Cleopatra

By Stacy Schiff,

Book cover of Cleopatra: A Life

Book description

The Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer brings to life the most intriguing woman in the history of the world: Cleopatra, the last queen of Egypt.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…

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Why read it?

5 authors picked Cleopatra as one of their favorite books. Why do they recommend it?

This next one is a bit of a curve ball, but it also reflects my interest in strong women in history and fiction—as well as my love of history and archaeology. Cleopatra: A Life, takes a historical figure who was nearly mythological, and roots her firmly within a cultural and historical context. Gone is the wily temptress of fiction and antiquity; Stacy Schiff's subject is a queen, a military strategist, an ingenious diplomat, and a polymath. She waged (and survived) civil war and foreign invasions, and reshaped the ancient world. The book reads like a novel, but never skimps…

It’s possible that Cleopatra is the single most misunderstood figure in all of history. She has been used as an example, an allegory, a warning. Her name conjures images of mysticism, sensuality, and seduction. These caricatures do her injustice. This excellent book scrapes away all the mythologizing and paints the fullest, clearest picture of this remarkable leader, the world she lived in, and the motivations behind the choices she made. She wasn’t Roman (she wasn’t really Egyptian, either), but she had a huge impact on Roman history and is an integral part of the Roman story. 

Schiff’s treatment of Cleopatra, showing how she was shaped by her time, and what she dealt with before and during her rule, is exceptional in that it not only steps away from the usual tropes about her, but also gives an expansive glimpse to her world. 

Drawing from scant direct sources of the famous queen but providing context through various sources of the time on other major players, she paints a picture of Cleopatra that is complex, interesting, and leaves one with a much better sense of who she probably was and why she did what she did.

From Jay's list on Cleopatra and ancient Egypt.

Cleopatra a politician? Why is a book about her on this list? She was Shakespearean and Liz Taylor in the movies and a sultry siren. What more is there to know? Pulitzer-winner Stacy Schiff mined the distant evidence and built a poetic portrait of Cleopatra based on what we know of her reality: “A capable, clear-eyed sovereign, she knew how to build a fleet, suppress an insurrection, control a currency, alleviate a famine.”

Here's a useful maxim for all readers of history: Read anything that Stacy Schiff writes, period. Schiff brings her elegant pen and careful eye to Cleopatra's story, and what's powerful is how much she managed to wring out a figure shrouded in rumor, myth, and fragments of stories tucked here and there. As Cato's biographers, we had to do similar sleuthing--Cato didn't leave behind much written work--so we impressed.

From Rob's list on ancient Roman history.

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