Cleopatra: A Life

20 Apr


Author: Stacy Schiff

Genre: Biography

First Published: 2010

Page Count: 302

Type: Hardcover

Film/ TV Adaptation: No

Rating: 4/5 Stars

The life of such an infamous queen is told with care, respect, and the intention of dispelling the lies that have attached themselves to a life story where very little is actually known about one of the most important woman in history.


*Detailed representation of historical Rome and Egypt    *Life story is well outlined


*Somewhat overlooks her early life     *Some of the book is the result of educated guessing

“She convinced her people that a twilight was a dawn and – with all her might – struggled to make it so.” Theater, music, poetry, television, and film have all immortalized the life of the famous Egyptian queen, Cleopatra. However, even though we may think we know the story of this powerful ruler because she has been a part of world culture for so long, very little is actually known about the true story of her life. She joins some of the many historical figures whose life stories are mostly bits of truth twisted by myth and legend due to their  near absence in recorded history. Stacy Schiff strives to separate fact from fiction in this book in an attempt to bring the real Cleopatra to life.

Going into this read, I knew relatively nothing about Cleopatra’s life, but that made me all the more eager to bone up on my Egyptian history. Schiff transports the reader directly to ancient Egypt and Rome with down-to-the-last-detail descriptions of the layouts of great cities like Alexandria, the clothing of citizens great and small, and the lavish lifestyles of the highborn. I had no idea the extremes Cleopatra and other rulers would go to for the sake of a good party, but Schiff shows that their celebrations would have put even Marie Antoinette to shame. The author chronicles Cleopatra’s life in a way which not only keeps the book moving but also takes the time to really illustrate what life for a young queen would have been like at that time.

One thing that is difficult to swallow from the beginning, at least for me, was the fact that so little is known about Cleopatra’s life. Admittedly, the author reveals that, while many people have spent lifetimes studying Cleopatra, most of her life story is left up to the imagination because the few records we have of her are from the mouths of onlookers, enemies, and gossips. Now, clearly, you can’t fault the author for this and clearly she did her research on the topic, but it is something that bugged me a little as I read. This is a biography that is supposed to bring us closer to understanding the real life of a figure who has been raised to such fantastic heights of fame and infamy that she almost seems like a creation of the imagination. However, knowing that the author and biographers before her have had to make educated guesses about how certain events in her life played out, still left me with the image of a mysterious, larger than life queen, instead of a better of understanding of a very real woman. I also felt the book sped through the beginning of her life, which disappointed me because I like to get a real sense of who the person was and how they became the way they are through their upbringing. It seemed like the author did this in favor of skipping ahead to Cleopatra’s relationship with Julius Caesar, because that is, after all, when she starts to make her mark in history. The book is very much centered on her relationships with two of the greatest men in history, Mark Antony and Caesar, which makes sense because they were such a big influence on her life. However, I wondered if the book should have been titled Cleopatra, Caesar, and Antony: A Life, instead.

Negatives aside, I can say that after 300 pages I definitely went away from this book knowing infinitely more about Cleopatra’s life then I did going into it, which is what you want from a biography, right? As a woman, Cleopatra’s story is very inspiring. She is not simply the queen who seduced two of Rome’s greatest commanders, she is the queen who ruled her country passionately and lived life with a sparkling smile and a sharp tongue. She was intelligent and ambitious, but always knew how to play the part of the submissive woman when it was in her favor. In a way, Cleopatra is the woman we would all like to be – notoriously beautiful, quick-witted, fearless in the face of diversity, and  armed with a perceptive and knowledgable mind. Cleopatra possesses a life story that is not one to be missed.


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