Review: Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff

by Kim on February 3, 2011 · 27 comments

Post image for Review: Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff

Title: Cleopatra: A Life
Author: Stacy Schiff
Genre: Nonfiction
Year: 2011
Acquired: Bought!

One Sentence Summary: The Cleopatra of pop culture is very different from the Cleopatra of history, who we don’t actually know that much about.

One Sentence Review: After a dense first few chapters, Cleopatra becomes an absorbing look at a woman remembered more often for the things that she wasn’t than for the things that she was.

Why I Read It: This book was shortlisted for the Indie Lit Awards in nonfiction, and I am a judge for that panel. Opinions expressed in this review are my own, and don’t reflect the thoughts of the panel or reflect our ratings of the book.


Long Review: When I think Cleopatra, I inevitably think Elizabeth Taylor, 1963, seducing Richard Burton as Marc Antony with thickly-painted eyes and gold-plaited braids. The Cleopatra of popular culture is a seductress, temptress, and sometimes savvy politician who ruled Egypt at a time of expanding Roman power. If popular memory is to be believed, Cleopatra slept her way to the top, then killed herself with a snake (how does that even make sense!) when her lover abandoned her to an advancing, hostile Roman army.

Stacy Schiff’s autobiography of Cleopatra tries to dispel these rumors, to go back to the very limited historical record from that time and see what we actually know about this young, Egyptian queen. Using accounts from male Romans historians at the time and shortly after, Schiff explores those author’s motivations and biases when writing about Cleopatra to see what truth she can find.

Cleopatra’s story is a fascinating one, in spite of the things that we don’t know about her. Even the Roman historians who wrote about her fell into traps of melodrama and sexism when trying to tell her story, although I guess that second part is to be expected. As Schiff explains midway through the book,

For a women who was to be celebrated for her masterly manipulation of Rome, Cleopatra’s story would be entrusted primarily to that city’s historians; she effectively ceases to exist without a Roman in the room.

For the early years of Cleopatra’s life, there isn’t much to go on, which makes the first few chapters of Cleopatra more full of more speculation than narrative. While interesting, these chapters could also be hard to read — it took me quite a few pages to really get into the flow and story of this book.

But once I did, right around the time Cleopatra heads to Rome after giving birth to her son with Cesar, I found Schiff’s commentary and research quite fascinating. I think the story picks up at this point because there’s finally a record of Cleopatra — the Romans are in the room with her — and so the story gets some momentum. At the same time, Cleopatra starts to come into her political power, using both her intelligence and seductiveness to win over her political opponents.

It feels really weird to say this, but in some ways Cleopatra’s story is almost more interesting when it’s mostly fiction. I know, that sounds like blasphemy to say, especially from me, but it’s one of the notes I took early in the story that’s stuck with me. Certainly, I’m glad to know the truth about Cleopatra — or at least as much truth as we can glean from a spotty historical record — but sometimes the fiction of a story has a glamor that is hard to beat.

Other Reviews: S. Krishna’s Books | She Is Too Fond of Books | That’s What She Read | Beth Fish Reads | Man of la Book |

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

rhapsodyinbooks February 3, 2011 at 8:09 am

I totally agree – the first few chapters had me questioning whether I wanted to continue. After you get through them though it gets way more interesting. But how it makes me wish we had videos and newspapers and People Magazine back then!! :–)

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Kim February 3, 2011 at 5:27 pm

rhapsodyinbooks: Your comment made me laugh out loud. I can’t imagine how People would have covered Cleopatra! I struggled with the first few chapters. I’m not sure I would have quite, but I do know reading it for the Indie Lit Awards kept me motivated.

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Trisha February 3, 2011 at 10:35 am

I’ve been back and forth on whether or not to read this one – in part because the first few pages didn’t hook me. It’s good to know it picks up!

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Kim February 3, 2011 at 5:28 pm

Trisha: After she goes to Rome and starts to interact with Marc Antony, I thought it got much more interesting. I didn’t know much at all about her downfall, so those chapters kept me hooked, even if it took a bit to get there.

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bermudaonion (Kathy) February 3, 2011 at 11:37 am

I started this book in December and found it difficult going. I had a lot going on in my life and decided to set it aside. I haven’t picked it back up yet, but it sounds like I should give it another chance.

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Kim February 3, 2011 at 5:29 pm

bermudaonion: I think the book is dense enough at the start you have to focused to get into it, but I do think it’s worth a read once you get into it.

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Man of la Book February 3, 2011 at 3:16 pm

Yes, the first few chapters are hard but that’s because all of the unknowns. It’s frustrating to read a history book filled with “maybe”, “we can guess…” and “probably”.

However things quickly picked up, my review of this fine book is here: http://manoflabook.com/wp/?p=1244

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Kim February 3, 2011 at 5:30 pm

Man of la Book: Exactly — all of the speculation is only so interesting, and in the end it just feels bogged down. Glad to hear you enjoyed it as well.

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Cass February 3, 2011 at 8:59 pm

Okay, I’ve been avoiding this one for months now, but picturing Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton while reading it MIGHT just make me give it a go. ;)

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Kim February 5, 2011 at 4:42 pm

Cass: I want to watch that movie all over again, except now I’m worried I’ll be all like, “We don’t know if that happened!” or “Caesar was sooo not like that!” and be really annoying :)

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softdrink February 3, 2011 at 9:34 pm

I was left feeling like it was more Caesar and Marc Antony’s story than Cleopatra’s.

And can you believe I’ve never seen the famous movie?

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Kim February 5, 2011 at 4:44 pm

softdrink: Yes, that’s a very good point. I guess after Antony dies it’s all about Cleopatra, but not so much before that. I love Schiff’s point about her history being dictated only when a Roman was in the room, and it shows in the whole book.

My mom loves old movies, so I’ve seen a ton of them just because she’d have AMC or TCM on in the background when I lived at home. I’m sure that’s how I’ve seen this one.

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Aarti February 3, 2011 at 10:57 pm

I’ve never seen this movie, either! I hear they are doing a remake of it, which is… well, unexpected in some ways.

I know what you mean about sometimes the glamor being better than what’s real. I think that’s how a lot of legends begin :-)

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Kim February 5, 2011 at 4:44 pm

Aarti: I saw that on a blog recently, with Angelina Jolie playing Cleopatra. That’s an… interesting choice, although not that unexpected. I expect a much more glamorous Cleopatra if Jolie plays her.

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Jeanne February 4, 2011 at 9:49 am

I prefer Shakespeare’s version. Now I feel like Blanche Dubois, as usual (“I don’t want realism, I want magic!”)

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Kim February 5, 2011 at 4:45 pm

Jeanne: That made me a laugh out loud – so true. Schiff talks a bit about the Shakespeare version of Cleopatra. He got some things right, so yay him :)

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Lisa February 4, 2011 at 9:16 pm

I passed on this when I was offered it for review because I just assumed that it was going to be an historical fluff piece. Boy was I wrong! Definitely going to be adding it to the wish list!

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Kim February 5, 2011 at 4:46 pm

Lisa: This is definitely not a fluff piece. It was actually much more dense than I was expecting, which I liked in parts and found difficult in others.

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Wallace February 5, 2011 at 12:58 pm

We are going to the bookstore right now to get my mom a copy of this… she really wants to read it. Thank you SO much for all of your work on these awards, Kim! I appreciate all of your effort in leading the non-fiction team!

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Kim February 5, 2011 at 4:46 pm

Wallace: I hope your mom enjoys it! I liked it, for the most part, so I was glad the awards helped me pick it up :)

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Jennifer February 6, 2011 at 9:09 pm

I agree with you: the glamor of the fictional Cleopatra is difficult to beat. But still, I love reading about the real history behind the icon. I haven’t read this one yet, but I’m definitely going to be putting it on my list.

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Kim February 7, 2011 at 9:07 pm

Jennifer: I like the history behind icons as well, which is one of the reasons I did stick with this book even when it didn’t initially grab me. Cleopatra is a fascinating character.

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Mindy Withrow February 7, 2011 at 4:19 pm

Kim, I finished reading this about a week ago and have been mulling it over before I write my review. It was definitely worth reading! I love the narrative history form, and found this a good example of it. Schiff really helped me connect what I know of Cleopatra to what I know of Roman history — I had some big knowledge gaps! And I loved her concept of Alexandria as the Paris of her day, what with all the fashion, art, and literature happening there. Thanks for your great review.

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Kim February 7, 2011 at 9:07 pm

Mindy: It took me awhile to figure out how to write the review as well. because I had mixed feelings about different sections of the book. I had/have huge knowledge gaps of Roman history, so the book did help fill some of that in.

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Man of la Book February 7, 2011 at 9:15 pm

Kim, I had a hard time writing the review as well. There is simply so much in the book, it is very dense and quite difficult to read and comprehend.

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Kim February 7, 2011 at 9:18 pm

Man of la Book: I’m glad I’m not the only person who wasn’t exactly sure what to say about the book since there was so much in it.

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