Book Review: Cleopatra: A Life

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Title: Cleopatra: A Life
Author: Stacy Schiff 
Release Date: November 1st 2010
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company 
Source: Bought
Rating: ★★★
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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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My Review: 


Cleopatra is one of pop culture's most notorious icons and her life, including how she looked, and what she was like, is still a mystery. Most people in history that are clouded in historical mystery are often vilified and created into legends. 

The biggest struggle with these kind of people, especially women, is when writing a biography about their life, the goal is to attempt to humanize the legend into an actual human being, who lived and died like everyone else.

I heard a lot of great things about Stacy Schiff, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Vera, and I hoped that she would bring a wider, and more intimate perspective of Cleopatra

Reading Cleopatra: A Life, you can tell that Schiff researched Cleopatra, her family and the political and historical context of the time she lived in immensely and takes great care to weave all these elements together. 

The biography is great, but I found the narration dry and monotone at times, which is a shame since the actual content was interesting. 

Schiff does a great job at bringing Cleopatra to life, not just as a person, but the world around her, and the legacy of her family and how these various aspects shaped and influenced her. 

It's a great portrayal and extremely well researched, but it does suffer from the same problem that a lot of biographies have, which is that the narration is dry at times, which can make an interesting subject, a chore to read. This biography, however, is fascinating and I recommend anyone interested in Cleopatra to pick it up.  


-Amanda Leon






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