Thursday, March 17, 2011

Review: Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff

Author: Stacy Schiff
Publisher/Format: Hachette audio 14+ hours,  368  pgs equivalent;
included 12 page PDF of maps, illustrations and full color cover art
Narrator: Robin Miles
Subject: Cleopatra
Setting: Egypt, Rome 1st century BC
Genre: biography
Source: won in blog contest from Yankee Romance Reviewers

I'm in awe of anyone who can write a book like this.  Biographers are often overwhelmed with tons of extraneous material about the subject of their work; they have letters, diaries, journals, shopping lists, newspaper articles, essays, speeches, orations, and often,  fictionalized accounts of lives that bear no relation to reality.  Pulitzer prize winning biographer Stacy Schiff not only had to dig through some of these types of materials (including Shakespearean plays), but if she wanted to be true to her subject and her craft, she had to plumb primary sources in languages such as Greek, latin, hieroglyphics, etc.

Cleopatra herself was an exceptionally well educated woman -she spoke 8 or 9 languages, she could quote various Greek poets and playwrights as well as converse with her troops in Egyptian.In fact,Schiff makes a point to let us know that Cleopatra was the first Egyptian monarch who could speak the language of the common people she ruled.

I learned so much about this fascinating woman.  For instance, I'm not sure I ever paid attention to time lines before-- I always imagined her as being several centuries earlier than she was.  The fact that she was a contemporary of Julius Caesar just goes to show you that I didn't realize how close to the BC/AD he was.

Although she had contemporary sources such as Plutarch, Cicero, and Cassius Dio among others, there are no  letters to Caesar or Anthony, no written proclamations, and only one direct quote from Plutarch.  Schiff explains this quote quite well in an interview she gave to Barnes and Noble editor James Mustich.
It's a sultry Alexandrian afternoon: Cleopatra and Mark Antony are out fishing with their friends. To retaliate for a prank he has pulled on her, Cleopatra tricks Antony by attaching a salted herring on his line. This he delivers up to laughter all around. Then she delivers this wifely speech: "But darling, you shouldn't be fishing; you should be out conquering kingdoms."
Her book, which is based almost entirely on recollections and writings of foreign males, gives us a wonderful panoramic view of the glory of ancient Alexandria, and compares it to the early, less gaudy Rome. As she gives us a very real queen who is balancing delicately between the splendor of Egypt and the might of Rome, she shows us the differences in the education and treatment of women, the availibility of books, the styles of buildings, the fighting styles of the armies (and navies).

She strips away the Hollywood glitz, the Shakespearean hyperbole, and gives us a picture of a powerful, wealthy, competent, ruthless ruler, who bested the best, who refused to put herself into situations where she or her country could be humiliated, and who may not have been the sexual brazen hussy we have been previously presented.

This woman was as regal and influential as any monarch the pre-Christian world produced.  Ms.Schiff has given us a highly readable, extraordinarily well-researched biography that sets a standard that future researchers will strive to emulate.  The illustrations and maps bring the story to life and help the reader get a good picture of the extent of the Egyptian empire, and the spectacle of the capital city this queen called home.

I think Stiff herself gave us a look into her mind when she did the interview with Barnes and Noble
JM: What do you find compelling about biography? What draws you to it?

SS: Well, it has been called gossip with footnotes for a reason. I like to read my history through the lens of a personality. I don't think I'm alone in that. To be able somehow to view historical events through their impact on and through the eyes of an individual thrills me. Then, of course, there is always a beginning, a middle, and an end in biography. And there's a particular gratification to the genre: ultimately you get to kill off your subject. [LAUGHS]-----Stacy Schiff,  A conversation with , Editor-in-Chief of Barnes & Noble Review

Even killing off the subject presented a new and thought-provoking alternative to the 'asp in the basket' fable we've all been raised on.  This one is a keeper.

Many thanks to Yankee Romance Reviewers for holding the contest and for Hachette Audio for making the audio book available for giveaway.  Robin Miles does an outstanding job of reading this, and even manages to make the footnotes interesting.\


  1. I've always thought she was portrayed as promiscuous because it was men who wrote about her - sort of an "in your dreams" moment. I had already put this book on my list because I wanted to learn more about her.

  2. you are right...the amount of work and research that must go into a book like this numbs the mind.

  3. This book is already on my to-read list, now I'll have to move it up a bit!
    Just wanted to let you know that I added your blog to my blogroll - I used to blog at (The Curious Reader), but now I'm at
    Also, I will definitely be participating in the giveaway for Geraldine Brooks' newest book! I just wanted to comment here first. :)


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