Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

December 11, 2012

Summary (from the publisher): Her palace shimmered with onyx, garnets, and gold, but was richer still in political and sexual intrigue. Above all else, Cleopatra was a shrewd strategist and an ingenious negotiator.

Though her life spanned fewer than forty years, it reshaped the contours of the ancient world. She was married twice, each time to a brother. She waged a brutal civil war against the first when both were teenagers. She poisoned the second. Ultimately she dispensed with an ambitious sister as well; incest and assassination were family specialties. Cleopatra appears to have had sex with only two men. They happen, however, to have been Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, among the most prominent Romans of the day. Both were married to other women. Cleopatra had a child with Caesar and–after his murder–three more with his protégé. Already she was the wealthiest ruler in the Mediterranean; the relationship with Antony confirmed her status as the most influential woman of the age. The two would together attempt to forge a new empire, in an alliance that spelled their ends. Cleopatra has lodged herself in our imaginations ever since.

Famous long before she was notorious, Cleopatra has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons. Shakespeare and Shaw put words in her mouth. Michelangelo, Tiepolo, and Elizabeth Taylor put a face to her name. Along the way, Cleopatra’s supple personality and the drama of her circumstances have been lost. In a masterly return to the classical sources, Stacy Schiff here boldly separates fact from fiction to rescue the magnetic queen whose death ushered in a new world order. Rich in detail, epic in scope, Schiff ‘s is a luminous, deeply original reconstruction of a dazzling life.


I don’t read much ancient history and knew next to nothing about Cleopatra prior to picking up this Stacy Schiff biography. I was hoping for some true enlightenment about the last of the Ptolemaic queens, particularly since Schiff states right at the beginning of her book that she wasn’t going to pass speculation off as fact (like so many of Cleopatra’s other biographers had done).

Unfortunately, she only partially kept her word. Though she didn’t come right out and claim any conjecture as the gospel truth, that didn’t stop her from filling the pages with endless scenarios of what “might have been”. So much of the book is based on what “could have happened” or “would have happened if…”. On the one hand, I realize that there simply isn’t enough verifiable material extant to go into details about Cleopatra’s life. On the other, I wonder why, given this lack of evidence, Schiff’s biography ended up being so damn long!

My other main problem with the book is what contributed to its length. Schiff spends SO MUCH TIME talking about Caesar, Marc Antony, and Octavian (Augustus) that Cleopatra was demoted to the status of a minor character in her own life story. She disappeared from the narrative for pages on end, and then only reappeared in a throwaway line such as, “While this was happening, Cleopatra waited at the palace” (or whatever). Again, I understand that there is more reliable info available about these Roman figures, but I did not pick this book up in order to read Roman history.

One thing I appreciated about Schiff’s effort was that she reinforced the idea that history is written by the victors. In this case, the victors were misogynistic Romans who refused to give Cleopatra credit for using her brains, choosing instead to write her off as a temptress who basically used black magic to get Caesar and (especially) Marc Antony off their game. Another thing I liked was the descriptions of life in ancient Egypt. The sumptuous banquets, the luxurious palaces, the large garden fountains, the elaborate landscaping… all of these things were described in surprising detail that made me forget how many centuries ago the action took place.


While Cleopatra: A Life is readable in the sense that it is aimed at a popular audience rather than an academic one, it is not very engrossing or entertaining. In fact, it was actually quite difficult to push through many of the chapters, especially the ones dealing with the Roman civil wars that pitted well-known generals and statesmen against each other. The parts in which Cleopatra herself take center stage are better, but they occurred more infrequently than expected in a biography bearing her name. I give this book 2 stars out of 5.

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