Book Review: Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

January 10, 2011

“Cleopatra: A Life” by Stacy Schiff (Website | Twitter | Facebook) is a biography of the famous Egyptian Queen. This is a well researched and dense book –it is not easy to read.

  • 368 pages
  • Publisher ‏ : Little, Brown & Co.
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : 0316001929

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In “Cleopatra: A Life” Stacy Schiff tries to reconstruct the biography of the of the most fascinating woman in history. History has remembered Cleopatra as a queen of great beauty who trapped in her tangled web to of the most powerful Romans in history.


Ms. Schiff tells us right off the bat to hedge our bets and forget what we know. There are simply very little primary sources about this fascinating woman, much of it has been lost and the rest has been written by her enemies. It is a travesty of history that we know so little of the last Pharaoh of Egypt, who also happened to be one of the wealthiest women of all times (and certainly the wealthiest person on earth during her reign).

It was disappointing to learn that there are very few primary sources and that Ms. Schiff based her research, amazing and detailed as it is, on mostly three secondary sources, Appian, Lucius Cassius Dio Cocceianus and Plutarch – all Roman, were not of the same generation and contradict one another. Even Julius Caesar barely mentions Cleopatra in his writing.

Other then Cleopatra’s profile on coins, we don’t even have a picture of the queen.

Lack of primary sources is certainly a huge obstacle to overcome in a serious history book and Ms. Schiff does her best, unfortunately the first 150 pages (or so) are filled with “maybe”, “we can guess…” and “probably”. For me that was very frustrating and tedious as the book is very detailed in every aspect of the Alexandrian life – but not so much on Cleopatra’s early life.
No wonder many people, and unfortunately historians, think of William Shakespeare is a primary source – according to Ms. Schiff.

Julius Ceaser

The book becomes fascinating when Julius Caesar enters the picture, but really – what doesn’t?

However, the real story gets rolling when Mark Anthony meets Cleopatra. The intriguing relationship between the world’s most riches person and the world’s most honored solider gets a whole new perspective from Ms. Schiff. The author didn’t really believe that there was a great romance between Cleopatra and Anthony – but they used one another (money for protection) and she does bring very persuasive analysis to bring the reader to at least consider, if not agree, with her point of view.

Mark Anthony

The details of Anthony and Cleopatra’s life together are much more fascinating and exciting than the “maybes” and “probablys” of the first half of the book. The final chapters, which details the showdown between Octavian and Antony are an absolute joy to read.

This is a serious history book written by a superb historian and not a light read – consider that before purchasing. An excellent book not for those just interested in Cleopatra but also in Roman history in general.


Stacy Schiff provides a new insight into the life of history’s most elusive famous person. Cleopatra is portrayed as an intelligent, educated power broker who knew how to persuade kings to come to her side and her people to support her. This biography tries to separate the woman from the myth.

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Zohar — Man of la Book
Dis­claimer: I got bought this book
*Ama­zon links point to an affil­i­ate account, the money is usually spent on books

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Wrap Up

Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff


  • Sam January 10, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    I’ve been going backwards and forwards over whether I want to read this or not. I think the lack of primary sources and all the “maybes” would annoy me a bit.

    • zohar January 10, 2011 at 3:42 pm

      Hey Sam,

      yes, it gets a bit annoying but the second half of the book is a lot better.

  • Marie January 10, 2011 at 9:29 pm

    I bought this for my husband’s grandmother, who’s a classicist and a fan of ancient egypt- i knew she’d love it but you just provided a lot of validation!

  • Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness) February 3, 2011 at 6:31 pm

    I totally agree about the point at which it picks up. I really enjoyed everything after Marc Antony, but got a little bored with all the guessing in the beginning.

  • Debnance at readerbuzz February 14, 2011 at 6:45 am

    I was expecting to love this book, and I did end up liking it, but Only that. I agree with you;it did get better as the story progressed. I was mostly disappointed by the lack of detail and the lack of facts (the maybe-could have-sort ofs in the story).

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