Cleopatra; A Life by Stacy Schiff

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Cleopatra; A Life by Stacy Schiff

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1Cynara
Feb. 1, 2011, 2:04pm

Is anyone else reading this? It's very readable so far, and seems scholarly. Unfortunately, all my Egyptian history classes ran out of hours before the Ptolomies, so I've always felt a little underinformed. I wonder if any of you Latinists could weigh in on its credibility.

It's fascinating; it feels like a credible and fresh perspective on the period and on Cleopatra. I'm only in the first few chapters so far. She's making inferences about the nature of the relationship between Cleopatra & Caesar, but so far none of it has seemed implausible or unsupported.

2Garp83
Feb. 1, 2011, 2:49pm

I read the Roller bio which was informative but tedious in parts.

3pmackey
Feb. 1, 2011, 4:00pm

I just saw Cleopatra: A Life at Borders and was really tempted to buy it. Looks like I'll be going back!

4Barton
Feb. 1, 2011, 9:19pm

I purchased both Schiff and Roller. After I finish reading the books I will a give a potted review of both.

5Makifat
Feb. 2, 2011, 10:32am

Schiff's book has gotten some good notices. One of her previous efforts, which was about as far from Ptolemaic Egypt as one is likely to get, was a bio of Vera Nabokov. I do have Michael Grant's book on Cleopatra, but haven't had the heart or intestinal fortutude to crack it open.

I have to admit that I'm leery of most popular bios of famous personages, in that there is often a strong temptation for the author to interpret such lives in terms of their "relevance" for our times. I'm not saying Schiff does this, but it is a peeve of mine.

6Garp83
Feb. 2, 2011, 11:28am

I believe all Michael Grant books should be moved to one corner of the globe where their weight will impact the tilt of the earth's axis to combat global warming.

Beyond that, I really don't know what purpose his books serve ... I actually own some and actually still have them on my shelf, but I've never been able to read more than 50 pages of his writing and while reading I am absolutely unable to pay attention so that when I put the bok down I recall nothing except the strong urge to start drinking immediately ... and a lot ...

7MarysGirl
Feb. 2, 2011, 12:32pm

I have the Schiff book on my TBR shelf. It should be coming up in a month or two!

8pmackey
Feb. 2, 2011, 6:26pm

>6 Garp83: "I really don't know what purpose his books serve ..."
"except the strong urge to start drinking immediately ... and a lot ..."

Hmmm... Seems the books do have a positive purpose. ;-)

9Garp83
Feb. 2, 2011, 8:45pm

LOL

10ToTheWest
Feb. 3, 2011, 11:14am

I think this is my first post here, so pardon me from breaking in! I read the Schiff book soon after it came out, so it's been a little while. Since then I've loaned it to a friend and don't have it in front of me, so I'm going off of memory.

To be honest, I don't have a strong background in the Ptolemies or the late-Roman republic/early empire, so I can't comment on how Schiff's book compares to other research. However, it's a fantastically written biography, and one that renewed my interest in the genre. There were a few minor errors. For example, at one point she mentions that Alexander the Great had no children to be heirs. As far as I know, this is not, strictly speaking, true. His had a child who was born post-mortem and was killed soon after. (I chalk this up to a minor lapse, however, since it doesn't impact the book's subject and perhaps she meant that he had no heirs with irrefutable claims? Whoever her editor was probably didn't have the background to catch it and make the distinction.)

It's not an academic work. Schiff is a biographer by trade, not a historian. However, as a popular work, I don't think I could ask for much more. She's a master of prose and even when she wanders off the historical record, she's careful to note her departure and her subsequent conjectures are plausible. She brings a fresh perspective to Cleopatra's life, even if I certainly wouldn't call it authoritative.

I'd love to hear how people with more of a background in the era (or in the ancient Mediterranean) feel about it. It's certainly thought-provoking and a lot of fun to read. I just don't know how it fits in with the current scholarship and how justified Schiff is in reaching some of her conclusions.

As long as the scholarship behind it doesn't turn out to a hack job like A World Lit Only by Fire, I'll continue to push the book on friends and recommend it unabashedly. It's a fine example of the biography as literature and deserves the praise it's been getting in the general press.

11Nicole_VanK
Feb. 3, 2011, 12:26pm

I've noticed that people who have something to say "breaking in" are always welcome in this group :-)

12Cynara
Feb. 3, 2011, 2:07pm

That's just what I think about it, ToTheWest. I'll try not to copy your entire post for my review.

13Cynara
Feb. 8, 2011, 1:42pm

My review here:

http://www.librarything.com/work/9989655/reviews/68113689

I should add that it's copiously footnoted.

14Cynara
Feb. 8, 2011, 1:45pm

I mean endnoted.

15Garp83
Feb. 8, 2011, 7:59pm

excellent review ... well-written and compelling narrative ... thank you!

16Cynara
Feb. 8, 2011, 9:11pm

Thank you Garp, you're very kind!

17MarysGirl
Feb. 9, 2011, 11:48am

Great review, Cynara! I'm looking forward to reading it.

18Nicole_VanK
Feb. 9, 2011, 12:37pm

Even though my taste for Egypt focusses on much earlier things - pre-pyramid age essentially - your review leaves me tempted to give this book a try. So, yes, well reviewed.

19Barton
Feb. 10, 2011, 9:30pm

I just got my copies of both Cleopatrian books today. I am looking forward to the reading of both.

20pmackey
Feb. 18, 2011, 2:35pm

I just got a copy of Schiff's Cleopatra: A Life. I'm really looking forward to reading after the conversations here. Even better, it's the first ever book (other than Harry Potter) that I've brought home that my 17-year-old daughter looked at and said she might want to read it. Here's hoping...

21Barton
Feb. 22, 2011, 5:24pm

We mustn't forget Anthony and Cleopatra by Adrian Goldsworthy.,

22MarysGirl
Mrz. 17, 2011, 12:51pm

I finished Cleopatra: A Life last week and can't improve on Cynara's review of the book and writing. I was a little bored, but not by the book. I had read Anthony and Cleopatra by Colleen McCullough a month or so before, and I think I was Cleo'd out. The book did give me a giggle and inspired a middle-of-the-night fable on the vagaries of copy editing which I posted here: http://www.librarything.com/topic/111403

23Cynara
Mrz. 18, 2011, 3:50pm

Ha! I remember that passage, though I'd forgotten the error. I suppose I'm getting used to reading error-riddled ARCs. You're entirely right about typos, though; "out of lumber so crooked as man, nothing entirely straight can be built." Alternatively, "there is a crack in everything."

241dragones
Mrz. 18, 2011, 4:11pm

I read this late last year, and yes, found it very readable and somewhat scholarly, if confusing in a few places. The Roller bio, mentioned in messages 2 and 4 is in my TBR, though I have no idea when I'll get to it.

25mnleona
Okt. 25, 2011, 2:15pm

I finished Cleoprata's Daughter by Michelle Moran last week. Of all the reading on history about Egypt and TV stories on Egypt, I did not know Cleopatra and Antony had three children. I will have to get this book also. Thanks.

26stellarexplorer
Jan. 6, 2012, 1:08am

I shudder to ask this, but I have an acquaintance who insists that she heard a "famous historian" on the radio assert that Cleopatra was the grandmother of Jesus. I expressed doubt, and was immediately subjected to the accusation that I must think she is crazy and that she knows what she heard.

I researched this a bit and it seems that this notion has been somewhat popularized by Ralph Ellis in King Jesus. Does anyone know anything about this story?

27Cynara
Jan. 6, 2012, 1:30am

I hadn't heard this one before. What fun! I don't believe it's possible to prove it either way, given the sketchy nature of our solid historical knowledge re. the later careers of Cleopatra's kids (though I believe Schiff does give a story about Caesarion being betrayed to his death by his tutor?). To the best of my knowledge the Bible doesn't have anything to say on the subject of Cleopatra, though earlier rulers are sometimes quasi-identifiable.

28Garp83
Jan. 13, 2012, 6:30pm

#26 Wasn't Mama Cass the mother of Jesus? Nearly as plausible LOL

29pmackey
Feb. 5, 2012, 9:04am

I'm about halfway through the audio book. Good read but very frustrating because of how little we actually know of Cleopatra.

30Diane-bpcb
Bearbeitet: Jul. 31, 2013, 8:25pm

I found Stacy Schiff's writing masterful, and hers was one of those books I virtually swallowed in one gulp. Of course, I hadn't read any recent research on Egyptian history, so it was all new to me.
Schiff's evocation of what growing up would have been like for Cleopatra--the mixture of Hellenistic and Egyptian influences--was fascinating. A minor example was her explanation of why being trained in rhetoric was important : what it consisted of and why the public admired it in those days. Her detailed description of Alexandria and of the Nile were welcome. Her portrayal of the "world" as seen from Egypt was refreshing to me. And she was clear about the conflicting stories, even as she stated her case.

31pmackey
Aug. 1, 2013, 3:54pm

>30 Diane-bpcb:, I'm still frustrated about how little we actually know about her. I want more facts but sometimes that just isn't possible. Sigh.

32stellarexplorer
Aug. 1, 2013, 5:07pm

I just finished this, and liked it very much. She did a good job of maintaining a plausible and consistent view of Cleo and the turbulent circumstances of her life.

33southernbooklady
Aug. 1, 2013, 7:37pm

>31 pmackey: I shared the same frustration. And unlike many people, faulted the book for what seemed like an undue amount of speculation.

34SteveJohnson
Aug. 2, 2013, 10:04pm

I have the Schiff book but have yet to read it, but read Grant's work a couple of months ago and liked it. His basic approach seemed solid -- Cleopatra did a pretty good job maneuvering her relatively powerless kingdom among powerful forces both West and East, and her fatal choice of Anthony over Augustus wasn't that illogical at the time. She certainly had something going for herself in the personal charm department if she seduced both Caesar and Anthony. Grant makes her much less the femme fatale and much more a pragmatic survivor who did the best she could to restore Egypt to a semblance of its former glory under the Ptolemies.
And no matter what exactly we know for sure, it's certain that she and Caesar went up the Nile on a spectacular barge and THAT would be a sight I'd give a lot to have seen. My guess is that the reality would have put Richard Burton and Liz Taylor to shame.

35Diane-bpcb
Aug. 3, 2013, 5:13am

> 34 Schiff also makes Cleopatra a savvy political player, no femme fatale, but all the same a real charmer owing to her quick wit and animation.

> 31 & 33 I actually found this style of biography ingenious: where hard facts are simply unavailable, as with Claire Tomalin's Jane Austen: a Life, and the biographer instead concentrates on the life surrounding their subject in order to bring them alive, if short on personal details. Schiff's exploration of the motives behind the creation of the various Cleopatra myths over the centuries was detailed and thoughtful.

36southernbooklady
Aug. 3, 2013, 7:56am

>35 Diane-bpcb: I actually found this style of biography ingenious

Schiff's general tactic, which she outlines in her introduction, is to look at the various sources available and try to construct some plausible happy medium between them.

But "plausible" is all she can ever hope to attain. Her intuition serves her in good stead in many cases--for example, her re-interpretation of Cleopatra's first meeting with Julius Caesar, stripped of its romanticism. But her method does have drawbacks. Because she is always "answering" the disparate and often wildly hostile source material, her explanations sometimes stray into excuses. And because, in the end, much of Cleopatra's life is closed and inaccessible to the historian, the book has the odd effect of being very convincing about small things, but insubstantial about many large ones. Any time Schiff talks about what was going through Cleopatra's mind during a given event, she's on shaky, unsubstantiated ground.

It was interesting to read this in concert with a couple other classical histories: Adrienne Mayor's The Poison King, which is even more speculative, if not outright inventive, and The Ghosts of Cannae by Robert L. O'Connell, which is rigorous in the way it avoids unsubstantiated material. All three books deal with adversaries of the Roman Empire who achieved almost mythical auras, all three had only the hostile sources of Roman accounts to rely on. All three were dealing with figures whose deeds--even the most famous--are often shrouded in uncertainty because so much as been lost to time. Of the three, Cannae was my favorite, because the author never lets the reader forget what is fact and what is just theory, and we are constantly reminded that we can guess, but we can't know. Schiff is less circumspect, and not above treating the occasional story as fact, especially if it is a good story. And Mayor is unapologetically speculative. She even has a long discussion in her introduction about the uses of constructing "what if" scenarios as a tool of historical research.