SPOILER WARNING: These book discussion questions are highly detailed and will ruin plot points, if you have not read the book.
Title: Cleopatra: A Life
Author: Stacy Schiff
Page Count: 368
Tone: Academic, Deeply-researched, complex
Questions composed by MPPL Staff:
1. Does Cleopatra interest you as a character in history? Why do you think she has interested artists and writers over the millennia?
2. Chapter 1 opens with the quote, “Man’s most valuable trait is a judicious sense of what not to believe.” Why do you think Stacy Schiff opened with this?
3. What is wrong with the statement that “a woman’s authority spelled a man’s deception”? (p. 4)
4. Schiff says that when it comes to Cleopatra’s history, “Affairs of the state have fallen away, leaving us with affairs of the heart.” (p. 7) What does that mean?
5. Did your perspective of Rome change at all? How did Cleopatra see Rome? Contrast that with how we might view Rome.
6. Was Cleopatra Egyptian? If not, where did her family originate from?
7. How does pop culture view Cleopatra? How has Schiff expanded that view?
8. Do you have a favorite pop culture version of Cleopatra?
9. Is Cleopatra a good leader?
10. Do you think that Cleopatra loved either Caesar or Mark Antony or did she only use them for political gain? Does it matter?
11. Who did Cleopatra have children by? Did these children matter politically? How? (p. 193)
12. What is the difference between being described as manipulative vs. being described as strategic? How was Cleopatra described? Why? Do you agree?
13. Can you think of women in today’s world that compare to Cleopatra? How are these modern women depicted by the media?
14. What could today’s female leaders learn from Cleopatra? Are those lessons different than what a male leader might take from Cleopatra’s story?
15. Women held a lot of power in ancient Egypt. What was your reaction to this?
16. Did Romans view women the same way Egyptians did?
17. What fun or odd historical anecdotes did you gain from reading Cleopatra?
18. What are reasons why people should read of the ancient world?
19. The Egyptians of Cleopatra’s era were obsessed with Homer. What is gained from memorizing poets? What is gained from the reading of classics?
20. Cleopatra was 21 when she raised an army. Her brother was 15 when he led it. (p. 11) Did the accomplishments of people by young ages surprise you?
21. In Cleopatra’s time, teachers were revered and housed by the state. (p. 39) Do you think this is a custom that should be renewed?
22. When Cleopatra first comes into power, she curries favor with religious groups. (p. 57) Why would she do this? Do you see any parallels in this concept in modern day political life?
23. What were some of the differences between Caesar and Mark Antony? (p. 185)
24. What was Antony and Octavian’s relationship?
25. What were Octavian and Antony battling over?
26. Antony married Octavia. How was she similar or different to Cleopatra? (p. 191)
27. Cleopatra is a wealthy woman. Where did her wealth come from? Did she use her wealth wisely?
28. Do you think that political leaders today are wealthy? Does this lead to any problems with connecting to their constituents?
29. Were you surprised by any of the technology mentioned having existed in ancient history? (Ex: automatic doors, hydraulic lifts, coin-operated machines, etc. – p. 75)
30. Schiff states, “Octavian continued to threaten Cleopatra publicly while privatly he maintained that if she killed Antony she would have her pardon.” (p. 288) Did you think that Cleopatra would kill Antony? Why or why not?
31. Why did Antony kill himself? (p. 293)
32. How did Cleopatra die? (p. 305 – 306)
33. Have you read any other books by Stacy Schiff? How does this one compare to previous reads? Would you go on to read more by this author?
34. What do you think the marketing of this book portrayed it as? (Cover, blurbs, reviews, etc.) Do you think the marketing matched the book?
35. Would you recommend this book to others? Why or why not?
Stacy Schiff’s website
Hatchette reading group guide
Stacy Schiff on C-SPAN
Stacy Schiff on The Daily Show
WBEZ interview with Stacy Schiff
The New York Times interview with Stacy Schiff
Cleopatra Wikipedia entry
Cleopatra as a subject of paintings
If you liked Cleopatra, try…
Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser
Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie
The October Horse by Colleen McCullough