Cleopatra: A Life

By Stacy Schiff
Publisher:Little, Brown and Company, (11/1/2010)

Average Rating:
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3.60 out of 5 (5 Clubie's ratings)

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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, 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.
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Alice_Wonder's thoughts on "Cleopatra: A Life"
updated on:3/11/2011


Steph's thoughts on "Cleopatra: A Life"
updated on:1/11/2011

Cleopatra...Queen of the Novel!  Truth really is stranger than fiction.  Or at least more fascinating as Stacy Schiff proves in Cleopatra, A Life.  I only knew bits of the story of Cleopatra and that was from watching Rome, but Schiff presents a historical account that is both informative and entertaining.  The book keeps the pace moving and doesn't skimp on the details.  I came away feeling as if I had a basis for understanding not only of Cleopatra and her storied Alexandria, but of the political and social context of the time.  Schiff presents a vivid account of a captivating woman and her unparalled contribution to history (or perhaps herstory). 

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Nick's thoughts on "Cleopatra: A Life"
updated on:1/2/2011

As a professed history nut with a particular interest in the ancient Roman era, I wanted to love this book. I will admit that I simply liked it. There are quite a few very good historical gems throughout and I did find myself often learning something new and gaining a different insight. The author paints an excellent picture of Alexandria and the tumultuous world that surrounded it at the time of Cleopatra. However, I don't feel like the reader ever really gets to know the person whose name is on the cover. Cleopatra is a person of some mystery and I was hoping to know her a little better after reading this. It succeeds on some level, but often gets overly caught up in odd historical tidbits and other tangents. For example, there is a giant quarter-page footnote about how pearls can dissolve in vinegar. Huh? There are some great moments here, but you have to endure some slow pacing and various historical obstacle courses to get to them. 

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Ceci's thoughts on "Cleopatra: A Life"
updated on:1/1/2011

Try not to skip over any of the amazing detail of this biography. It is like getting a first class ticket back in time. Step firsthand into all aspects of life in Alexandria during Cleopatra’s reign. Experience the full luxury, and bureaucratic tediousness, of Egyptian royal life. Take pleasure in the astounding feast and over-the-top gifts prepared for Marc Antony in Tarsus. Often, though, I struggled to maintain my interest while I was reading. The book’s pacing is plodding and unexciting. I know it’s one of the critical favorites of 2010. I agree that it’s impressive how the book tweaks traditional Roman historians, and, how it rescues Cleopatra from the demeaning myth of “seductress,” and restores to her the full range of traits at her disposal as a ruler, politician, and woman. I am glad I read it, but I’m not sure this will be one of my top books of 2011. 

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Book Junky's thoughts on "Cleopatra: A Life"
updated on:12/31/2010

Oh my Zeus and Isis, I did not think I would be able to get this one done in time for book club! Half like a text book and half like a story told that rambles around making sure that we can understand all of the backstories in it, this is not a skim-able book in any way, shape, or form. (Not that I am a skimmer anyway.) It is a fascinating book and I am glad I made the effort and did not give up on it, but ugh! I don't think I could get through 3 pages before I was asleep in the beginning. It did somehow pick up after about about page 100… or maybe that was because I jacked myself up on coffee and was cramming the last two thirds of the book into 4 days of reading. ANYWAY - this seemed very well researched and I feel like I learned a lot about an amazingly resourceful and misunderstood woman, the roll of women in history, sexual politics vs. romance, royalty, class systems, governments, ancient civilizations, and a ton more. For these reasons I highly recommend this book. But make sure you read it during a month when you do not have a lot of stuff going on at the same time. ;)

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"Cleopatra: A Life"
By Stacy Schiff

Average Rating:
Unleash it
3.60 out of 5 (5 Clubie's ratings)

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 General reading guide discussion questions to be used with ANY book your book club or reading group might be discussing.

History or Legend?

Stacy Schiff writes, “It is not difficult to understand why Caesar became history, Cleopatra a legend” (page 5). What are the differences between the two? How are these differences related to gender?


Discuss the role of subjectivity in historical records. How does Schiff factor that subjectivity into her account? Do you think it’s possible to document events that are close to us in time? Or do chroniclers’ subjectivities necessarily bias their accounts?

Initial Encounters

How do you think Cleopatra felt as she traveled to meet Caesar for the first time? What are the differences between that meeting and her first encounter with Mark Antony? How did the circumstances of the initial encounters set the tone for the relationships?

Strategize or manipulate?

Despite her political ambition, Cleopatra has been painted as a seductress and siren rather than as a powerful and adept ruler. Do you think it’s still the case that men are said to strategize where women manipulate?

Women's Role

Discuss women’s roles and rights in ancient Egyptian and Roman society. Did they surprise you? Why or why not? Women in Egypt enjoyed an equality close to what they enjoy today; it was then lost for some two thousand years. Could that happen again?

Surrounded by Men

Although Cleopatra came from a long line of strong female rulers, do you think she felt out of place on a political stage dominated by men? Is there any indication that she doubted her abilities? Can you imagine her in a Roman military camp, for example?

Human Nature

Cleopatra lived in an era of rampant murder, covert political alliances, and fierce betrayal. Has human nature changed in two thousand years? In what ways is it different and in what ways is it the same?

Love or Politics

Do you think that Cleopatra loved Caesar and Mark Antony, or were their relationships purely for political leverage? What makes you think so?

The Many Roles

What do you think of Cleopatra as a woman, mother, lover, partner, and ruler? Was she admirable or detestable? Why or why not?


Can you retell Cleopatra’s story as one of her subjects might have written it? How does it diverge from the Roman account?

Why Do We Care?

Why has Cleopatra’s story captivated artists and audiences for over two thousand years? Why does she interest you?

Modern Women

Are there any modern women who you would compare to Cleopatra? Who? What characteristics do they share with her? Discuss how these women are depicted in histories or in the media today.

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