptolemaic rulers didn’t even bother to learn. She managed to make herself the absolute ruler of Egypt, while preserving her country’s independence against Roman encroachment for almost two decades. She must have been a pretty smart lady to be able to accomplish such feats.

    Essentially true. The Ptolemies followed the ancient Egyptian custom of royal intermarriages. She was married to her 13-year old brother (prior to fighting him for the throne and causing him to be killed by Caesar’s men), and then to another brother. She also had her sister Arsinoe, a rival claimant to the throne, murdered. But to be fair, murdering relatives had been a centuries old tradition in her family, and those siblings would not have hesitated to off her if they had the chance anyway.

    Alexandria’s famous lighthouse (one of the seven wonders of the ancient world), library and gymnasium dwarfed anything in other 1st century B.C. cities. Forty-foot tall sculptures of former Cleopatras greeted new arrivals in its harbor. At least one “colossal hawk-headed sphinx” towered over the palace wall. “Glossy thirty-foot long sphinxes” guarded the temples. The Canopic Way, Alexandria’s main drag, could accommodate eight chariots driving abreast. The cosmopolitan population was “hyperkinetic”. Rome was nothing but a staid, crude muddy hamlet in comparison.

    Orientalism nonsense that began as Octavian’s propaganda. It’s true that the Ptolemies threw the best parties in the ancient world (at one particular feast, the gold dinner vessels alone were said to have weighed 300 tons), but Cleo was also one of the richest ruler on earth, so she could well afforded them. Peacock-eating Romans could be perfectly extravagant and corrupt without any Eastern influences.

    Cleo didn't want to lend him her book (probably from the great library of Alexandria) and he spent the rest of his life maligning her.

    He was also a fake Jew who probably didn’t deserve the throne of Judaea. Herod and Cleo fought over asphalt and balsam monopolies, and this resulted in Flavius Josephus maligning her.

    Painters and moviemakers love this scene. But it’s most probably not true. Cleo, a “woman who is known for her crisp decisions and meticulous planning” would surely have hesitated to entrust her fate to an unreliable wild animal. She had plenty of quicker, less painful options, such as the poisons that she was reported to have experimented with. It was also as well a little too convenient to be killed by the royal emblem of Egypt: the snake made more symbolic than practical sense. Octavian did display a model of Cleo with an asp in his triumph, and this was probably where the legend started.

    “…We are left to square intelligible decisions with obscure accounts…”, Schiff wrote of the contradictory historical accounts about Antony and Cleopatra’s conduct at the battle of Actium. The same might be said of virtually

    historical accounts about her, be they written by Plutarch, Suetonius, Dio, Josephus or others. If your agenda is to remove 2,000 years of sexist and/or orientalist distortions from Cleopatra’s portrait, which account are you going to accept as reliable and which are not? Are you going to accept those that support your thesis only and disregard those that do not, even though they are consistent with other accounts? After all, “no story in the ancient world is unvarnished”. In Cleopatra’s case, the varnish might have been so thick and persistent that it has become virtually impossible to remove.

    Schiff’s book is an entertaining, occasionally snarky, impressively detailed reconstruction of what Cleopatra might have been like, but there were times when I wondered whether she was just as biased as her ancient predecessors. What really happened 2,000 years ago? Who knows?

    3,5 stars.

  • Elizabeth Sulzby

    So far, I am very disappointed in this book--by a Pulitzer Prize winning author. She uses very long paragraphs that should have been divided. She puts her points embedded so that it's hard for a reader to see what she intends to be significant. There are "clever" pieces that are not at all clever.

    The author says she will not create material but may create context from other sources, but she does not give the reader cues. For example, in Chapter II she goes on and on about Cleopatra's education,

    So far, I am very disappointed in this book--by a Pulitzer Prize winning author. She uses very long paragraphs that should have been divided. She puts her points embedded so that it's hard for a reader to see what she intends to be significant. There are "clever" pieces that are not at all clever.

    The author says she will not create material but may create context from other sources, but she does not give the reader cues. For example, in Chapter II she goes on and on about Cleopatra's education, including details about her oral reading, her rhetorical skills, etc., for at least 6 pages then, finally, she cites Plutarch for her end-point educational achievements (most of which have been given over and over in other work about Cleopatra).

    I appreciated the author's judgments about the difficulties of a Greek speaker learning Egyptian of that era, demotic and formal, compared with the difficulties of an Egyptian speaker learning Greek. But I did not find her showing evidence whether or not these were generalizations or actually the case with Cleopatra.

    I also found boring the detailed accounts of the Ptolemies' intermarriages, of the ruthless executions of family members in line of succession, and of the conflict brought on by the Macedonia ancestry of the Ptolemies, including Cleopatra, simply because there are other sources for this. (I see I have written one of those sentences that I have blamed Schiff for. Blush.)

    This book may be useful for readers who haven't studied Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Marc Antony, etc., before. I also consider it useful for the broader discussion of the many women of educational achievement of this era. I also found her description of the Alexandrian library and the tutor/scholars making use of it during her education.

    I'm going to give the author another chapter and if it doesn't improve, I'll put it aside for other sources.

    Addition August 2011: I have read more parts of the book now and still have the same reactions. I am hoping some other Goodreads reviews will point me to unique, useful, and artistic aspects of this prizewinning historical fiction.

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