Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff, Little, Brown, 368 pp., $29.99
The cover of Stacy Schiff’s newest biography, Cleopatra: A Life, shows a woman adorned in pearls, her face hidden from the viewer. Despite being burdened with “one of the busiest afterlives in history”—there is a video game named for her, as well as an asteroid and a cigarette—very little is known for certain about this most famous Egyptian queen, whose four children were fathered by two of the most powerful men of the era: Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. We do not know, for example, who her mother was, how long Cleopatra spent in Rome, how often she was pregnant, whether she actually married Mark Antony, how she died. We don’t even know if she was beautiful—the most accurate rendering of history’s favorite femme fatale is a gold coin minted during her reign, likely approved by her, depicting a hook-nosed, large-eyed woman.
It is a safe bet that she was extraordinarily well educated (Plutarch says she spoke nine languages), fabulously wealthy (she handed out ships and gold to her lovers), and uncommonly gifted in the social graces. Cicero, who detested the queen, also described her as one who could “make others laugh in spite of themselves.” Schiff posits a childhood spent playing with terracotta dolls and pet mice and acknowledges, with an honesty lacking in her historical sources, the limits of her powers as a biographer. Author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning book Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), as well as books on Benjamin Franklin and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Schiff has earned a reputation as a biographer of prodigious gifts. In attempting to chronicle the life of Cleopatra, however, she faced insurmountable challenges. These she enumerates early on in the book: the most prolific sources on Cleopatra are biased and contradictory; no papyri survive from Cleopatra’s Alexandria, now largely buried; in fact, only one word survives from the last great Egyptian ruler—ginesthoi, Greek for “let it be done”—and it may have been written by a scribe. Accepting the impossibility of filling in the blanks at a remove of more than 2,000 years, Schiff has instead “corralled the possibilities.” The result is a narrative that never quite hits its stride and is plagued by such absurdities as a lovingly rendered trip up the Nile, immortalized by Shakespeare, which may or may not have occurred. “On shore the date trees hung thick with fruit, the palm fronds slightly faded. . . . It was peach season; above their heads, the pigeons visibly paired off.”
At the end of more than 300 pages of lovely prose, we have learned that fried mice were thought to cure the pangs of teething, that 170 rowers probably conveyed the queen across the Mediterranean, that pearls dissolve only very slowly in vinegar, that her name means “Glory of Her Fatherland,” but Cleopatra still does not have a face. For this Schiff herself is at least partly to blame. Even as she doggedly dismantles the myths that grew like kudzu around the Egyptian queen, she builds new ones—of female power and potency, Cleopatra’s canny leadership, and her place at the center of world affairs, which, Schiff acknowledges, was fleeting at best. In actual fact, Cleopatra appears to have been as adept at losing power as she was at regaining it, beginning and ending her rule with missteps that testified to a somewhat erratic brilliance. Nor does her story need gilding. Twice dethroned, she rose twice to ever greater power, through the agency of the very men who would have deposed her. At her death, “Queen Cleopatra, the Goddess, the Younger, Father-loving and Fatherland-loving” ruled most of the Eastern Mediterranean coast, and if she handed out gold and ships along with her personal favors, she received land and favors from her lovers in exchange. Like them, she had a habit of ruthlessly murdering her rivals. She was the product of a tempestuous age rife with beheadings, poisonings, stranglings, and rending of limbs. If she was a sexual adventuress, her exploits pale in comparison to Caesar’s and Antony’s, who each had four wives, none of them Cleopatra, and innumerable bedmates, a few of whom may have been men. Schiff describes Cleopatra’s 22-year reign as a brief reprieve from the Roman tide sweeping across the Mediterranean. After the queen’s death at age 39, Egypt became a Roman province, regaining autonomy only in the 20th century. A less obvious legacy was Cleopatra’s impact on Roman culture: after his Alexandrian sojourn, for example, Caesar reformed the Roman calendar, modeling it after Egypt’s.
Although the historical gaps prove unbridgeable, Schiff has a great deal to teach us about Cleopatra. Despite adopting the official title “Cleopatra VII,” she was not the seventh but the sixth. She was also not Egyptian but Greek, her Ptolemaic dynasty having been founded by one of Alexander the Great’s generals. Born 69 years before the birth of Christ, she was a contemporary of King Herod and, like him, given to murdering her kin. The second of three daughters, followed by two brothers, she is believed to have dispatched her three living siblings, two of whom were also her husbands. Murder and incest were a family tradition: Schiff offers as an example Ptolemy VIII, who raped his niece Cleopatra III while married to her mother, killed their 14-year-old son, chopped him up, and delivered the pieces to his mother as a birthday present. Later the couple reconciled.
Cleopatra was also the richest person in the Mediterranean. It was this wealth that brought the military might of a succession of greedy Romans to bear on Egypt. Cleopatra successfully allied herself with two of them—Caesar and Antony—but the third, Octavian, who would go on to become the Roman Emperor Augustus, ended her reign and killed her firstborn son, fathered by Caesar. It was he, writes Schiff, who repackaged Cleopatra for history as the harlot queen of Mark Antony’s undoing. If male historians have sought to diminish Cleopatra’s power by emphasizing her sexuality, Schiff tends in the opposite direction, going so far as suggesting that Cleopatra may have been a virgin when, at the age of 21, she was smuggled into Caesar’s presence in a sack of hemp or leather. Schiff’s reasoning? Cleopatra’s brother, who was also her consort, was 13 and hence unlikely to have reached puberty. The implicit suggestion is that, until she met Caesar, Cleopatra was a faithful wife. But within months of meeting Caesar, she was pregnant with his child—his only issue—and had replaced her brother as Egypt’s ruler. Caesar himself writes in his memoirs that he supported Cleopatra’s claim to the throne because she was loyal. In contrast to her chroniclers’ embellishments, references to Cleopatra by her lovers were both few and remarkably dispassionate. In a letter to his fellow triumvir and erstwhile drinking buddy Octavian, Mark Antony asks why the fuss over his “screwing the queen . . . . Does it really matter where and in whom you get it up?” Cleopatra was, after all, not the only queen that Caesar and Mark Antony bedded in the course of their sexual-political conquest of the ancient world.
Whether or not, as Plutarch claimed, Cleopatra resorted to a hunger strike to keep Mark Antony from returning to Rome, he did divorce Octavia, his Roman wife, to make his home in Alexandria. At the height of his discord with Octavian, he and Cleopatra held a ceremony conferring lavish titles and lands upon their three children. Given the state of affairs in Rome, Mark Antony might be said to have been asking for what he got: mass defections to his rival, defeat on land and at sea, death by his own hand. This section of the book is vivid and romantic. Having registered her doubts about Plutarch and Dio as accurate chroniclers of the Antony-Cleopatra story, Schiff surrenders to their version of events in which Mark Antony dies in Cleopatra’s arms. The queen commits suicide as well, leaving her children to be raised by the scorned Octavia, half sister of Octavian. Octavian then founds an empire and rules for 44 years—ample time to rewrite history.
There can be little doubt that we have fallen victim to his efforts, yet one could wish that Schiff did not yield so much narrative ground to resifting historical uncertainties. Stripped of its fabulous trappings, Cleopatra’s tale is one of enduring geopolitical realities, the story of a Middle Eastern monarch doing what she could to protect her sovereignty and her national resources from the superior military might of the West. As a tribute to female power, Cleopatra is an ironic one. As Schiff notes, her distinction lies in the power she possessed to barter herself directly, rather than being pimped by her male relatives. In the idiom of our own time, Cleopatra’s story is about the ultimate power couple. As such it raises fascinating questions about where politics ends and love begins. Does Hillary Clinton love Bill and vice versa? Did Cleopatra, who had viable political prospects long after her lover’s were exhausted, stick with Mark Antony out of loyalty or despondency?
Schiff, earnestly explaining why the Egyptian queen is unlikely to have been killed by the sting of an asp hidden in a basket of figs (too big to hide among figs, too painful to be her first choice, too sluggish to kill Cleopatra’s attendants as well as the queen herself), does not waste time pondering these imponderables. Her Cleopatra is more complex than Plutarch’s, Livy’s, and Appian’s, yet simpler than she deserves. Shakespeare got it right when he wrote of Cleopatra: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety.” He, of course, was wise enough to eschew fact for fiction. Despite the obstacles in her path, we are fortunate that Schiff has not done the same.