Cleopatra : a life

by Stacy Schiff

Hardcover, 2010




New York : Little, Brown and Co., c2010. First ed.


The Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer brings to life the most intriguing woman in the history of the world: Cleopatra, the last queen of Egypt. Though her life spanned fewer than 40 years, it reshaped the contours of the ancient world.

Media reviews

" Ideally, as Stacy Schiff observes in her magnificent re-creation of both an extraordinary woman, and her times, our sense of Cleopatra would be heightened by her dramatic appearance as the doomed heroine of a sumptuous opera (Puccini, preferably)."
2 more
Her life of Cleopatra is slightly soft-focused, as if she has applied Vaseline to the lens. It leaves the impression that, like a student taking an exam, she knows only a little more than what she writes. Sometimes she nods; to say, as she does, that Roman women were without legal rights is incorrect, although they were not allowed to hold political office. That said, she has done her homework and writes elegantly and wittily, creating truly evocative word pictures.
"Successfully dissipating all the perfume, Schiff finds a remarkably complex woman—brutal and loving, dependent and independent, immensely strong but finally vulnerable."

User reviews

LibraryThing member brenzi
There have been volumes written about Cleopatra VII, so why I was drawn to this particular one is a mystery. I love history but what I know about the time of the Egyptian queen could be written on the head of a pin. So it’s good that I chose a book that is so readable and so easy for a novice to follow and understand. But what Stacy Schiff set out to do was to set the record straight because to say that information about her subject is convoluted and questionable is putting it mildly. A myth has built up around Cleopatra, helped in no little part by Elizabeth Taylor so in building her narrative, the author went back to sources that were writing at the time history was being made (Cicero) and sources that wrote centuries after Cleopatra’s reign (Dio and Plutarch) and tried to filter out that which proved to be implausible.

Here was a woman who married twice (brothers both, who she ruled jointly with, briefly), but had only two lovers. They just happened to be Julius Caesar and Marc Antony and with them she produced four children. She also murdered her sister and brother to assure her place on the throne. She came from a long line of murderers so I guess we should cut her some slack. And her love affairs with the two Roman generals occurred when they were both married. You can draw your own conclusions from that.

Cleopatra’s many accomplishments far outweigh the bad behaviors she may also be remembered for. She acquired an empire that was in decline at the age of eighteen and managed to expand it so that she ruled over the entire eastern Mediterranean. She was highly intelligent and a savvy political opponent. Even in defeat:

She was neither humbled nor panic-stricken but every bit as inventive as she had been when the first reverse of her life landed her in the desert. The word “formidable” sooner or later attaches itself to Cleopatra and here it comes: she was formidable---spirited, disciplined, resourceful---in her retreat. There were no hints of despair. Two thousand years after the fact, you can still hear the fertile mind pulsing with ideas.” Page 264

You can’t come away from this book without commenting on the true differences between Rome and Alexandria. The beauty, inventiveness, and uniqueness of the Egyptian city were staggering. The rights of Egyptian women were unheard of and surprised me:

Egyptian women enjoyed the right to make their own marriage. Over time their liberties increased, to levels unprecedented in the ancient world. They inherited equally and held property independently. Married women did not submit to their husbands control. They enjoyed the right to divorce and to be supported after a divorce. Until the time and ex-wife’s dowry was returned, she was entitled to be lodged in the house of her choice. Her property remained hers; not to be squandered by a wastrel husband.” Page 24

Thoroughly researched (but really, how would I know?), sparkling prose, not quite narrative non-fiction but very close in flow, this book both entertains and informs. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know a woman and an era of which I was woefully uninformed. Highly recommended.
… (more)
LibraryThing member Cynara
Cleopatra: A Life by biographer Stacy Schiffis a remarkable work. Frankly, I wondered how she would pull it off. I wouldn't care, myself, to try to extricate the historical Cleopatra from the morass of Roman moralisation that followed her demise.

Schiff's Cleopatra isn't so much new as clarified. Many people know of her competent leadership, her multiple languages, her intellect and charm. Schiff's research into 1st century BCE culture helps her fill in much of the rest: the feisty Alexandrians, the endless Eastern client-kings, the uneasy pacts with Rome.

Schiff's Cleopatra is a pragmatic ruler first; in the difficult job of divining her subjects' motives, she looks at political expediency first. She acknowledges the possibility of personal love and passion gingerly, knowing that too many accounts of the Caesar-Cleopatra-Antony axis have reduced the whole political crisis to the trouser urgings of two and a half out-of-control libertines.

I was always aware of the tenuousness of our hold on the truth. As Schiff acknowledges, Cleopatra "ceases to exist without a Roman in the room" as far as the historical record goes. I felt this most keenly at the end, when our sources have dwindled down to two Roman chroniclers who give us differing and highly coloured narratives that probably have squat to do with the actual events.

Schiff balances the bareness of some of the accounts with vivid, colourful descriptions of Alexandria and Ptolomeic pagentry. These pages are so lush and, at times, hilarious, that I had to read them out loud.

This is a good book - well researched, well written, as compelling as a novel, and finally doing something I thought was impossible - bringing us a believable Cleopatra, mostly shorn of the last 2000-odd years of mythmaking.

The book is illustrated by some well-chosen colour plates, and I just love the cover; so evocative, and so reflective of the contents.
… (more)
LibraryThing member tututhefirst
I'm in awe of anyone who can write a book like this. Biographers are often overwhelmed with tons of extraneous material about the subject of their work; they have letters, diaries, journals, shopping lists, newspaper articles, essays, speeches, orations, and often, fictionalized accounts of lives that bear no relation to reality. Pulitzer prize winning biographer Stacy Schiff not only had to dig through some of these types of materials (including Shakespearean plays), but if she wanted to be true to her subject and her craft, she had to plumb primary sources in languages such as Greek, latin, hieroglyphics, etc.

Cleopatra herself was an exceptionally well educated woman -she spoke 8 or 9 languages, she could quote various Greek poets and playwrights as well as converse with her troops in Egyptian.In fact,Schiff makes a point to let us know that Cleopatra was the first Egyptian monarch who could speak the language of the common people she ruled.

I learned so much about this fascinating woman. For instance, I'm not sure I ever paid attention to time lines before-- I always imagined her as being several centuries earlier than she was. The fact that she was a contemporary of Julius Caesar just goes to show you that I didn't realize how close to the BC/AD he was.

Although she had contemporary sources such as Plutarch, Cicero, and Cassius Dio among others, there are no letters to Caesar or Anthony, no written proclamations, and only one direct quote from Plutarch.

Her book, which is based almost entirely on recollections and writings of foreign males, gives us a wonderful panoramic view of the glory of ancient Alexandria, and compares it to the early, less gaudy Rome. As she gives us a very real queen who is balancing delicately between the splendor of Egypt and the might of Rome, she shows us the differences in the education and treatment of women, the availibility of books, the styles of buildings, the fighting styles of the armies (and navies).

She strips away the Hollywood glitz, the Shakespearean hyperbole, and gives us a picture of a powerful, wealthy, competent, ruthless ruler, who bested the best, who refused to put herself into situations where she or her country could be humiliated, and who may not have been the sexual brazen hussy we have been previously presented.

This woman was as regal and influential as any monarch the pre-Christian world produced. Ms.Schiff has given us a highly readable, extraordinarily well-researched biography that sets a standard that future researchers will strive to emulate. The illustrations and maps bring the story to life and help the reader get a good picture of the extent of the Egyptian empire, and the spectacle of the capital city this queen called home.
… (more)
LibraryThing member Chatterbox
This was a lively and entertaining biography of a woman, the legend of whose life has long since transcended the realities of that life. Schiff sets out to redress the imbalance, and although she's handicapped by the fact that Cleopatra was "a Greek woman whose history fell to men whose futures lay with Rome", and that Rome had a vested interest in scorning her and limiting their view of her to that of femme fatale who had bewitched both Caesar and Mark Anthony, the result is impressive.

Schiff tries to wade through what documentation is available to get to the truth of the Egyptian queen's life, painting the portrait of a woman who was a capable and wily ruler but whose fate was sealed when she allied herself too closely with the less canny Mark Anthony and proceeded to alienate many of his Roman supporters. Ultimately, Schiff tells the story of lapses of judgment that would have catastrophic consequences.

This may not be a superb academic biography -- I'm not qualified to judge -- but it's lively and vivid and far more readable than many of the scholarly biographies I've been reading lately, including Goldsworthy's tome on Caesar himself. She describes Alexandria as "an excitable city of short tempers and taut, vibrating minds" and devotes attention to the world Cleopatra inhabited as well as to the (rather well known to history buffs) story itself. "Cleopatra’s country had been in the hospitality business long before the rest of the world so much as suspected gracious living existed," Schiff writes of the impression that traveling Romans had of Alexandria's glories. Nor does the mundane escape her: "Teething trouble? The standard cure was to feed the child a fried mouse. Excessive crying? A paste of fly dirt and poppy could be counted on to silence the most miserable of infants." While the broad outlines of the story weren't new to me, this was a great read, lively and interesting.

Recommended, 4.4 stars.
… (more)
LibraryThing member OldRoses
The reviews of this book present an interesting dichotomy. Scholarly reviewers rave about author Stacy Schiff’s ability to flesh out the life and times of a queen about whom very little is known. Other reviewers complain that there is very little about Cleopatra herself in the book. Although not a professional historian, I am firmly in the camp with those who stand in awe of this recreation of an extraordinary woman.

History is written by the victors. As Schiff points out, in Cleopatra’s time they were men, Romans whose culture did not allow for powerful women or female rulers. In their eyes, she was the enemy who had seduced Caesar and Mark Antony, bent them to her will and contributed to their destruction. Subsequent authors through the ages, accepted this interpretation of her and embroidered on it.

In this book, Cleopatra’s life is placed in the context of both the Egyptian culture that she ruled and the Alexandrian culture of the ruling class (her ancestors were Macedonians who had conquered Egypt). Both of these cultures allowed for a woman ruler, unlike many other ancient cultures. To the Egyptians, she was a goddess, the incarnation of Isis.

Both cultures allowed her to rule without a husband unlike many future European queens who were forced to make the difficult choice of remaining single like Elizabeth I of England or choosing a husband who either alienated her subjects like Prince Philip of Spain, the husband of Elizabeth’s half-sister Mary, or cost her her throne like Lord Darnley, the husband of Mary Stewart of Scotland.

Her world is brought to life in this enchanting book. One can almost smell and feel the humid, spice laden air of Alexandria and the chill of the Roman hills. The colors, the pageantry, the rites and the people come alive.

It’s been more than thirty years since I last took an ancient history course but the author provides plenty of background information on each country and personage who was a part of Cleopatra’s life. I was able to follow along with no problem.

Unlike the heavy, ponderous style of male biographers, Schiff’s writing style is peculiarly suited to her subject. Her light feminine style provides the perfect voice for a smart, fearless, feminine queen.
… (more)
LibraryThing member yukon92
This book was so dry I was afraid all the sands of the Sahara would fall out of it every time I opened it!
LibraryThing member jmchshannon
Cleopatra is a name that automatically conjures certain images thanks to Hollywood. Unfortunately, thanks to the adage that the victors record the histories, all that exists are myths and tall tales when it comes to her true self. Portrayed as a harlot and a witch who used magic and sex to lure two of the most powerful men into doing her bidding, the true Cleopatra has been lost to time. Ms Schiff, however, brings her back from the dead, weeding through the fiction to uncover the hidden truths behind the mystery that is one of the ancient world's greatest leaders.

Cleopatra truly does deserve that title as one of the ancient world's greatest leaders. Under her leadership, Alexandria and Egypt remained the wealthiest country in the known world. Alexandria was renowned for its learning, its culture. Cleopatra herself prized education and ensured she surrounded herself with the top philosophers, scientists, linguists, mathematicians, and the like. Brave and politically savvy, Cleopatra placed her people above all else. Her relationship with Julius Caesar was one way of obtaining the political support necessary to ensure her people would remain protected as the Romans obtained greater power. Her relationship with Mark Antony, however, was something special. Originally designed as another power play to shore up political support against Octavian, their relationship became one based on love. Unfortunately, this relationship also meant her tragic undoing.

As mentioned, very little remains about Cleopatra, and what does exist was written by authors and poets that were trying to incur favor with the Romans. As a result, that which does exist is understandably biased against her. Ms. Schiff does an amazing job of reading between the lines of these supposed histories, extracting a more accurate picture of Cleopatra or at least determining the blatant lies. Some things will remain hidden forever, including the truth behind Cleopatra's death. Was it a well-executed suicide, or was it something more dastardly on the part of Octavian? Unfortunately, mankind will never know. At least the asp is debunked.

What strikes the reader most is the loss of Alexandria and of such a great leader. As a female, one cannot help but marvel that one of Octavian's major reasons for opposing Cleopatra in the first place is because she was a woman, and he could not stomach the thought of that much wealth in the hands of a woman. Under her reign, women enjoyed an immense number of freedoms, the likes of which they would not see again for centuries. Octavian needed the Egyptian wealth, but he also did not like the precedent Cleopatra set for the rest of the world. How different would the world be today had misogyny and greed been a factor?

Extremely well written, Cleopatra transcends an ordinary biography. Instead of a dry, fact-filled timeline of history, Ms. Schiff uses historical narratives to obtain a complete picture of this mysterious woman, using not only narratives directly about Cleopatra but into the Ptolemy dynasty in general. She delves into Egyptian lifestyles, Roman politics and other sources to present the psychology behind her actions and remove as much of the mystery as possible. The result is as complete a picture of this remarkable woman as has ever existed.

The story of Cleopatra has always been rather tragic, only because Cleopatra has been portrayed that way throughout the ages. Ms. Schiff makes her story truly tragic only because of what might have been. Cleopatra was a leader like no other. Revered as a goddess, Egypt and Alexandria enjoyed unimagined prosperity during her reign. There were learnings that would disappear with her that would also take centuries to rediscover. The world lost an amazing woman when she died. Ms. Schiff brings her back to the world, so that we can rediscover the fascinating woman that was Cleopatra.
… (more)
LibraryThing member mamzel
As a person who doesn't read much nonfiction and even less biographies, I have to say that this book was totally captivating. Cleopatra was a fascinating person at a fascinating time in history. Except for a section towards the end of the book which covered the skirmishes between Anthony and Octavian (battle scenes are the reason I never read books about history) I was carried along as I learned about the ancient Egyptians and the life style of the ruling classes in Alexandria and Rome.

I could not help but have a picture in my mind of Elizabeth Taylor while I read and was amazed at how many misconceptions I had about Cleopatra.
… (more)
LibraryThing member katiekrug
Given that I know very little about Cleopatra, Caesar, Marc Antony, or the time in which they lived, this was a fascinating book. Despite the paucity of sources, and the known bias of many of those sources, Schiff is able to pull together a convincing portrait of a woman who, like so many other historical women, has often been reduced to a caricature of herself. Cleopatra, the wanton, highly-sexed temptress of myth and drama, was in fact a shrewd and incredibly intelligent woman who won back her throne and held it through a combination of wit, wiles, and, yes, sexuality. The final showdown between Antony and Cleopatra's forces and those of Octavian makes for high drama, and the two lovers' suicides provide a fitting end to the story (and, by the way, there was likely no snake involved in Cleopatra's death). As Schiff points out, Marc Antony was as much Cleopatra's undoing as she was his.

This audio book was well read by Robin Miles.
… (more)
LibraryThing member MarysGirl
I have a soft spot for strong women in history. I’ve written about Hypatia, the Lady Philosopher of Alexandria; Empress Galla Placidia and her niece Pulcheria who both ruled Rome in its waning days. I’ve read about Boudica, Queen of the Iceni; Amanirenas, the one-eyed warrior queen of Kush; and Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra; all of whom defeated Roman armies, only to succumb later to that massive military machine. Most of my favorites are little known women who ruled countries, commanded armies and navies, dealt astutely with ruling male neighbors and made a difference in their people’s lives. I like to read and write about them because they are little known. I like introducing readers to new characters and broadening the scope of history. Occasionally, I’ll run across a woman I thought I knew, and find out I’m wrong. Cleopatra is one.

Cleopatra VII, the last Macedonian Greek Ptolemy to rule Egypt, is one of those historical characters that everyone thinks they know because she is so enmeshed in popular culture. The subject of plays, books, movies, art; all with the same theme: beautiful woman seduces the most powerful men of the age, gets her comeuppance by falling passionately in love, betrays her lover in his hour of need and commits suicide by snakebite. All agree on some central tenants: she was physically beautiful; was profligately sensual, using sex, food, drink and other delights of the senses to ensnare her victims; and she was highly ambitious.

If you read the classical writers, she’s all that is anti-Roman in the world: a woman, a queen, an Eastern ruler who worships strange animal gods. To male-dominated, republican Rome, she’s a mystery and a threat to their very way of life. But the real Cleopatra is obscured by myth and legend. Octavian (later known as the Emperor Augustus) and his publicists probably manipulated her image to enhance his own as her conqueror. We don’t even have a good likeness. I saw a museum show about Cleopatra several years ago and they had a couple of busts which may, or may not, have been her. All we have for certain are a few coins which show a woman with a prominent nose and sharp chin.

Most that was written about her was written after her death, by her enemies. A few authors, in recent times, have tried to pull back the veil of mystery surrounding the legends of Cleopatra. The most recent is Cleopatra: A Life by Pulitzer-award winning author Stacy Schiff. I picked up this book because it was getting a lot of buzz on various history and reading sites for being a lucid, easy-to-read, modern biography of Cleopatra. I wasn’t disappointed. Schiff tells us early on what she wants to accomplish:

"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….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 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.”

There is a lot of context. In addition to telling us about Cleopatra and other leading players on the stage; Schiff fills in lots of details about the city of Alexandria and the lives of people at those times. We have pageantry, economics, palace intrigue, architecture, global politics, food, medicine and childcare, among many subjects. She also does the scholar’s job of evaluating the sources and putting them in context. Who had an axe to grind, who worked for whom, how did their commentary on Cleopatra fit in with their life’s work. As Schiff says, Cleopatra “ceases to exist without a Roman in the room.” She points out that the most comprehensive sources never met Cleopatra. Plutarch, Appian and Dio all lived after she died and for their own purposes:

"...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 and melt down pearls….Cleopatra’s was a world in which you could visit the relics of Orpheus’s lyre, or view the egg from which Zeus’s mother had hatched. (It was in Sparta.)”

Schiff’s book, like any good non-fiction history, is well documented. She provides forty pages of end notes, a selected bibliography and extensive index. But it reads like a novel, even to the extent of putting thoughts in the heads or giving feelings to some of the characters (which I think is a mistake in non-fiction.) She gives us a portrait of an intelligent, pragmatic ruler. Cleopatra held on to power for twenty-two years in the face of the most ambitious men of her age, prosecuted wars, alleviated famines and controlled one of the largest economies in the Ancient world. Based on Cleopatra’s actions, background, and the times she lived in; Schiff gives us a character that rings true. Whether or not it is accurate, no one will ever know.
… (more)
LibraryThing member KatherineGregg
Schiff has masterfully pieced together sources to paint an illuminating picture of what Alexandria and Rome were like back in the day of Cleopatra and the early Caesars. Fascinating to imagine what a powerful, educated and supremely wealthy woman Cleopatra was. Also interesting to learn that Rome was filthy, uncultured and poor compared to Alexandria at it's peak.… (more)
LibraryThing member VivienneR
Until reading this book I knew little about Cleopatra beyond the word on the street, which is based more on Elizabeth Taylor's portrayal than on Cleopatra. Schiff's meticulous biography is fascinating. She covers all kinds of detail: life, culture, medicine, politics, government, warfare, and education. She also describes a lavish opulence that is - and was at the time - astonishing. But what Schiff does best is to disparage the image of Cleopatra as a wicked temptress, instead showing the reader a more credible picture of a remarkably intelligent woman and powerful monarch who brought prosperity to her country. This is a compelling book with balanced opinions that I will keep to read again, and for reference. Highly recommended.

"Her power has been made to derive from her sexuality... It has always been preferable to attribute a woman's success to her beauty rather than to her brains, to reduce her to the sum of her sex life. Against a powerful enchantress there is no contest, against a woman who ensnares a man in the coils of her serpentine intelligence, in her ropes of pearls, there should at least be some kind of antidote. Cleopatra unsettles more as sage than as seductress. It is less threatening to believe her fatally attractive than fatally intelligent."

"There was a glamour and a grandeur to her story well before Octavian or Shakespeare got his hands on it."
… (more)
LibraryThing member Nialle
Much lauded in critical circles, this biography is nonetheless bound to be frustrating for the lay reader, because the author spends most of the book explaining why we don't know what we think we know about the most discussed queen of Egypt. The reader who continues through the Donations of Alexandria, however, will be rewarded as the story picks up detail and pace. Which, frankly, and laudably, is the author's point: we don't know what we think we know about Cleopatra. Was she beautiful? Not according to contemporary accounts; she had a honker like a bird of prey. Was she seductive? If so, it must have been the wit and charisma. Was she witty and charismatic? Yes. Does that make her less of a woman? No. Does it make her a queen worthy of remembering among the powerful monarchs of Eurasia? Not by itself - but, the author argues, the evidence of her diplomatic, managerial, inspirational, and myth-building skills, once extracted from under the discordant propaganda, certainly does.

Fluent in multiple languages, able to rally otherwise feuding allies, funny, fierce, and expert at managing everything from cattle totals to oversized egos, Cleopatra emerges from these pages as a person who made history because she got out there and made a difference (and a fortune), but whose image got troped and memed and mythologized and cautionary-taled and even actively, consciously distorted by one Octavian, a/k/a Augustus Caesar, who also scrambled and encoded the lives of many other people in his quest for dominion over the West at a time when it was easy to cry "East" at the faintest sign of women's emancipation, opulence, or apparent illogic.

Is Schiff just another feminist whining about the defamation of a historical woman? Definitely not. Carefully arraying evidence and explaining exactly why some historians' accounts are suspect and why others' aren't, providing information from the context of Egyptian, Alexandrian, and specifically Ptolemaic life, and treating the narrative like a mystery with a thin, illuminating beam of highest probabilities lighting the way to her conclusion, Schiff employs both fresh and dry humor, both sympathetic and analytic approaches, to pick out the most likely image of her subject.

What does she conclude?

Well, there's a question. Clearly, she indicates that Cleopatra ought not to be reduced to an asp-clasping seductress. She even throws quite reasonable doubt on the asp. She also talks about Cleopatra as a mother of future monarchs, an aspect of Cleopatra's character that literature often leaves out; nonetheless, Cleopatra had at least three children (Schiff does not, curiously, bring up the whether-there-were-three-or-four question, the only question she did not address out of the ones I knew to ask) and made her final efforts, throughout the last months of her life, center on the survival and possible continuing royalty of those children. She had made her son (by Julius Caesar), Caesarion, her co-ruler, and she had promised a son of Mark Antony to the daughter of an Eastern monarch, so why did the West forget about the kids? How could the West have forgotten that Cleopatra very much played to the popular association of her to Isis, a mother goddess? Couldn't we have left that bit in when we took out the brainy bits and put in the salacious bits?

But in the end, Schiff throws the reader a curveball of a final paragraph. How did the West forget that in the nine days between Antony's suicide and Cleopatra's, Cleopatra had to face the very real probability that her nation, her dynasty, the heritage of Alexander the Great and the greatness of Egypt, were about to be lost, by Cleopatra VII? How can we fail to remember that this woman, who ruled over the largest version of Egypt in centuries, with the company of two of the most powerful foreigners of her time, the education of a high-born Greek, the experience of twenty-two years on the throne, and the multiply-verified adoration of her people, spent the last nine days of her life trying to grasp that her lifelong improvisations to get, keep, expand, redefine, use, and pass on power had come to a total stop? The reader is left with a profoundly unsettling sense that, amid all the splayed facts and fictions, the reader has all along done exactly what a Westerner does naturally: assume that Cleopatra's heart was in her associations with others. What if, in her heart of hearts, Cleopatra should be remembered as the woman who made herself a goddess and a diplomat out of love for her country, for Ptolemaic Egypt?

What if, indeed. It's a powerful question, powerfully put in Schiff's final pages.

Oh, and she also suggests, but doesn't claim, that she knows where the imaginary asp came from. Hint: it's a Menander quote that Octavian would have had to copy out in school. I don't know that I believe it, and Schiff doesn't ask me to decide, but damn, that was funny. Schiff appears, in moments like that - parentheticals and footnotes, for the most part - to have embraced at least one aspect of Cleopatra for which she fights most eloquently: the idea that Cleopatra's wit might have unsettled Western assumptions, not necessarily about blatant issues like the role of women, but about quietly important issues, like how much the last Ptolemy read, and how amazingly she learned the works of history and literature available to her in the sixteen years before she fell out of a bag and into Roman history. Then she died before reaching forty, nonetheless leaving even openly biased historians impressed by her rhetorical skills. Did she, in those last days, try to compose some expression of her sense of loss, of guilt or victimization or both, of fear for her country and children in a Roman-dominated future? Would it have moved us more deeply than the impassioned lines Elizabeth Taylor delivered in her unintentionally caricaturing performance as the young, vital, utterly defeated queen?
… (more)
LibraryThing member rmckeown
Cleopatra is arguably, as Stacy Schiff stated in a recent interview, the most famous woman we know so little about. I would add the most famous woman about whom so many myths and misperceptions swirl about her. Schiff has set down a detailed biography drawn from contemporary sources, including Plutarch, Dio, and Josephus. She carefully points out inconsistencies in these accounts, and deftly explains the political and social reasons her history appears as it does today.

Schiff disposes of several myths. She was not Egyptian, or even African – she was Greek through and through. She was not beautiful. Some Romans chided Julius Caesar for his liaison with her, because, “she’s not even beautiful. Lastly, she did not take her life by the bite of an asp. Alexandria held a reputation as a center for the finest poisons in the known world. Their potions acted quickly, irreversibly, and with no pain.

The Romans – great admirers and imitators of the Greeks – seem to have taken a cue from Euripides, who wrote, “Clever woman were dangerous” (qtd. in Schiff 4). She had an impressive education – the finest anyone could receive at the time. She spoke nine languages, and routinely negotiated difficult agreements and treaties with foreign kings without the aid of an interpreter. Even her contemporary critics “gave her high marks for her verbal dexterity. Her ‘sparkling eyes’ are never mentioned without equal tribute to her eloquence and charisma” (33).

The Romans treated their women as little more than another personal object to be bought, sold, traded, or discarded on the slightest whim. Cleopatra’s world, however, provided an environment in which women thrived: socially, politically, financially, and educationally. According to Schiff, “as much as one-third of Ptolemaic Egypt may have been in female hands” (24). After her death, “a golden age of women dawned in Rome” (295). Suddenly, they enjoyed unprecedented freedom and political power.

The Romans respected Cleopatra, after all her fields and stores of grain fed the Roman Empire. But they also feared her wealth and her position as a queen with unparalleled support of her people. During her 22 year reign, not a single revolt or attempt on her life ever occurred. Rough estimates of her personal fortune place her among the wealthiest people of all time – over $100 billion dollars in today’s money. Kings would routinely give her a gift of thousands of silver talents, when 220 of the coins could feed and equip a Roman Legion for a year. Favored Court officials might be paid a single talent a year and believe themselves well-compensated. Yet her generosity with her people and her guests was legendary at the time.

Near the end. Schiff writes,

“In the match between the lady and the legend there is no contest.

The personal inevitably trumps the political, and the erotic trumps all: We will remember that Cleopatra slept with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony long after we have forgotten what she accomplished in doing so, that she sustained a vast, rich, densely populated empire in its troubled twilight, in the name of a proud and cultivated dynasty. She remains on the map for having seduced two of the greatest men of her time, while her crime was to have entered into those same ‘wily and suspicious’ marital partnerships that every man in power enjoyed.” (299)

The only problem I had with the text came in the lack of connection to quotes and over 40 pages of notes. She opts for endnotes marked only by the page they reference. However, the notes have a detail, and at times a touch of humor, absent in such a vast undertaking. Schiff tells the true story of one of the great love stories of all times. She cites dozens of versions of her story, including Shakespeare’s, perhaps his greatest love story. Even if a reader’s grasp of Roman and Ptolemaic history resides in a dim college classroom, this biography will enthrall and amaze. The slight inconvenience in searching out and reading notes is well more than worth the effort to shine a brilliant light on those memories. 5 stars.

--, 12/12/10
… (more)
LibraryThing member RandyStafford
So what does Stacy Schiff bring to the study of Cleopatra?

A dramatic narrative that opens with a 21 year old Cleopatra smuggling herself, in a rug, to meet Julius Caesar at her old palace in Alexandria. A prose that strives so hard to be elegant that it occasionally trips up, is a bit too discursive at times like going into Florence Nightingale's impressions of Alexandria, comparing the entrance of Cleopatra into Tarsus with other famous entrances that include Howard Carter into King Tut's tomb and the Beatles on Ed Sullivan's show. A tone of rather conventional feminism - history as one long tale of male domination with strong women resented and lied about - rubs against passages where Cleopatra wistfully fears her most beautiful years are behind her, where she resorts to a woman's first and last weapon of tears. We are sometimes faced with a false choice of seeing Cleopatra as a seducer or a superbly intelligent woman of many talents. Why not both?

Those are all minor quibbles. The Cleopatra of drama and song and painting has so much allure, so much name recognition, that Schiff would have to be a truly pathetic writer to make her into a boring, obscure figure, another one of those figures from the ancient world who is mute on their own life. Instead, Schiff's prose accomplishes what a good historical narrative should - propels you forward through a story whose end you already know.

Does she bring anything new to Cleopatra? I have no idea. This is the first biography of the queen I've read.

I can tell you that, since I usually read general or topical histories of Rome, I found this biography offered some perhaps trivial, perhaps important events not covered in those books. For instance, is Cicero's hostility towards Cleopatra really just because she didn't deliver a book she promised him? It's also an interesting parallax on Caesar's dictatorship and the chaos after his death, a good companion to Adrian Goldworthy's Caesar: Life of a Colossus. Because we have, at most, one word in her hand, we must see Cleopatra the seducer, general, poisoner, doctor, and mother through other eyes. And, while I think Schiff is a bit too skeptical of them, I agree with her conclusion, after carefully examining the Roman and Roman collaborator ( i.e. Josephus) accounts of her, that they do sound suspiciously formulaic in parts.

Schiff takes time to cover some important contextual matters of Cleopatra's life. The command and control of the incredibly wealthy Egyptian economy was a revelation to me as was the native Egyptians' loyalty to the first Ptolemic ruler to take an interest in them. We also learn a fair amount about the young Herod and his particularly viperous family.

And we get a look at some mysteries of the queen's life: Why did she flee the Battle of Actium, a battle vaguely covered in ancient records? Why did she keep the defeated Antony around Alexandria afterwards? Love? Pity? Fear of Roman reprisals if she killed him? How did she die?

Schiff gives us a life that is better and more interesting than the legend.
… (more)
LibraryThing member Smiler69
I know this book has many fans (Peggy being among them), but I'm sorry to say I just found it boring. I had to listen to it in bits and pieces because otherwise I stopped paying attention. Too much about Roman politics and not enough about the woman herself, though as I understand it, there's not much to go on as far as any factual information, as no document at all remains from her living memory. I guess fiction will serve me better? One anecdote I especially appreciated was in referring to a king and his family who had been captured (the details are already lost to me on who and where and so on). In deference to their status, Schiff says, their captors gave them chains of gold to be carried in. Nice touch.… (more)
LibraryThing member philae_02
The unabridged audio book, read by Broadway veteran Robin Miles, was very well researched, and well written. Schiff primarily uses Plutarch and Dio as her contemporary sources (although they both lived long after Cleopatra). Schiff summed up Cleopatra’s life starting from her youth to her death, and continued a few years afterwards to recount what happened to her children. With a degree in classical history, I knew a great deal already about Caesar, Antony, and Cleopatra; but there were a few things that Schiff introduced in her book that were innovative.

Schiff describes that Cleopatra’s use of the famous Egyptian Asp as her demise was probably fabricated by Octavian. During her final days, Cleopatra tried to commit suicide twice, and was finally successful when she had a basket of figs brought into her. The basket had been thoroughly searched by Octavian’s guards (which wouldn’t have been given to her if there had been a sword or a snake inside – the Egyptian Asp and cobra would have been too big to fit into the small fruit basket).

Cleopatra most likely poisoned the figs, since it was well-known that Cleopatra dabbled in poisons. Plus, poison would have been faster to kill her as well as her three women servants because the asp and cobra wouldn’t have been able to bite them all in quick succession. Schiff argues that Octavian fabricated the whole “snake” story as a moral allegory. Schiff, in a footnote, notes that later on Livia poisons her husband, Octavian/Augustus, with figs (which I loved the irony).

Even after death, Schiff argues that Cleopatra funded Octavian/Augustus’s career – she ensured that Rome never went wanting. With her death, she ushered in a new modern age of Rome – Augustus was now the Princeps as the Republic of Rome died quietly into the night. With him, the emperors became gods.

Over the centuries, Cleopatra had been politically slandered as one of “wickedest women in history” and labeled as a “whore.” Regardless of her supposed sexual nature (who only slept with her two husbands – Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony), she was a strong, confident, spirited, ambitious, and patriotic queen, who for the last 2,000 years, we still find absolutely fascinating.
… (more)
LibraryThing member Citizenjoyce
I have to hand it to Cicero. His version of Cleopatra the wanton seductress is the one that has survived. The real powerful, intellectual, political Cleopatra has been buried by Elizabeth Taylor. But, isn't that what happens to powerful women?
Reading this book made me want to visit the glories of intellectual Alexandria where women were respected as people, and morn for the oppressive regime that has ruined Egypt. What might the world have become if strong women like Cleopatra had been allowed to continue to flourish and maintain their empires instead of just exporting a few of their riches?… (more)
LibraryThing member cygnet81
It took me months to get through the first half of this but the second half flew by. The story is tragic but it was interesting to learn the different points of view on what might have happened.
LibraryThing member jcbrunner
Stacy Schiff is one of my favorite authors who always manages to discover new aspects in the lives of the rich and famous. Of the books that I have read by her, the biography of Vera Nabokov remains outstanding. Her Cleopatra does not reach that level. It joins her Benjamin Franklin biography as a worthy conversational biography.

The main weakness of the biography is one also encountered by Alison Weir in her portrait of Eleanor of Aquitaine: All their feminist complaints about having to write a biography about a woman from accounts written by men about their men only results in an account of a sequential history of those men. While the book is nominally about Cleopatra, all too often it turns into the history of Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony and even Herodes. One cannot embrace Wittgenstein's mantle and then still write a biography. The same difficulty probably inspired the terrific cover image which captures the enigma perfectly, perhaps too perfectly as Cleopatra as a short person probably had a shorter neck. I still love the cover which counterbalances the common impression of "le nez".

While Schiff as a non-specialist gets a few aspects wrong (especially her Old World, New World comparisons to create some relevance for her American audience). I didn't know that she was in Rome during Caesar's assassination. Her un-Roman presence must have increased the opposition to Caesar. The other element that I wasn't really aware of was that she lived to 39 years. Her relationship with Mark Anthony lasted 10 years, compared to about 3 years for Julius Caesar. Cleopatra's death scene (by poison not snakes) is one of the highlights of the book.

Overall, a readable conversational American-focused biography about the most famous woman of the Ancient World.
… (more)
LibraryThing member unittj
This book was recommended to me by a friend whose opinion I trust. When it first arrived I will admit to doubts. The cover looks like a ‘chick lit’ version of the supposedly passionate love affairs of a beautiful ancient queen, and nothing like an academic book of any weight. On opening it, however, I found not only some beautiful photographic illustrations, but also a Selected Bibliography. A good start.
It got better. Schiff manages to be both readable and accurate. She tells the story in the third person, but from Cleopatra’s point of view. For the reader this could be an eye opener. Cleopatra is one of those historic characters everybody knows about, either from Shakespeare or from the famous (infamous?) film with Elizabeth Taylor. She was a stunningly beautiful Egyptian queen who had passionate love affairs with both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Or was she? Schiff sets the record straight. Her Cleopatra is a fiercely intelligent, politically astute queen fighting for her throne and her people, at a time of huge turmoil. The major power, Rome, was in the throes of a civil war, and in order to survive, Cleopatra had to choose sides not once, but twice. The first time was easy; she was fighting for her own throne and Caesar appeared in Egypt at just the right time to come to her aid. Schiff does a very good job of explaining the complexities of the Egyptian system, including the fact that Cleopatra, being a Ptolemy, is Greek, not actually Egyptian. Schiff also explains how ‘love’ was probably not a motivation on either side; they both had something to gain. Caesar had his army, and Cleopatra had the money, something Caesar needed desperately. A match made in heaven one might say. After the death of Caesar the second choice was a little more difficult. Mark Antony or Octavian? At the time Mark Antony was the stronger of the two. Cleopatra could not have known how politically astute Octavian was, at least as good as she was, and how haphazard Mark Antony could be. He chose with his heart, Octavian always with his head. Schiff manages to make this clear. Also the fact that Cleopatra had given birth to Caesar’s only son, Caesarion, a potential, and very dangerous, rival to Octavian. Schiff does make clear, however, that the nail in the coffin of Mark Antony, and by association Cleopatra, was her very un-Romanness. Cleopatra’s death is full of romantic myth, which Schiff brushes aside. The asp probably didn’t exist. As for her suicide, it was definitely a suicide, but how much Octavian ‘engineered’ it is a subject of much debate. Schiff describes both sides, and leave the reader to make up their own mind. This is not a light read, but it is an enjoyable one. Schiff uses her sources well, and throws light on a turbulent time, and a fascinating and intelligent woman.
… (more)
LibraryThing member mullinator52
The author has created a very readable book about this fascinating woman. There is very little direct historical information about Cleopatra.. Most of what we know is taken from poetry, literature, and the movies. Even Caesar's writing , leave out that entire period of his life. The author takes the information from the time period and the two major poets who wrote about her, pulls it together, making some assumptions, portraying a very smart and politically shrewd person. I found it a little slow to read at times but I am glad I read it to wash away the "facts" from the movie and Liza Taylor's portrayal.… (more)
LibraryThing member rcstewa
Cleopatra had to misfortune of being born at the wrong time in history. Had she lived any sooner, there would not only be more information about her, but she would be recognized as the strong, capable Queen she was...not simply as a slut.

Unfortunately, most of the contemporary accounts of Cleopatra's life were written by Romans, who despised her. Schiff has managed to construct a portrait of an intelligent, charming woman with almost no favorable primary sources. However, because - a...moreCleopatra had to misfortune of being born at the wrong time in history. Had she lived any sooner, there would not only be more information about her, but she would be recognized as the strong, capable Queen she was...not simply as a slut.

Unfortunately, most of the contemporary accounts of Cleopatra's life were written by Romans, who despised her. Schiff has managed to construct a portrait of an intelligent, charming woman with almost no favorable primary sources. However, because - as Schiff points out - there are no records of her life unless a Roman is present, there are 2-3 year chucks missing from her life story. But, Schiff manages to navigate around them deftly.

Schiff's writing style is witty and easy to understand. She's not one of those historians who talks down to their audience, and I'm grateful for that. It made this a much more enjoyable reads than some other biographies I have read.

On a slightly related note, I am thrilled that the facts laid out in this biography support The Memoirs of Cleopatra, which is one of my favorite books.
… (more)
LibraryThing member pdostie
Without question,the best biography on this significant figure.
LibraryThing member nbmars
Cleopatra was born in 69 B.C., an era woefully bereft of paparazzi and such celebrity magazines as "People," "US," and "Star." Thus, when we want information on this celebrated Egyptian queen, we must rely on sources that are (1) all male (2) mostly Roman (3) from a time during which women were suspect and vilified and (4) for the most part written many years after Cleopatra’s death.

What that leaves us (besides frustrated) is a collection of tantalizing glimpses of a powerful and amazing woman without much hope of finding out the truth about her. We don’t even know what she looked like, although a few coins from the time she lived shows that this celebrated seductress was no Elizabeth Taylor.

As for the life of Cleopatra, Schiff tries her best with what she has, and lets us know which sources she is using for which information, which is helpful in ascertaining what biases the writer may have had. She has the most to say when she is providing a context for Cleopatra’s life, for there was much written about the city of Alexandria at the time, as well as the Roman men with whom Cleopatra was associated.

Schiff clearly admires Cleopatra, who ruled Egypt capably for 21 years, spoke a number of languages [sources vary on whether she spoke seven or nine: it is known that she was the only Ptolemic Pharoah to speak the Egyptian language] and was renowned for her intellect, charisma, and speaking ability as well as her political acumen. Having had affairs with both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, and having affected Octavian in many ways, there is no doubt she also influenced the course of Roman politics for many years. Her reputation as a wanton temptress came from Roman writers who were dismayed and alienated by that influence. The only way they had to explain it was sex.

In Schiff’s telling, Octavian [later known as Augustus (“the revered one”)], is a villain, but this view of him is contestable; other historians consider him to have been Rome's greatest emperor. [What can be said with confidence is that once Octavian eliminated all of his competition (including Cleopatra and her teenaged son by Julius Caesar) he instituted a reign of peace and an impressive array of civil improvements. There is no doubt he was aided in his endeavors by the wealth he appropriated from Egypt.]

Cornered by Octavian, Cleopatra killed herself in 39 BC, most probably by using poison rather by an asp as popularly assumed. Her legend lives on however, “in one of the busiest afterlives in history,” which has only obscured the real person even more.

After finishing this book, I rented the movie version with Elizabeth Taylor. The film is infamous for nearly bankrupting 20th Century Fox, and for the affair between Taylor and Richard Burton that began during filming. (Oddly, I couldn’t detect even a hint of chemistry between Taylor and Burton.) I thought the story in the film was really remarkably close to the one told by Schiff.

Evaluation: The story of Cleopatra – and indeed, all the Roman “celebrities” in the generation before the birth of Jesus – is exceedingly fascinating, even if much of it is conjecture. This was a time period full of personalities who made huge impacts not only in their own time, but even down to the present.

I listened to the audio production, which was read by Robin Miles. She did a great job, and was the first reader ever in my experience not to mispronounce "err."
… (more)



Page: 0.4357 seconds