Cleopatra: A Life (Hardcover)
Little Brown and Company, 9780316001922, 368pp.
Publication Date: November 1, 2010
November 2010 Indie Next List
— Jennie Turner-Collins, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Cincinnati, OH
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Summer 2012 Reading Group
— Jennie Turner-Collins, Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Cincinnati, OH
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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 protege. 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.
About the Author
Praise For Cleopatra: A Life…
CLEOPATRA has been featured in the following "Best of 2010" lists:
Seattle Times's Best Biographies of 2010
The New York Times Book Review Top 10 Books of the Year
New York Times Notable Books of 2010
Michiko Kakutani's Top Ten Books of 2010
Time Magazine Top Nonfiction
The New Yorker's 2010 favorites
Los Angeles Times Top Nonfiction
NPR's Alan Cheuse Best Books of Winter
Bloomberg Top Nonfiction
The Week Magazine Top Books of 2010
Obit Mag's Best Biographies of 2010
Apple's Best Books of 2010
Washington Post's Best Books of 2010
Kirkus's Best Biographies of 2010
Boston Globe's Best Books of 2010
Washington Examiner's Best Books of 2010
The Daily Beast's Top 5 Nonfiction Books of 2010
San Francisco Chronicle's Top 10 Books of 2010
Entertainment Weekly's Best Nonfiction of 2010
The Philadelphia Inquirer's Best Books of 2010
"It is a beautiful pairing--the most alluring and elusive woman in recorded history, and one of the most gifted biographers of our time. Style, like leadership, is difficult to define, but we know it when we see it. We see it here on every page."
-Joseph J. Ellis, author of Founding Brothers and First Family: Abigail and John
"Great historians can make the discovery of the real story more exciting than the romantic myth. Stacy Schiff, a great historian as well as a wonderful writer, peels away the layers to reveal the true Cleopatra--a much more interesting woman than the Hollywood version, and, as it turns out, a formidable queen after all."
-Evan Thomas, author of The War Lovers
"Stacy Schiff, a Pulitzer Prize winner, sets the gold standard for all biographers, and her latest, Cleopatra, is a feast--a mouth-watering feast."
-Kitty Kelley, author of Oprah: A Biography
"What dazzles us in Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra are not the alluring mythologies about the evasive queen, but the astonishing if rare historical facts that Schiff has meticulously and lovingly excavated, linking one to the other like precious pieces of an ancient artifact. Cleopatra becomes 'real' as do the major (and minor) characters at her side. In language that is filled with insights and yet is seductive, lithe, and eloquent, Schiff offers not just Cleopatra's story but the story of an amazing era, one that has vanished but still affects us, questioning the way we look at myth, history and ourselves."
-Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran and Things I've Been Silent About
"An epic subject requires a writer of epic skill and scope, and we have a perfect pairing in Cleopatra and Stacy Schiff. Absorbing and illuminating, this new biography will endure."
-Jon Meacham, author of American Lion
"Cleopatra is buried under centuries of lies, and Stacy Schiff calls on her considerable powers to bring her back to life for us. With wit, clarity, and grace, Schiff has done what only the best writers can do: she has made the world new, again."
-Tracy Kidder, author of Strength in What Remains
"Even if forced to at gunpoint, Stacy Schiff would be incapable of writing a dull page or a lame sentence. Here she trains her satirical eye and sterling erudition on Cleopatra. Schiff's luminous prose evokes the ancient world with vivid splendor, whether it be the cosmopolitan charms of Alexandria or the murderous feuds of Rome. Her portraits of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony are fresh and provocative. Best of all, Cleopatra emerges as much more than the voluptuous seductress of legend and comes across as a shrewd, cunning, and highly competent monarch who knew how to thrive in a Mediterranean world of savage politics."
-Ron Chernow, author of Alexander Hamilton and Washington: A Life
"This is an astonishing, scrupulously researched, meticulously assembled retelling of one of the world's most famous lives--and it will become a classic."
-Simon Winchester, author of The Man Who Loved China
"A Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer presents a swift, sympathetic life of one of history's most maligned and legendary women....[Cleopatra] took into her bed some of the most powerful men in history (Julius Caesar, Mark Antony), maneuvered through a male world with intelligence, skill and sanguinary brutality, met and failed to charm Herod and bore children to both Caesar and Antony.... Born in 69 BCE, Cleopatra entered a family for whom the word internecine was surely invented--killing family members standing in the way was routine, and Cleopatra was not above it.... Successfully dissipating all the perfume, Schiff finds a remarkably complex woman--brutal and loving, dependent and independent, immensely strong but finally vulnerable."
-Kirkus (starred review)
"[An] excellent, myth-busting biography...Schiff enters so completely into the time and place, especially the beauty and luxury of the 'great metropolis' of Alexandria, Cleopatra's capital, describing it in almost cinematic detail. And though we all know the outcome, Schiff's account of Cleopatra's and Antony's desperate efforts to manipulate their triumphant enemy, Octavian, make for tragic, page-turning reading. No one will think of Cleopatra in quite the same way after reading this vivid, provocative book."
-Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Stacy Schiff's meticulous research, the depth and deftness of her portrayal, have given us a Cleopatra far richer and more satisfying than the myths and fantasies that we have mistaken for true nourishment. This Cleopatra is an invaluable contribution to our understanding of the history and lives of women."
-Mary Gordon, author of Circling My Mother
"Schiff, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer of Véra Nabokov, set out to the extract the real Cleopatra from the mythic figure.... Schiff's learning is immense, but worn lightly and with an assured grasp of human nature."
-Cullen Murphy, Vanity Fair
"Refreshingly, [Cleopatra] looks beyond the myths and into the realities of Cleo's audacious empire-building."
"In [Stacy Schiff's] terrific new biography of history's favorite sex-crazed, power-mad hussy, called simply Cleopatra, Schiff tosses out centuries' worth of envy, misogyny, and plain old snark to unearth the brilliant Macedonian ruler and restore the golden luster of Cleopatra VII's reign in Egypt....As gripping as the story of [Cleopatra's] 22-year reign over Egypt is (especially once Mark Antony arrives in his breastplate), the greatest pleasure comes from reading Schiff's lavishly detailed scenes of banquets (think roasted peacocks and storks), processions of elephants in golden slippers, and political intrigue. The Cleopatra who emerges had a talent for making an impression, a genius for diplomacy, and more flat-out Girl Power per pound than any woman before or since."
-Kimberly Cutter, Marie Claire
"Schiff excavates truth from myth with vivid eloquence, taking us back to a life in a time and place that was both 'an orgy of pillage and murder' and 'the Paris of the ancient world.'... Schiff's portrayal brings to life a charismatic figure who spoke eight languages fluently, and for 22 years, until her legendarily gruesome death, ruled a glittering city-state of astronomical wealth."
-Natasha Clark, Elle
"Startling. Rarely have so distant a time and obscured a place come so powerfully to life. It is a great achievement. It is also a provocative one. Faced with the perplexing question of how to write about a person when the evidence is sketchy and often misleading, Schiff has hit on an ingenious solution. She has written a biography in negative, describing the outlines of what she cannot know by brilliantly coloring around the queen."
-Louisa Thomas, Newsweek
"Hugely compelling...Schiff sifts through gauzy mythology to uncover a brilliant young woman."
"Stacy Schiff's dazzling, meticulous biography, Cleopatra, reclaims the queen from myth and gives her back her brain."
-Caryn James, More
"Schiff brings alive not only the personalities but the ambience of the gilded Hellenistic Middle East and still-crude Rome. Her writing beautifully evokes Cleopatra's stupendous capital Alexandria."
-Anne Bartlett, Book Page
"[Cleopatra's] first biographers never met her, and she deliberately hid her real self behind vulgar display. A cautious writer would never consider her as a subject. Stacy Schiff, however, has risen to the bait, with deserved confidence ....Schiff's rendering of [Alexandria] is so juicy and cinematic it leaves one with the sense of having visited a hopped-up ancient Las Vegas, with a busy harbor and a really good library....It's dizzying to contemplate the thicket of prejudices, personalities and propaganda Schiff penetrated to reconstruct a woman whose style, ambition and audacity make her a subject worthy of her latest biographer. After all, Stacy Schiff's writing is distinguished by those very same virtues."
-Kathryn Harrison, The New York Times Book Review
"[Schiff] handles the politics of the ancient world from 48 to 30 BC with the immediacy she might bring to a book about the Clinton or Bush administrations...Schiff's enthralling book has its own feminist agenda: to save this 'capable, clear-eyed sovereign' from the slanders of history...More than a biography, Schiff has written a Fodor's of the ancient world, with stops in its most famous cities."
-Craig Seligman, Bloomberg News
"A rollicking good read... Schiff shares the talents that made her subject such a standout in her time: wit, rhetorical skill and keen intelligence."
-Joanne B. Mulcahy, The Sunday Oregonian
"Captivating...Ms. Schiff strips away the accretions of myth that have built up around the Egyptian queen and plucks off the imaginative embroiderings of Shakespeare, Shaw and Elizabeth Taylor. In doing so, she gives us a cinematic portrait of a historical figure far more complex and compelling than any fictional creation, and a wide, panning, panoramic picture of her world....Writing with verve and style and wit, Ms. Schiff recreates Cleopatra's lavish courting of Antony (including one dinner in which there was a knee-deep expanse of roses and some of the attendees received not gift baskets but furniture and horses decked out in silver-plated trappings) and his even more extravagant offerings to her (including the library of Pergamum and a host of territories which gave her dominion over Cyprus, portions of Crete and all but two cities of the thriving Phoenician coast). For that matter, Ms. Schiff even manages to make us see afresh famous scenes like Antony's painful death after his defeat at the hands of Octavian, and Cleopatra's subsequent suicide."
-Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"Stacy Schiff...writes against the fabulous grain....For the discerning history buff, here is a biography of the most notorious woman of all time that's worldly, shrewd and indefatigable in its pursuit of the truth...There are countless books about Cleopatra, but this one, I suspect, would have been one of her favorites."
-Laura Miller, Salon.com
"Stacy Schiff draws a portrait worthy of her subject's own wit and learning...Ms. Schiff manages to tell Cleopatra's story with a balance of the tragic and the hilarious...[and] does a rare thing: She gives us a book we'd miss if it didn't exist."
-Sarah Ruden, The Wall Street Journal
"[Cleopatra] sizzles with passion, intrigue... Mixing contemporary sources, beautiful writing and psychological insight, Schiff makes us empathize with the heroine of this tale of togas, territorial conquest and hot love."
-Deirdre Donahue, USA Today
"If you think two millennia of dusty research and hoary legend have told us all we need to know about this woman, you're in for a surprise...[Schiff] has dug through the earliest sources on Cleopatra, sorted through myth and misapprehension, tossed out the chaff of gossip, and delivered up a spirited life...Schiff has a magpie's eye for detail...it is a great, glorious spree of a story."
-Marie Arana, The Washington Post
"Schiff rises to the challenge and creates an engaging biography by relentlessly stitching together the pieces of her subject's broader life and making connections between them...reveals through colorful details and clearly written prose."
-Ralph Eubanks, NPR.org
"Schiff uses her amazing descriptive powers to make the infamous queen's story even juicier....Cleopatra fascinates."
"[Stacy Schiff's] book is a masterpiece of lightly-worn learning and scintillating deduction. It's thrillingly, brazenly written. It rises in a single movement above the whole sea of Cleopatra biographies and gives us in some ways an entirely new woman for a new century....[Schiff] is the liveliest of narrators, going over every detail not only with an array of sources at her fingertips...but with an alert eye for the real, human story lurking under the ancient narratives. She cheerfully relates the propaganda of the era, but she is not fooled by it. She knows that virtually every detail she's relating could be false or falsified, but she relates them with a knowing exuberance anyway, since they're all we have....Reading her for page after enormously fun page, we're ashamed at how often we've been lectured into forgetting that history is first and always a story of people. This is a book full of living, savage, thriving, laughing, dying people."
-Steve Donoghue, Open Letters Monthly
"Superb...Cleopatra led an epic life, and Schiff captures its sweep and scope in a vigorous narrative aimed at the general reader yet firmly anchored in modern scholarship. The author's greatest strengths remain the lucid intelligence and subtle analysis of personality...Schiff reanimates [Cleopatra] as a living, breathing woman: utterly extraordinary, to be sure, but recognizably human."
-Wendy Smith, Los Angeles Times
"In Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff is authoritative and confident...Schiff makes a convincing case against the traditional, male-chauvinist take on Cleopatra as a power-hungry seductress. It's a stance that puts her at odds with 2,000 years' worth of Cleopatra chronicles, and she's aware of it."
-Mary Pols, TIME Magazine
"With a clear eye, great courage, and formidable erudition, Stacy Schiff has succeeded in removing...many misconceptions...and replacing them with the fascinating portrait of an altogether more substantial woman...Stacy Schiff has managed to create a masterpiece: both a hugely readable portrait of a fascinating, unscrupulous and powerful woman, and a brilliant explanation of the politics that lay behind her actions....she writes with verve, tongue-in-cheek humor, and elegance....she has brought to life Cleopatra."
-Michael Korda, The Daily Beast
"[An] excellent, myth-busting biography....Schiff enters so completely into the time and place, especially the beauty and luxury of the 'great metropolis' of Alexandria, Cleopatra's capital, describing it in almost cinematic detail....No one will think of Cleopatra in quite the same way after reading this vivid, provocative book."
"The most compelling biography of the year....Miss Schiff can really write....persuasive and entertaining."
-Liz Smith, Wowowow.com
"Exceptionally artful...Imaginative attunement with a subject, however, does not have to compromise a vigilant biographer's critical detachment, and Schiff's beautiful writing hums with that tension...ambitious...It is an edifice of speculation and conjecture--like every Cleopatra ever written. But unlike nearly all of them it is a work of literature."
-Judith Thurman, The New Yorker
"Cleopatra is a fascinating woman and always has been. Stacy Schiff, who is a brilliant writer, has created a book that is so well-written that it's almost like a novel in its juicy literary flair...The city [of Alexandria] is evoked so brilliantly...Wonderful stuff."
-Tina Brown, The Daily Beast
-Maureen Dowd, The New York Times
"Stacy Schiff has created a masterpiece and firmly cemented a new Cleopatra in our minds--one who had enough sex appeal to sleep with the two most powerful men in the world, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony....eminently readable."
-Stephen Sondheim, The Daily Beast
"One of the most highly praised nonfiction books of the autumn. Schiff deftly separates fact from legend, legend from poetry, and creates a model of methodology and compelling story. She re-creates a place and time in a praiseworthy leap from scholarship to narration."
-Alan Cheuse, NPR.com, "Best Books of Winter"
"Magnificent...Never in 30 years of reading biographies have I encountered so much limpid, authoritative and supremely elegant writing sustained so consistently. I drooled over nearly every sentence; to single out the juicy parts would be to recite the text entire. Schiff's command of her material is Olympian, her manner quietly dramatic, the sentences often building on each other like movements of a symphony....the best book of the year."
-Kevin Nance, Obit
"Schiff impressively recreates the myth of Cleopatra while deconstructing the legend and unveiling its sources -- a handwritten word, a few coins, sparse first-hand testimony, many second-third-fourth hand accounts, and plenty of gossip....Schiff efficiently and entertainingly debunks attempts by historians, poets, politicians, and playwrights (all male) throughout the ages to reduce Cleopatra to a nymphomaniac with a diadem....Stacy Schiff's eloquent, important book makes it eminently clear that the Cleopatra phenomenon throughout the ages has less to do with the Egyptian queen's extraordinary accomplishments as a ruler and politician, than to the pervasive and apparently eradicable male fear of powerful women."
-Jenny McPhee, Bookslut
"Vivid...Schiff offers and equally colorful history of Egypt, ca. 30 B.C....she reveals a Cleopatra we've not yet seen: a fierce, sensuous and complicated queen who ruled in a time and place as fascinating as she was."
-Meredith Maran, People
"For the past 2,000 years or so, history has painted a sexy, scheming veneer on the queen of Egypt known as Cleopatra, so discarding the propaganda is no easy task. But Stacy Schiff's new biography scrapes away the grime to reveal a smart political strategist, a first-rate military contractor, a proud mother and a witty conversationalist. It's a startling, invigorating look at a history that has mostly blamed Cleopatra for the fall of great Romans....The most pleasing sense of Schiff's biography is a fine sense of balance. She reminds us of the particulars of the ancient world we might have forgotten, but she also assumes we have some familiarity with world history and doesn't get bogged down in the basics.... She is authoritative while open to other interpretations. And she answers fun questions, like what happened to the wives of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony while the men were hanging out with Cleopatra.... Schiff's restoration reveals a finer portrait of the woman known as Cleopatra."
-Angie Drobnic Holan, St. Petersburg Times
"[Schiff] portrays Cleopatra as the ambitious and talented ruler she was and puts her affairs with Caesar and Mark Antony in their proper political context. The Romans, the early writers of Cleopatra's history, portrayed her as a lascivious power-grabbing hussy. But Schiff works hard and successfully to get beyond the anti-Cleopatra propaganda."
-Mary Ann Gwinn, The Seattle Times
"It's as though Cleopatra lives and breathes once again in the pages of Stacy Schiff's exquisitely researched and well-written Cleopatra: A Life. The book injects the Egyptian queen with a complexity and humanity that has long since been forgotten....[it] glows with details."
-Lisa Orkin Emmanuel, Associated Press
"Wraps up classical scholarship about the famed Queen of the Nile into an enthralling tale"
-\Dan Vergano, USA Today
"An extraordinary achievement in biography. [Schiff's] book explores themes of female ambition and power-issues that seem just as vexing now as they did 2,000 years ago....Along with tracing Cleopatra's rise to power, her loss of Caesar (by assassination) and Mark Antony (to suicide) and the epic story of her empire, this biography is filled with fascinating and amusing details of the era....Lacking any primary sources whatsoever, it is admirable that Schiff could create such a drama-filled and accessible narrative, especially one so rich in detail. It's true that Cleopatra's story has long been 'constructed as much of male fear as fantasy,' but with Cleopatra, Schiff has produced a compelling and authoritative correction in its place."
-Carmela Ciuraru, San Francisco Chronicle
"Engaging and meticulously researched."
-Susannah Cahalan, New York Post
"An engrossing and well-researched biography, full of delicious details."
-John McMurtrie, San Francisco Chronicle
"Stacy Schiff is that rare combination: a first-rate historian and a brilliant storyteller. Using a wide range of sources, she spins straw into gold, conjuring the world of Ptolemaic Egypt in full vibrant color, and returning the voice of one of the most powerful, fascinating, and maligned women in history. CLEOPATRA is impossible to put down."
-Rick Riordan, author of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series
"What makes [Cleopatra] so compelling is Schiff's masterful evocation of broader questions: the roles of women in Egyptian and Roman societies; the annual cycles of the Egyptian economy, so dependent on the Nile; and the famous and incomparable library of Alexandria, a bustling ancient city...riveting."
-Marc Vincent, The Cleveland Plain Dealer
"[A] magnificent re-creation of both an extraordinary woman, and her times...No previous image, visual or verbal, matches up to the inspiring, frightening, ruthless woman conjured by Schiff from an inspired combination of carefully parsed texts, new research, and pulse-quickening descriptive writing....Schiff uses a method that borrows much from the cinema. Zooming in on a dramatic event, she then pulls back to reveal the larger picture; the back story; the setting....Schiff proves brilliant at peeling away the layers of myth in which earlier storytellers shrouded the Egyptian queen."
-Miranda Seymour, The Guardian (UK)