The New York Times Book Review
Cleopatra: A Lifeby Stacy Schiff
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/b>… See more details below
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 andafter his murderthree 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.
The New York Times Book Review
The New York Times
The Washington Post
Her life spanned fewer than 40 years, but she was the last Egyptian pharaoh and one of the most influential women of the age. She married twice, each time to a brother; she poisoned one and waged a war against the other. To this day, the life of Cleopatra VII (69-30 B.C.) intrigues us. This adept biography by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff tells us why it should. The true story of the woman behind the myth.
"[Cleopatra] sizzles with passion, intrigue... Mixing contemporary sources, beautiful writing and psychological insight, Schiff makes us empathize with the heroine of this tale of togas, territorial conquest and hot love." (Deirdre Donahue, USA Today )
"Schiff rises to the challenge and creates an engaging biography by relentlessly stitching together the pieces of her subject's broader life and making connections between them...reveals through colorful details and clearly written prose." (Ralph Eubanks, NPR.org )
"Cleopatra is a fascinating woman and always has been. Stacy Schiff, who is a brilliant writer, has created a book that is so well-written that it's almost like a novel in its juicy literary flair...The city [of Alexandria] is evoked so brilliantly...Wonderful stuff." (Tina Brown )
"With a clear eye, great courage, and formidable erudition, Stacy Schiff has succeeded in removing...many misconceptions...and replacing them with the fascinating portrait of an altogether more substantial woman...Stacy Schiff has managed to create a masterpiece: both a hugely readable portrait of a fascinating, unscrupulous and powerful woman, and a brilliant explanation of the politics that lay behind her actions....she writes with verve, tongue-in-cheek humor, and elegance....she has brought to life Cleopatra." (Michael Korda)
"Schiff uses her amazing descriptive powers to make the infamous queen's story even juicier....Cleopatra fascinates."Redbook
"[Stacy Schiff's] book is a masterpiece of lightly-worn learning and scintillating deduction. It's thrillingly, brazenly written. It rises in a single movement above the whole sea of Cleopatra biographies and gives us in some ways an entirely new woman for a new century....[Schiff] is the liveliest of narrators, going over every detail not only with an array of sources at her fingertips...but with an alert eye for the real, human story lurking under the ancient narratives. She cheerfully relates the propaganda of the era, but she is not fooled by it. She knows that virtually every detail she's relating could be false or falsified, but she relates them with a knowing exuberance anyway, since they're all we have....Reading her for page after enormously fun page, we're ashamed at how often we've been lectured into forgetting that history is first and always a story of people. This is a book full of living, savage, thriving, laughing, dying people."Steve Donoghue, Open Letters Monthly
"Superb...Cleopatra led an epic life, and Schiff captures its sweep and scope in a vigorous narrative aimed at the general reader yet firmly anchored in modern scholarship. The author's greatest strengths remain the lucid intelligence and subtle analysis of personality...Schiff reanimates [Cleopatra] as a living, breathing woman: utterly extraordinary, to be sure, but recognizably human."Wendy Smith, Los Angeles Times
"In Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff is authoritative and confident...Schiff makes a convincing case against the traditional, male-chauvinist take on Cleopatra as a power-hungry seductress. It's a stance that puts her at odds with 2,000 years' worth of Cleopatra chronicles, and she's aware of it."Mary Pols, TIME Magazine
"With a clear eye, great courage, and formidable erudition, Stacy Schiff has succeeded in removing...many misconceptions...and replacing them with the fascinating portrait of an altogether more substantial woman...Stacy Schiff has managed to create a masterpiece: both a hugely readable portrait of a fascinating, unscrupulous and powerful woman, and a brilliant explanation of the politics that lay behind her actions....she writes with verve, tongue-in-cheek humor, and elegance....she has brought to life Cleopatra."Michael Korda, The Daily Beast
"[An] excellent, myth-busting biography....Schiff enters so completely into the time and place, especially the beauty and luxury of the 'great metropolis' of Alexandria, Cleopatra's capital, describing it in almost cinematic detail....No one will think of Cleopatra in quite the same way after reading this vivid, provocative book."Washington Examiner
"The most compelling biography of the year....Miss Schiff can really write....persuasive and entertaining."Liz Smith, Wowowow.com
"Exceptionally artful...Imaginative attunement with a subject, however, does not have to compromise a vigilant biographer's critical detachment, and Schiff's beautiful writing hums with that tension...ambitious...It is an edifice of speculation and conjecture--like every Cleopatra ever written. But unlike nearly all of them it is a work of literature."Judith Thurman, The New Yorker
"Cleopatra is a fascinating woman and always has been. Stacy Schiff, who is a brilliant writer, has created a book that is so well-written that it's almost like a novel in its juicy literary flair...The city [of Alexandria] is evoked so brilliantly...Wonderful stuff."Tina Brown, The Daily Beast
"Enthralling."Maureen Dowd, The New York Times
"Stacy Schiff has created a masterpiece and firmly cemented a new Cleopatra in our minds--one who had enough sex appeal to sleep with the two most powerful men in the world, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony....eminently readable."Stephen Sondheim, The Daily Beast
"One of the most highly praised nonfiction books of the autumn. Schiff deftly separates fact from legend, legend from poetry, and creates a model of methodology and compelling story. She re-creates a place and time in a praiseworthy leap from scholarship to narration."Alan Cheuse, NPR.com, "Best Books of Winter"
"Magnificent...Never in 30 years of reading biographies have I encountered so much limpid, authoritative and supremely elegant writing sustained so consistently. I drooled over nearly every sentence; to single out the juicy parts would be to recite the text entire. Schiff's command of her material is Olympian, her manner quietly dramatic, the sentences often building on each other like movements of a symphony....the best book of the year."Kevin Nance, Obit
"Schiff impressively recreates the myth of Cleopatra while deconstructing the legend and unveiling its sources -- a handwritten word, a few coins, sparse first-hand testimony, many second-third-fourth hand accounts, and plenty of gossip....Schiff efficiently and entertainingly debunks attempts by historians, poets, politicians, and playwrights (all male) throughout the ages to reduce Cleopatra to a nymphomaniac with a diadem....Stacy Schiff's eloquent, important book makes it eminently clear that the Cleopatra phenomenon throughout the ages has less to do with the Egyptian queen's extraordinary accomplishments as a ruler and politician, than to the pervasive and apparently eradicable male fear of powerful women."Jenny McPhee, Bookslut
"Vivid...Schiff offers and equally colorful history of Egypt, ca. 30 B.C....she reveals a Cleopatra we've not yet seen: a fierce, sensuous and complicated queen who ruled in a time and place as fascinating as she was."Meredith Maran, People
"For the past 2,000 years or so, history has painted a sexy, scheming veneer on the queen of Egypt known as Cleopatra, so discarding the propaganda is no easy task. But Stacy Schiff's new biography scrapes away the grime to reveal a smart political strategist, a first-rate military contractor, a proud mother and a witty conversationalist. It's a startling, invigorating look at a history that has mostly blamed Cleopatra for the fall of great Romans....The most pleasing sense of Schiff's biography is a fine sense of balance. She reminds us of the particulars of the ancient world we might have forgotten, but she also assumes we have some familiarity with world history and doesn't get bogged down in the basics.... She is authoritative while open to other interpretations. And she answers fun questions, like what happened to the wives of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony while the men were hanging out with Cleopatra.... Schiff's restoration reveals a finer portrait of the woman known as Cleopatra."Angie Drobnic Holan, St. Petersburg Times
"[Schiff] portrays Cleopatra as the ambitious and talented ruler she was and puts her affairs with Caesar and Mark Antony in their proper political context. The Romans, the early writers of Cleopatra's history, portrayed her as a lascivious power-grabbing hussy. But Schiff works hard and successfully to get beyond the anti-Cleopatra propaganda."Mary Ann Gwinn, The Seattle Times
"It's as though Cleopatra lives and breathes once again in the pages of Stacy Schiff's exquisitely researched and well-written Cleopatra: A Life. The book injects the Egyptian queen with a complexity and humanity that has long since been forgotten....[it] glows with details."Lisa Orkin Emmanuel, Associated Press
"Wraps up classical scholarship about the famed Queen of the Nile into an enthralling tale"\Dan Vergano, USA Today
"An extraordinary achievement in biography. [Schiff's] book explores themes of female ambition and power-issues that seem just as vexing now as they did 2,000 years ago....Along with tracing Cleopatra's rise to power, her loss of Caesar (by assassination) and Mark Antony (to suicide) and the epic story of her empire, this biography is filled with fascinating and amusing details of the era....Lacking any primary sources whatsoever, it is admirable that Schiff could create such a drama-filled and accessible narrative, especially one so rich in detail. It's true that Cleopatra's story has long been 'constructed as much of male fear as fantasy,' but with Cleopatra, Schiff has produced a compelling and authoritative correction in its place."Carmela Ciuraru, San Francisco Chronicle
"Engaging and meticulously researched."Susannah Cahalan, New York Post
"An engrossing and well-researched biography, full of delicious details."John McMurtrie, San Francisco Chronicle
"Stacy Schiff is that rare combination: a first-rate historian and a brilliant storyteller. Using a wide range of sources, she spins straw into gold, conjuring the world of Ptolemaic Egypt in full vibrant color, and returning the voice of one of the most powerful, fascinating, and maligned women in history. CLEOPATRA is impossible to put down."Rick Riordan, author of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series
"What makes [Cleopatra] so compelling is Schiff's masterful evocation of broader questions: the roles of women in Egyptian and Roman societies; the annual cycles of the Egyptian economy, so dependent on the Nile; and the famous and incomparable library of Alexandria, a bustling ancient city...riveting."Marc Vincent, The Cleveland Plain Dealer
"[A] magnificent re-creation of both an extraordinary woman, and her times...No previous image, visual or verbal, matches up to the inspiring, frightening, ruthless woman conjured by Schiff from an inspired combination of carefully parsed texts, new research, and pulse-quickening descriptive writing....Schiff uses a method that borrows much from the cinema. Zooming in on a dramatic event, she then pulls back to reveal the larger picture; the back story; the setting....Schiff proves brilliant at peeling away the layers of myth in which earlier storytellers shrouded the Egyptian queen."Miranda Seymour, The Guardian (UK)
"For the past 2,000 years or so, history has painted a sexy, scheming veneer on the queen of Egypt known as Cleopatra, so discarding the propaganda is no easy task. But Stacy Schiff's new biography scrapes away the grime to reveal a smart political strategist, a first-rate military contractor, a proud mother and a witty conversationalist. It's a startling, invigorating look at a history that has mostly blamed Cleopatra for the fall of great Romans....The most pleasing sense of Schiff's biography is a fine sense of balance. She reminds us of the particulars of the ancient world we might have forgotten, but she also assumes we have some familiarity with world history and doesn't get bogged down in the basics.... She is authoritative while open to other interpretations. And she answers fun questions, like what happened to the wives of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony while the men were hanging out with Cleopatra.... Schiff's restoration reveals a finer portrait of the woman known as Cleopatra."
A Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer presents a swift, sympathetic life of one of history's most maligned and legendary women.
New Yorker contributor Schiff (A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, 2005, etc.) acknowledges that our image of Cleopatra VII arrives through the distorted lenses of biased (male, Roman) history, romanticized and melodramatic stage productions and films and the distortion of time itself. Cleopatra, a suicide at 39—despite the legend of the asp bite, it was probably poison, writes the author—ruled for 22 years. During that time, she took into her bed some of the most powerful men in history (Julius Caesar, Mark Antony), maneuvered through a male world with intelligence, skill and sanguinary brutality, met and failed to charm Herod and bore children to both Caesar and Antony. Schiff reminds us that Cleopatra and her family were not related to the Egyptian pharaohs but descended from Ptolemy, a Macedonian general with Alexander the Great. She also reminds us that Caesar's Rome was not the Rome of later glories and depravities. The Coliseum did not yet stand, nor did the Pantheon or any number of other Roman architectural marvels. Born in 69 BCE, Cleopatra entered a family for whom the word internecine was surely invented—killing family members standing in the way was routine, and Cleopatra was not above it. The young girl was intellectually quick, savvy and willing to learn, and she soon made her first significant conquest: Caesar. She came to Rome to see him, causing uproar, for Rome was an empire that had a gender test for human rights (women need not apply). Schiff notes that Caesar's assassination was a political disaster for Cleopatra, but she quickly recovered, won Antony and enjoyed a number of amazingly powerful and profligate years before history and the forces of Octavian brought her down.
Successfully dissipating all the perfume, Schiff finds a remarkably complex woman—brutal and loving, dependent and independent, immensely strong but finally vulnerable.
- Little, Brown and Company
- Publication date:
- Sold by:
- Hachette Digital, Inc.
- NOOK Book
- Sales rank:
- File size:
- 2 MB
Read an Excerpt
By Schiff, Stacy
Little, Brown and CompanyCopyright © 2010 Schiff, Stacy All right reserved.
THAT EGYPTIAN WOMAN
“Man’s most valuable trait is a judicious sense of what not to believe.”
AMONG THE MOST famous women to have lived, Cleopatra VII ruled Egypt for twenty-two years. She lost a kingdom once, regained it, nearly lost it again, amassed an empire, lost it all. A goddess as a child, a queen at eighteen, a celebrity soon thereafter, she was an object of speculation and veneration, gossip and legend, even in her own time. At the height of her power she controlled virtually the entire eastern Mediterranean coast, the last great kingdom of any Egyptian ruler. For a fleeting moment she held the fate of the Western world in her hands. She had a child with a married man, three more with another. She died at thirty-nine, a generation before the birth of Christ. Catastrophe reliably cements a reputation, and Cleopatra’s end was sudden and sensational. She has lodged herself in our imaginations ever since. Many people have spoken for her, including the greatest playwrights and poets; we have been putting words in her mouth for two thousand years. In one of the busiest afterlives in history she has gone on to become an asteroid, a video game, a cliché, a cigarette, a slot machine, a strip club, a synonym for Elizabeth Taylor. Shakespeare attested to Cleopatra’s infinite variety. He had no idea.
If the name is indelible, the image is blurry. Cleopatra may be one of the most recognizable figures in history but we have little idea of what she actually looked like. Only her coin portraits—issued in her lifetime, and which she likely approved—can be accepted as authentic. We remember her too for the wrong reasons. A capable, clear-eyed sovereign, she knew how to build a fleet, suppress an insurrection, control a currency, alleviate a famine. An eminent Roman general vouched for her grasp of military affairs. Even at a time when women rulers were no rarity she stood out, the sole female of the ancient world to rule alone and to play a role in Western affairs. She was incomparably richer than anyone else in the Mediterranean. And she enjoyed greater prestige than any other woman of her age, as an excitable rival king was reminded when he called, during her stay at his court, for her assassination. (In light of her stature, it could not be done.) Cleopatra descended from a long line of murderers and faithfully upheld the family tradition but was, for her time and place, remarkably well behaved. She nonetheless survives as a wanton temptress, not the last time a genuinely powerful woman has been transmuted into a shamelessly seductive one.
Like all lives that lend themselves to poetry, Cleopatra’s was one of dislocations and disappointments. She grew up amid unsurpassed luxury, to inherit a kingdom in decline. For ten generations her family had styled themselves pharaohs. The Ptolemies were in fact Macedonian Greek, which makes Cleopatra approximately as Egyptian as Elizabeth Taylor. At eighteen Cleopatra and her ten-year-old brother assumed control of a country with a weighty past and a wobbly future. Thirteen hundred years separate Cleopatra from Nefertiti. The pyramids—to which Cleopatra almost certainly introduced Julius Caesar—already sported graffiti. The Sphinx had undergone a major restoration, a thousand years earlier. And the glory of the once great Ptolemaic Empire had dimmed. Cleopatra came of age in a world shadowed by Rome, which in the course of her childhood extended its rule to Egypt’s borders. When Cleopatra was eleven, Caesar reminded his officers that if they did not make war, if they did not obtain riches and rule others, they were not Romans. An Eastern sovereign who waged an epic battle of his own against Rome articulated what would become Cleopatra’s predicament differently: The Romans had the temperament of wolves. They hated the great kings. Everything they possessed they had plundered. They intended to seize all, and would “either destroy everything or perish in the attempt.” The implications for the last remaining wealthy country in Rome’s sphere of influence were clear. Egypt had distinguished itself for its nimble negotiating; for the most part, it retained its autonomy. It had also already embroiled itself in Roman affairs.
For a staggering sum of money, Cleopatra’s father had secured the official designation “friend and ally of the Roman people.” His daughter would discover that it was not sufficient to be a friend to that people and their Senate; it was essential to befriend the most powerful Roman of the day. That made for a bewildering assignment in the late Republic, wracked by civil wars. They flared up regularly throughout Cleopatra’s lifetime, pitting a succession of Roman commanders against one another in what was essentially a hot-tempered contest of personal ambition, twice unexpectedly decided on Egyptian soil. Each convulsion left the Mediterranean world shuddering, scrambling to correct its loyalties and redirect its tributes. Cleopatra’s father had thrown in his lot with Pompey the Great, the brilliant Roman general on whom good fortune seemed eternally to shine. He became the family patron. He also entered into a civil war against Julius Caesar just as, across the Mediterranean, Cleopatra ascended to the throne. In the summer of 48 BC Caesar dealt Pompey a crushing defeat in central Greece; Pompey fled to Egypt, to be stabbed and decapitated on an Egyptian beach. Cleopatra was twenty-one. She had no choice but to ingratiate herself with the new master of the Roman world. She did so differently from most other client kings, whose names, not incidentally, are forgotten today. For the next years she struggled to turn the implacable Roman tide to her advantage, changing patrons again after Caesar’s murder, ultimately to wind up with his protégé, Mark Antony. From a distance her reign amounts to a reprieve. Her story was essentially over before it began, although that is of course not the way she would have seen it. With her death Egypt became a Roman province. It would not recover its autonomy until the twentieth century.
Can anything good be said of a woman who slept with the two most powerful men of her time? Possibly, but not in an age when Rome controlled the narrative. Cleopatra stood at one of the most dangerous intersections in history: that of women and power. Clever women, Euripides had warned hundreds of years earlier, were dangerous. A Roman historian was perfectly happy to write off a Judaean queen as a mere figurehead and—six pages later—to condemn her for her reckless ambition, her indecent embrace of authority. A more disarming brand of power made itself felt as well. In a first-century BC marriage contract, a bride promised to be faithful and affectionate. She further vowed not to add love potions to her husband’s food or drink. We do not know if Cleopatra loved either Antony or Caesar, but we do know that she got each to do her bidding. From the Roman point of view she “enslaved” them both. Already it was a zero-sum game: a woman’s authority spelled a man’s deception. Asked how she had obtained her influence over Augustus, the first Roman emperor, his wife purportedly replied that she had done so “by being scrupulously chaste herself, doing gladly whatever pleased him, not meddling with any of his affairs, and, in particular, by pretending neither to hear of nor to notice the favorites that were the objects of his passion.” There is no reason to accept that formula at face value. On the other hand, Cleopatra was cut from very different cloth. In the course of a leisurely fishing trip, under a languid Alexandrian sun, she had no trouble suggesting that the most celebrated Roman general of the day tend to his responsibilities.
To a Roman, license and lawlessness were Greek preserves. Cleopatra was twice suspect, once for hailing from a culture known for its “natural talent for deception,” again for her Alexandrian address. A Roman could not pry apart the exotic and the erotic; Cleopatra was a stand-in for the occult, alchemical East, for her sinuous, sensuous land, as perverse and original as its astonishment of a river. Men who came in contact with her seem to have lost their heads, or at least to have rethought their agendas. She runs away even with Plutarch’s biography of Mark Antony. She works the same effect on a nineteenth-century historian, who describes her, on meeting Caesar, as “a loose girl of sixteen.” (She was rather an intensely focused woman of twenty-one.) The siren call of the East long predated Cleopatra, but no matter; she hailed from the intoxicating land of sex and excess. It is not difficult to understand why Caesar became history, Cleopatra a legend.
Our view is further obscured by the fact that the Romans who told Cleopatra’s story very nearly knew their ancient history too well. Repeatedly it seeps into their accounts. Like Mark Twain in the overwhelming, overstuffed Vatican, we sometimes prefer the copies to the original. So did the classical authors. They conflated accounts, refurbishing old tales. They saddled Cleopatra with the vices of other miscreants. History existed to be retold, with more panache but not necessarily greater accuracy. In the ancient texts the villains always wear a particularly vulgar purple, eat too much roasted peacock, douse themselves in rare unguents, melt down pearls. Whether you were a transgressive, power-hungry Egyptian queen or a ruthless pirate, you were known for the “odious extravagance” of your accessories. Iniquity and opulence went hand in hand; your world blazed purple and gold. Nor did it help that history bled into mythology, the human into the divine. Cleopatra’s was a world in which you could visit the relics of Orpheus’s lyre, or view the egg from which Helen of Troy had hatched. (It was in Sparta.)
History is written not only by posterity, but for posterity as well. Our most comprehensive sources never met Cleopatra. Plutarch was born seventy-six years after she died. (He was working at the same time as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.) Appian wrote at a remove of more than a century; Dio of well over two. Cleopatra’s story differs from most women’s stories in that the men who shaped it—for their own reasons—enlarged rather than erased her role. Her relationship with Mark Antony was the longest of her life, but her relationship with his rival, Augustus, was the most enduring. He would defeat Antony and Cleopatra. To Rome, to enhance the glory, he delivered up the tabloid version of an Egyptian queen, insatiable, treacherous, bloodthirsty, power-crazed. He magnified Cleopatra to hyperbolic proportions so as to do the same with his victory—and so as to smuggle his real enemy, his former brother-in-law, out of the picture. The end result is a nineteenth-century British life of Napoleon or a twentieth-century history of America, were it to have been written by Chairman Mao.
To the team of extraordinarily tendentious historians, add an extraordinarily spotty record. No papyri from Alexandria survive. Almost nothing of the ancient city survives aboveground. We have, perhaps and at most, one written word of Cleopatra’s. (In 33 BC either she or a scribe signed off on a royal decree with the Greek word ginesthoi, meaning, “Let it be done.”) Classical authors were indifferent to statistics and occasionally even to logic; their accounts contradict one another and themselves. Appian is careless with details, Josephus hopeless with chronology. Dio preferred rhetoric to exactitude. The lacunae are so regular as to seem deliberate; there is very nearly a conspiracy of silences. How is it possible that we do not have an authoritative bust of Cleopatra from an age of accomplished, realistic portraiture? Cicero’s letters of the first months of 44 BC—when Caesar and Cleopatra were together in Rome—were never published. The longest Greek history of the era glosses over the tumultuous period at hand. It is difficult to say what we miss most. Appian promises more of Caesar and Cleopatra in his four books of Egyptian history, which do not survive. Livy’s account breaks off a century before Cleopatra. We know the detailed work of her personal physician only from Plutarch’s references. Dellius’s chronicle has vanished, along with the raunchy letters Cleopatra was said to have written him. Even Lucan comes to an abrupt, infuriating halt partway through his epic poem, leaving Caesar trapped in Cleopatra’s palace at the outset of the Alexandrian War. And in the absence of facts, myth rushes in, the kudzu of history.
The holes in the record present one hazard, what we have constructed around them another. Affairs of state have fallen away, leaving us with affairs of the heart. A commanding woman versed in politics, diplomacy, and governance; fluent in nine languages; silver-tongued and charismatic, Cleopatra nonetheless seems the joint creation of Roman propagandists and Hollywood directors. She is left to put a vintage label on something we have always known existed: potent female sexuality. And her timing was lousy. Not only was her history written by her enemies, but it was her misfortune to have been on everyone’s minds just as Latin poetry came into its own. She survives literarily in a language hostile to her. The fictions have only proliferated. George Bernard Shaw lists among his sources for Caesar and Cleopatra his own imagination. Plenty of historians have deferred to Shakespeare, which is understandable but a little like taking George C. Scott’s word for Patton’s.
To restore Cleopatra is as much to salvage the few facts as to peel away the encrusted myth and the hoary propaganda. She was a Greek woman whose history fell to men whose futures lay with Rome, the majority of them officials of the empire. Their historical methods are opaque to us. They seldom named their sources. They relied to a great extent on memory. They are by modern standards polemicists, apologists, moralists, fabulists, recyclers, cut-and-pasters, hacks. For all its erudition, Cleopatra’s Egypt produced no fine historian. One can only read accordingly. The sources may be flawed, but they are the only sources we have. There is no universal agreement on most of the basic details of her life, no consensus on who her mother was, how long Cleopatra lived in Rome, how often she was pregnant, whether she and Antony married, what transpired at the battle that sealed her fate, how she died. I have tried here to bear in mind who was a former librarian and who a Page Sixer, who had actually set eyes on Egypt, who despised the place and who was born there, who had a problem with women, who wrote with the zeal of a Roman convert, who meant to settle a score, please his emperor, perfect his hexameter. (I have relied little on Lucan. He was early on the scene, before Plutarch, Appian, or Dio. He was also a poet, and a sensationalist.) Even when they are neither tendentious nor tangled, the accounts are often overblown. As has been noted, there were no plain, unvarnished stories in antiquity. The point was to dazzle. I have not attempted to fill in the blanks, though on occasion I have corralled the possibilities. What looks merely probable remains here merely probable—though opinions differ radically even on the probabilities. The irreconcilable remains unreconciled. Mostly I have restored context. Indeed Cleopatra murdered her siblings, but Herod murdered his children. (He afterward wailed that he was “the most unfortunate of fathers.”) And as Plutarch reminds us, such behavior was axiomatic among sovereigns. Cleopatra was not necessarily beautiful, but her wealth—and her palace—left a Roman gasping. All read very differently on one side of the Mediterranean from the other. The last decades of research on women in antiquity and on Hellenistic Egypt substantially illuminate the picture. I have tried to pluck the gauze of melodrama from the final scenes of the life, which reduce even sober chroniclers to soap opera. Sometimes high drama prevails for a reason, however. Cleopatra’s was an era of outsize, intriguing personalities. At its end the greatest actors of the age exit abruptly. A world comes crashing down after them.
WHILE THERE IS a great deal we do not know about Cleopatra, there is a great deal she did not know either. She knew neither that she was living in the first century BC nor in the Hellenistic Age, both of them later constructs. (The Hellenistic Age begins with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and ends in 30 BC, with the death of Cleopatra. It has been perhaps best defined as a Greek era in which the Greeks played no role.) She did not know she was Cleopatra VII for several reasons, one of which is that she was actually the sixth Cleopatra. She never knew anyone named Octavian. The man who vanquished and deposed her, prompted her suicide, and largely packaged her for posterity was born Gaius Octavius. By the time he entered Cleopatra’s life in a meaningful way he called himself Gaius Julius Caesar, after his illustrious great-uncle, her lover, who adopted him in his will. We know him today as Augustus, a title he assumed only three years after Cleopatra’s death. He appears here as Octavian, two Caesars remaining, as ever, one too many.
Most place names have changed since antiquity. I have followed Lionel Casson’s sensible lead in opting for familiarity over consistency. Hence Berytus is here Beirut, while Pelusium—which no longer exists, but would today be just east of Port Said, at the entrance to the Suez Canal—remains Pelusium. Similarly I have opted for English spellings over transliterations. Caesar’s rival appears as Pompey rather than Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, Caesar’s deputy as Mark Antony rather than Marcus Antonius. In many respects geography has changed, shorelines have sunk, marshes dried, hills crumbled. Alexandria is flatter today than it was in Cleopatra’s lifetime. It is oblivious to its ancient street plan; it no longer gleams white. The Nile is nearly two miles farther east. The dust, the sultry sea air, Alexandria’s melting purple sunsets, are unchanged. Human nature remains remarkably consistent, the physics of history immutable. Firsthand accounts continue to diverge wildly. For well over two thousand years, a myth has been able to outrun and outlive a fact. Except where noted, all dates are BC.
Excerpted from Cleopatra by Schiff, Stacy Copyright © 2010 by Schiff, Stacy. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are saying about this
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >