What do you think of when you think of Cleopatra? The asp? The siren lure of Egypt? Danielle de Niese, dripping with jewels? Elizabeth Taylor? Whatever we think of, it’s almost certainly incorrect. In this beautifully-written biography, Stacy Schiff tries to peel away the centuries of accretions in the form of purple prose, propaganda and the overheated male gaze, to reveal the ruler beneath. Don’t judge this book by its cover. The publisher has done the author no service in that respect. It’s packaged like a lightweight historical novel, with the traditional faceless woman in historical costume and lashings of pink and gold. It deserves better. Intelligent, gripping and extremely readable, this is the best biography I’ve read in some time.
Cleopatra was not, of course, genetically Egyptian. She was Greek, the latest in a long line of Ptolemies who could trace their lineage back to the childhood friend and possible half-brother of Alexander the Great. Yet that lineage was complicated. Generations of intermarriage between brother and sister, or uncle and niece, had led to less of a family tree than a thicket. And it had also engendered a tradition of family strife. Mothers had risen against sons; aunts against nephews; sisters against brothers.
And so, when Julius Caesar arrived in Egypt in 48BC, he was dealing with a pretty standard state of affairs: a sibling rivalry turned civil war, between 21-year-old Cleopatra and her 13-year-old brother-husband, Ptolemy XIII. Rome had restored their father to his throne and now, after his death, it was Rome’s duty to keep peace between the squabbling siblings. But Caesar found himself up against something he didn’t expect. Cleopatra, sensing a way to gain advantage over her brother’s cause, had herself smuggled past Ptolemy’s armies in a sack and brought to Caesar to negotiate an alliance. The sack, in popular imagination, has become a roll of carpet. The young queen emerged unexpectedly in front of the Roman general; and a legend was born.
In writing a biography of Cleopatra, Schiff keeps coming up against that legend. She’s often frustrated by the lack of original Egyptian written sources – virtually all we know about Cleopatra comes from hostile Roman writers – but she draws on near-contemporary inscriptions and documents, sculpture, coins and estate records, as well as comparing the surviving secondary sources and sifting them for the likely truth. It’s quite an effort and Schiff has done her work well. Her notes at the back of the book run to forty pages; her selected bibliography to three. Specialist scholars may find points to dispute but, for non-specialists like myself, it feels solid and convincing. And, as I said earlier, Schiff’s writing is a joy. She tells the tale with the novelistic verve it deserves, yet without ever slipping into unjustified assumption. She’s won the Pulitzer Prize, after all. This is a writer who knows her craft backwards.
We’re shown a Cleopatra who is a wiser, smarter, more capable figure than the swooning queen of legend. In reality she was formidably intelligent, blessed with the most splendid education that could be had in Alexandria, the most scholarly city in the ancient world. She was fluent in multiple languages, including Egyptian (which was by no means a given: most of her fellow Ptolemies had stuck to Greek and worked through translators). She actively participated in her people’s religious rites, taking on the role of Isis and holding grand progresses up the Nile to the various temples and sacred sites. By the age of twenty, she was the leader of an army; a skilled diplomat; a resourceful and brilliant tactician. She was one of the most capable leaders of her age. The problem was that she had a brace of troublesome siblings, and an interfering empire over the Mediterranean.
And she was a woman. To some extent, this worked in her favour. The Romans might have been less willing to indulge a male ruler of Cleopatra’s talents; he might have been too dangerous. But a woman could – and should be controlled. Schiff makes a comment which, once said, seems obvious. We remember Cleopatra as the ultimate seductress. But we have a situation in which a young woman, in need of an ally, comes up against two powerful middle-aged men who are both inveterate seducers, having left a trail of client queens and senators’ wives in their wake. Who do we really think instigated the seductions? In an unpleasant echo of the modern ‘she was asking for it’, Cleopatra has gone down in history as the one who started it.
Schiff follows the successive distortions of her motives, from the spiteful ranting of Cicero (who may have considered himself personally slighted), to the more calculated demolition carried out by Octavian – who features here as a major antagonist, skulking in the shadows, quietly gathering the reins of power. It’s a fascinating study of the way that history is made – not from pure, unadulterated facts, but from rumour, personal agendas, self-aggrandisement and, always, the perspective of the victors. Cleopatra was a phenomenal human being. But Octavian could only allow her to be a conniving, scheming, sexually predatory woman. Thus his victory over Mark Antony became a moral, not merely political victory and Cleopatra was bequeathed to generations of poets and moralists as a debauched and tantalising creature of the East, less queen than siren. It was a masterpiece of character assassination.
Sweeping across the most fabulous and splendid vistas of the Roman world – from Alexandria to Ephesus to Rome itself – and studded with vivid reconstructions of the beliefs and customs of the age, this is a hugely rewarding book. Schiff does her best to excavate through the strata of centuries and to unearth the reality of Cleopatra’s world: her efforts reveal a figure just as dazzling as the legend has it, but in a slightly different way. Schiff’s Cleopatra is remarkable, not because she dripped with gold and lolled around in revealing clothes, but because she was a wise, gifted operator in a dangerous political climate. I doubt it will have much impact on the popular perception of Cleopatra, because – as the Roman polemicists knew – sex and extravagance sell much better than intelligence. But it’s a book that should absolutely be read if you have any interest in Rome, Egypt, historical women or simply damn good biographies.
It’s ironic that this particular book, whose central argument is the misogynist reduction of an intelligent woman to two-dimensional female stereotypes, should have been packaged with such a chick-lit style cover. Let’s hope, for all our sakes, that it’s updated with a cover showing a coin, or a statue, or whatever kind of design would have been used if this were a biography of a male ruler, written by a man.