Cleopatra: A Life

Cleopatra: A Life
by Stacy Schiff
read by Robin Miles
Published 2010 by Hachette Audio
14 hours, 30 minutes. Unabridged.
Rating: 5/5

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 negotiator.

Though her life spanned fewer than forty years, it reshaped the contours of the ancient world. She was married twice, each time to a brother. She waged a brutal civil war against the first when both were teenagers. She poisoned the second. Ultimately she dispensed with an ambitious sister as well; incest and assassination were family specialties. Cleopatra appears to have had sex with only two men. They happen, however, to have been Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, among the most prominent Romans of the day. Both were married to other women. Cleopatra had a child with Caesar and–after his murder–three more with his protégé. Already she was the wealthiest ruler in the Mediterranean; the relationship with Antony confirmed her status as the most influential woman of the age. The two would together attempt to forge a new empire, in an alliance that spelled their ends. Cleopatra has lodged herself in our imaginations ever since.

Famous long before she was notorious, Cleopatra has gone down in history for all the wrong reasons. Shakespeare and Shaw put words in her mouth. Michelangelo, Tiepolo, and Elizabeth Taylor put a face to her name. Along the way, Cleopatra’s supple personality and the drama of her circumstances have been lost. In a masterly return to the classical sources, Stacy Schiff here boldly separates fact from fiction to rescue the magnetic queen whose death ushered in a new world order. Rich in detail, epic in scope, Schiff ‘s is a luminous, deeply original reconstruction of a dazzling life.

Let me say first that nonfiction is not exactly my thing. I love fiction. However, when I found out about this book I decided it was time I break out of that shell. I’ve read a little bit of nonfiction, but mostly funny memoirs. I’ve never read any biographies or histories. That’s why I was a little worried when I began this. I think I was lucky to have won the audiobook. It would have taken me much longer to finish this if had it been in print. I’m so glad I won this and got to begin my nonfiction reading. I hope to read more soon. In fact, I recently picked up a book on the French Revolution, which has always fascinated me.

Stacy Schiff is amazing. I can’t imagine the time and research that went into this project. I’ve recently been working on my senior project about the Neapolitan composer Nicola Porpora, and I’ve had to do a lot of digging. Of course, my research for a twenty minute presentation is nothing compared to her book. However, it brings out how much she really worked on this. I also love that she’s as true as she can be to Cleopatra and history. She never states that things occurred in a certain way, without doubt. She goes from the accounts, but gives the reader a context with which to base the accounts. She obviously studied the culture and time well enough that she can make an informed decision about what is probable or not. And she explains these observations and assumptions, rather than states her beliefs without cause. She never tries to pull anything on her reader. If she’s not sure about something from her sources, she says so.

It’s a truly brilliant book with so much history, not only of Cleopatra herself, but also of her culture, her surroundings, and those with which she came in contact. She really weeds out all the glamour to give a real and educated look a woman who has remained shrouded for centuries by dramatic arias, sexual prowess, and markedly inaccurate representations in theatre. I felt like I learned so much and I highly recommend this amazing history.

Source: Won at BookHounds
Author’s website:
Purchase this book: Book Despository | IndieBound | Audible

Leave a comment


  1. I don't read much nonfiction, either, but will have to make an exception for this one. I did a sophomore project on Cleopatra, and found her fascinating. Great review, and glad you enjoyed the book. 🙂

  2. I have been really excited about this one as well but haven't actually gotten down to reading it. Maybe I should check to see if my local library has an audio copy that I can borrow. It sounds like it would be a lovely audio!

  3. I do read nonfiction and this is something that seems to be particularly well written. Thanks for the review.


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