Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff *Review*

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.

I nominated this book last month for our book club.  The back cover made it sound lurid and fascinating.  I should have read it more thoroughly.  Not that this book wasn’t fascinating in places.  I just didn’t pick up that this was a non-fiction account of Cleopatra’s life.  I totally thought I was going to be reading a historical fiction novel.  My bad.

For most of this book I felt  I was not reading about the Queen of Egypt, but more about Caesar and Mark Antony.  Not much is truly known about Cleopatra so what we know of her comes from her involvement in the lives of these two world renown men.  Little exists in print or chiseled portraits of this intelligent and manipulative woman.

Cleopatra was an enigma; very knowledgeable in science, politics and the arts, she had riches beyond measure, and she was charming to boot.  So charming in fact, that most men who met her fell hopelessly in love with her despite the fact she was not the great beauty Elizabeth Taylor portrayed her to be.  I did learn a lot about Roman and Egyptian culture and their forms of government at the time, but I wish I would have learned more about this fascinating and beloved ruler.    3/5 stars


5 responses to “Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff *Review*

  1. We have all picked a book that we thought would be much better than it was *cough cough…. The Fourth Hand* 🙂

    I thought this one was going to be fascinating too.

  2. I really enjoyed this, but I know what you mean as to reading a lot about Caesar and Mark Antony. But as Schiff pointed out, according to the historical record Cleopatra only really exists when one of those two men were in the room. For a powerful queen, that’s quite a commentary in itself.

    And @Sheila: If “The Fourth Hand” was the first Irving I’d read, I’d have never picked him up again!

    • MJ, I rated this 3 stars out of 5 so actually I gave it the highest rating of the group. I liked most of it, but was disappointed it was not what I thought it was going to be. I love non-fiction, biographies and the like, but there just wasn’t enough of Cleopatra in it.
      And you make a good point- Stacy Schiff also writes “It is not difficult to understand why Caesar became history, Cleopatra a legend.”

  3. Pingback: Morning Meanderings… Making A Fail a WIN « Book Journey

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