I love history and have always found Cleopatra to be a fascinating figure. When I was in the mood for a historical biography after finishing Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow earlier this year, I turned to Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff. I listened to this book on Audible.

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The summary, from Amazon:

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 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.

Buy Cleopatra: A Life on Amazon.

Stacy Schiff presents a very researched take on Cleopatra in this book, pointing out the bias in others accounts of this amazing woman throughout history. I listened to Cleopatra: A Life on Audible and Robin Miles does a great job with this audiobook (though she is one of those people who pronounce “forbade” in a way that grates me). I found the narration to be a touch slow and listened to this one at 1.2 or 1.25x speed depending on my device.

This was such an enjoyable listen and I learned a lot about Cleopatra, from what we know is definitely true to what is likely a myth. (An asp almost certainly was not her cause of death.) Cleopatra is a woman whose story has been blurred through history, due to propaganda, misogyny, and the passage of time. There were moments in this book where Schiff focused on figures in Cleopatra’s life like Julius Caesar or Marc Antony for lengthy stretches, when I really wanted to focus on the titular person. However, understanding these men is important to understanding Cleopatra, which I recognize.

It’s said that Cleopatra’s death was the end of the ancient world, and I really can see that. Cleopatra clung to her kingdom and her people until the last breath. She was no saint – every bit as much a killer as a queen. But she goes down as one of the most interesting figures in history to this day. I originally rated this 5 stars, but upon reflection, changed my rating to 4 stars.

Cleopatra: A LifeCleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this one. I listened to the audiobook at 1.2 or 1.25x depending on the device I was using. At times I wanted it to focus a little more on Cleopatra, though of course the stories of the men in her life are important to her story.

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Book Club Questions

  1. Though eventually she met her end, what made Cleopatra a successful ruler, arguably more successful than her family before her?
  2. Why have there been so many different accounts of what really happened in Cleopatra’s life story throughout history?
  3. Does Schiff offer an unbiased account of Cleopatra’s life?
  4. There has been much speculation and even obsession throughout history on Cleopatra’s relationships. Plays have even been written about her romantic conquests. Were her relationships solely political conquests, or were they the grand love stories some authors made them out to be?

Interested? Buy Cleopatra: A Life.
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P.S. I listened to this book on Audible. Try Audible and get two free audiobooks!

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