Book Review: Cleopatra: A Life – Stacy Schiff [TSS]

Title: Cleopatra: A Life
Author: Stacy Schiff
ISBN: 9780316001922
Pages: 384
Release Date: November 1, 2010
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Genre: Non-Fiction, History
Source: Publisher
Rating: 4 out of 5

Summary:

In this new biography of Cleopatra, Stacy Schiff takes on the woman who has such a huge part in history and deconstructs the myths and legends surround her.

Review:

The woman we think of today when we hear the name “Cleopatra” is a product of legend, imagination, and hyperbole.  Very little solid information about her has made it to present day, and even those sources cannot be fully trusted.  It seems that everyone in the ancient world who mattered had an opinion about Cleopatra, and most of these people’s impressions of her were not positive.  In this biography, Stacy Schiff attempts to go back to square one and look at the actual woman, rather than all drama that surrounded her in her time.

Schiff portrays Cleopatra as a woman who had more brains than beauty; her power was centered on her wit, charm, and ability to strategize, rather than on her seduction capabilities.  Schiff contends that it was easier for the men of the time, whose records are the only ones we have, to portray her as a wanton, promiscuous woman rather than someone who had the capacity to think like the best men of the time.  Indeed, Schiff makes a convincing case that Cleopatra did not have the renowned beauty that is ascribed to her today; she achieved what she did because she knew how to make the most of her gifts.

The difficulty with this book is one that is standard with any biography of Cleopatra – there is simply so little that is known about her that it’s hard to say anything definitive.  It’s easy to interpret facts to suit a theory, and Schiff does a marvelous job with the little she has, but that doesn’t change the fact that much of it is conjecture.  Schiff clearly did her research and she does take the time to present opposing arguments, something which I very much appreciated.

I absolutely adore the cover of Cleopatra: A Life; I think it is beautiful and eye-catching.  However, I think it conveys an impression that this book is light and easy to read.  That is definitely not the case.  It is history; well-presented history, but history nonetheless.  It has some dry spots and there is a lot of detail.  If you’re solely familiar with books about history through historical fiction, this book might be a bit overwhelming.  As I do enjoy reading books about history, I found it engaging, but there was a lot to take in.

Cleopatra: A Life is a well-researched and articulate account of a legendary woman.  It succeeds in helping her off her pedestal and turning her into a real woman with strengths and weaknesses.  This new look at Cleopatra is a must-read for fans of history.  If you aren’t much of a history reader but this book intrigues you, try reading it slowly, chapter by chapter.  It’s definitely worth a look if you’re interested in the subject.

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Comments

  1. I just realized a few days ago that I have this book on my shelves. I had forgotten! I HAVE heard that it isn’t the easiest thing to read, which of course has now intimidated me. We’ll see if I get brave enough to try.

  2. I just realized a few days ago that I have this book on my shelves. I had forgotten! I HAVE heard that it isn’t the easiest thing to read, which of course has now intimidated me. We’ll see if I get brave enough to try.

  3. As you know, I was struggling with this book and put it aside when our meeting was postponed. I just haven’t been in the mood to pick it back up. I suspect it’s over my head.

  4. As you know, I was struggling with this book and put it aside when our meeting was postponed. I just haven’t been in the mood to pick it back up. I suspect it’s over my head.

  5. The cover is really beautiful –a while ago I read a review and thought I would be in the mood for it, but my attention span is so short right now I might add it to the list and wait a while. 🙂

  6. The cover is really beautiful –a while ago I read a review and thought I would be in the mood for it, but my attention span is so short right now I might add it to the list and wait a while. 🙂

  7. I recently got a copy of this and am looking forward to reading it. I love the cover – although when I first saw it I thought the book might be fiction. It doesn’t look much like a non-fiction cover.

  8. I recently got a copy of this and am looking forward to reading it. I love the cover – although when I first saw it I thought the book might be fiction. It doesn’t look much like a non-fiction cover.

  9. I can’t wait to read this one. I had to pick up a copy the last time I was at B&N.

  10. I can’t wait to read this one. I had to pick up a copy the last time I was at B&N.

  11. You know, I picked this one up at SIBA and totally didn’t realize that it was a biography of sorts. I had been thinking it would be more of a novel. It does sound hefty, but in the right frame of mind, I think I could enjoy it very much. Great review and glad you liked it!

  12. You know, I picked this one up at SIBA and totally didn’t realize that it was a biography of sorts. I had been thinking it would be more of a novel. It does sound hefty, but in the right frame of mind, I think I could enjoy it very much. Great review and glad you liked it!

  13. Great advice to read it slowly. The problem Schiff had was that to understand Cleopatra one has to understand what was happening in the world and in Rome at the time and the events that shaped the political climate she was born into. You do not have to be an expert of Roman history but a familiarity probably helps.

    Still, I really liked the book and was fascinated to learn just what is fact and what is rumor and how much of what we think of her is, well, slanderous.

  14. Great advice to read it slowly. The problem Schiff had was that to understand Cleopatra one has to understand what was happening in the world and in Rome at the time and the events that shaped the political climate she was born into. You do not have to be an expert of Roman history but a familiarity probably helps.

    Still, I really liked the book and was fascinated to learn just what is fact and what is rumor and how much of what we think of her is, well, slanderous.

  15. Wonderful review. I’ve been on the fence about this one. Sometimes something fascinating, like Cleopatra’s life, can lose some of it’s magic when put under a historical microscope.

  16. Wonderful review. I’ve been on the fence about this one. Sometimes something fascinating, like Cleopatra’s life, can lose some of it’s magic when put under a historical microscope.

  17. Anonymous says:

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  18. Beneficial info and excellent design you got here! I want to thank you for sharing your ideas and putting the time into the stuff you publish! Great work!

  19. This sounds fascinating. I don’t mind history books, so this is definitely on my to-read list.

  20. This sounds fascinating. I don’t mind history books, so this is definitely on my to-read list.

  21. When I was a little girl, I actually got to visit Egypt at one point, and I saw Cleopatra depicted as closer to what she really looked like–and it wasn’t Elizabeth Taylor. Cleopatra IS definitely a fascinating character, and your review makes me want to read the book!

  22. When I was a little girl, I actually got to visit Egypt at one point, and I saw Cleopatra depicted as closer to what she really looked like–and it wasn’t Elizabeth Taylor. Cleopatra IS definitely a fascinating character, and your review makes me want to read the book!

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