Cleopatra: A Life

I’m giving away several books throughout March in honor of Women’s History Month. Win a copy of this book, courtesy of Little, Brown and Company! Read on for more information.

Cleopatra’s legacy is indelible: In her twenties and thirties, she ruled a country that was known for producing scholars, doctors, and artists. She had children with Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, two of the most recognizable names in history. Centuries after her death, she remains a pop culture icon, forever immortalized by Elizabeth Taylor.

Depending on who you ask, she’s also a wickedly conniving woman who singlehandedly brought down an empire.

Because she was such a controversial figure, much of what is known about Cleopatra VII is muddled. While she certainly had her followers, her detractors’ writings–including the likes of Plutarch and Dio–also served to color people’s impressions. In Cleopatra: A Life, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff sifts through historical events and surviving historical documents to piece together a more objective interpretation of Cleopatra’s life.

If you know next to nothing about Cleopatra’s life (I certainly fell into that category), you will come away with an eye-opening portrait of one of the most notorious women in history and the culture she grew up in. Of Cleopatra’s family tree, or “ungainly shrub of a family tree,” Schiff writes:

While the inbreeding was meant to stabilize the family, it had a paradoxical effect…Over the generations the [Ptolemy] family indulged in what has been termed “an orgy of pillage and murder,” lurid even by colorful Macedonian standards…Over and over mothers sent troops against sons. Sisters waged war against brothers. Cleopatra’s great-grandmother fought one civil war against her parents, a second against her children.

Indeed, right before forging a relationship with Caesar, a young Cleopatra had her brother/husband murdered in order to secure her power. It’s been a while since I’ve read any Macedonian history, so getting reacquainted with all of the violence and backstabbing was astonishing.

As for the relationships for which she will always be known, Schiff does a great job of analyzing Cleopatra’s motives and portraying her as the PR-savvy woman she was. Though she must rely on several historical documents written by men who weren’t fans of Cleopatra, Schiff carefully recreates politics and culture in Rome and Alexandria in order to contextualize Cleopatra’s life. As a result, readers get to learn all kinds of little interesting tidbits, like birth control methods of the day.

My only problem with the book is that so much of it focuses of these other aspects of history, rather than on Cleopatra herself. To a certain extent, all of the extra information is needed in order for Schiff to achieve her desired effect. On the other hand, I wish it hadn’t focused so much on the secondary players. With all of the smaller details, this isn’t something I’d want to listen to on audiobook; I can’t imagine being able to keep track of everything.

Before I wrap up, I want to comment on something I don’t usually refer to in my reviews: the cover of the book is perfect. Initially, my reaction fell somewhere between, “hmm…interesting,” and “pretty, but where’s her face?” Having read the book, though, it makes perfect sense: Cleopatra would have worn a white diadem tied around her head and would have been decked out in pearls, the diamonds of her day. She would have worn luxurious, colorful clothing. But aside from that, we’ll never really know what she looked like; for all that we now know of her, she still remains an enigma, and people will always want to know more.

Cleopatra: A Life was released on November 1, 2010 by Little, Brown and Company.

Want a chance to read this book? Little, Brown and Company has provided a finished copy for a Women’s History Month giveaway! To enter, fill out this form by Friday, April 8, 2011. This giveaway is now closed.

Goodreads | Amazon
I read it as a(n): eBook
Source: Personal copy
Pages: 302

4 thoughts on “Cleopatra: A Life

  1. way way off topic, but have you noticed how many covers have the woman turned away? i know part of it is so you don’t picture the face of the specific woman on the cover, but at the same time, it’s disturbing after a while. “hey! look at the pretty hair and silhouette. she’s not important enough for anything else.”

    ok, maybe not, but i’m tired and grading, and i’ve noticed it a lot lately.

    that said, i think this cover is lovely (i know, i’m a laugh a minute) and have heard great stuff about this one.

  2. I could not agree more with your astute observation regarding the cover – so many, throughout history, have speculated as to what she looks like, but none have conjured up an answer. It is an enigma, really, how a woman so famous in history never left behind a surviving portrait! Some say she was ravishing in her beauty, others say her physique was praiseworthy, other describe her as swarthy and built like a lioness – but I think this cover is befitting since it doesn’t allude to one answer or the other. Plus, I think it forces us (the readers) to reconcile with the fact that what made Cleopatra so amazing was NOT her physical beauty, the strong and shrewd political leader that she was, in her reign. A powerful woman indeed…I cannot wait to read this book. Thank you for the review and the giveaway.

    Email: Enamoredsoul(at)gmail(dot)com
    Twitter: @inluvwithbookz

  3. According to Plutarch, when Mark Antony first met Cleopatra, he tried to out do her extravagance, and failed miserably ( though I don’t think it bothered him much as he had found the love of his life.). Plutarch said;

    “On her arrival, Antony sent to invite her to supper. She thought it fitter he should come to her; so, willing to show his good humor and courtesy, he complied, and went. He found the preparations to receive him magnificent beyond expression, but nothing so admirable as the great number of lights; for on a sudden there was let down altogether so great a number of branches with lights in them so ingeniously disposed, some in squares, and some in circles, that the whole thing was a spectacle that has seldom been equaled for beauty.

    The next day, Antony invited her to supper, and was very desirous to outdo her as well in magnificence as contrivance; but he found he was altogether beaten in both, and was so well convinced of it, that he was himself the first to jest and mock at his poverty of wit, and his rustic awkwardness. She, perceiving that his raillery was broad and gross, and savored more of the soldier than the courtier, rejoined in the same taste, and fell into it at once, without any sort of reluctance or reserve”.

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