Cleopatra: A Life

Cleopatra: A Life

by Stacy Schiff
Cleopatra: A Life

Cleopatra: A Life

by Stacy Schiff


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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 and — after his murder — three 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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780316001946
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Publication date: 09/06/2011
Pages: 432
Sales rank: 91,254
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.26(h) x 1.20(d)
Lexile: 1070L (what's this?)

About the Author

About The Author
Stacy Schiff is the author of Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), winner of the Pulitzer Prize; Saint-Exupéry, a Pulitzer Prize finalist; A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, winner of the George Washington Book Prize and the Ambassador Book Award; Cleopatra: A Life, winner of the PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for biography; and The Witches: Salem, 1692.

Schiff has received fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and named a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres by the French Government, she lives in New York City.


New York, New York

Date of Birth:

October 26, 1961

Place of Birth:

Adams, Massachusetts


B.A., Williams College, 1982

Read an Excerpt


A Life
By Schiff, Stacy

Little, Brown and Company

Copyright © 2010 Schiff, Stacy All right reserved.
ISBN: 9780316001922



“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.
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What People are Saying About This

Simon Winchester

"This is an astonishing, scrupulously researched, meticulously assembled retelling of one of the world's most famous lives--and it will become a classic." (Simon Winchester, author of The Man Who Loved China )

David McCullough

Superb, spirited, enthralling. For anyone who enjoys a fascinating life-story well told, this is a book not to be missed.

Kitty Kelley

Stacy Schiff, a Pulitzer Prize winner, sets the gold standard for all biographers, and her latest, Cleopatra, is a feast—a mouth-watering feast. (Kitty Kelley, author of Oprah: A Biography)

Tracy Kidder

Cleopatra is buried under centuries of lies, and Stacy Schiff calls on her considerable powers to bring her back to life for us. With wit, clarity, and grace, Schiff has done what only the best writers can do: she has made the world new, again. (Tracy Kidder, author of Strength in What Remains)

Anita Shreve

Schiff's sentences are magnificent, deceptively complex, full of insight and fact and distance and wry humor, so that every page is a kind of mini feast.

Evan Thomas

Great historians can make the discovery of the real story more exciting than the romantic myth. Stacy Schiff, a great historian as well as a wonderful writer, peels away the layers to reveal the true Cleopatra—a much more interesting woman than the Hollywood version, and, as it turns out, a formidable queen after all. (Evan Thomas, author of The War Lovers)

Jon Meacham

An epic subject requires a writer of epic skill and scope, and we have a perfect pairing in Cleopatra and Stacy Schiff. Absorbing and illuminating, this new biography will endure. (Jon Meacham, author of American Lion)

Ron Chernow

Stacy Schiff's luminous prose evokes the ancient world with vivid splendor, whether it be the cosmopolitan charms of Alexandria or the murderous feuds of Rome. Her portraits of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony are fresh and provocative. Best of all, Cleopatra emerges as much more than the voluptuous seductress of legend and comes across as a shrewd, cunning, and highly competent monarch who knew how to thrive in a Mediterranean world of savage politics. (Ron Chernow, author of Alexander Hamilton and Washington: A Life)

Azar Nafisi

What dazzles us in Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra are not the alluring mythologies about the evasive queen, but the astonishing if rare historical facts that Schiff has meticulously and lovingly excavated, linking one to the other like precious pieces of an ancient artifact. Cleopatra becomes 'real' as do the major (and minor) characters at her side. In language that is filled with insights and yet is seductive, lithe, and eloquent, Schiff offers not just Cleopatra's story but the story of an amazing era, one that has vanished but still affects us, questioning the way we look at myth, history and ourselves. (Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran and Things I've Been Silent About)

Joseph J. Ellis

It is a beautiful pairing—the most alluring and elusive woman in recorded history, and one of the most gifted biographers of our time. Style, like leadership, is difficult to define, but we know it when we see it. We see it here on every page. (Joseph J. Ellis, author of Founding Brothers and First Family: Abigail and John)

Amanda Foreman

What a brilliant book. Stacy Schiff has written a masterpiece.


A conversation with James Mustich, Editor-in-Chief of The Barnes & Noble Review

"No one sits on the stoop when she's a kid and thinks, 'I want to be a biographer when I grow up,'" Stacy Schiff told me when we met over breakfast on the upper East Side of Manhattan a few weeks ago to discuss her newest book, Cleopatra: A Life. Schiff was drawn to the vocation herself by her interest in Antoine Saint-Exupéry, an attraction which exerted such a strong pull that she ultimately left her career as an editor at Simon & Schuster to compose her first book, a life of the French aviation pioneer and the author of such classics as The Little Prince and Wind, Sand, and Stars.

Schiff followed the success of Saint-Exupéry with Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Biography in 2000, and A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, winner of the George Washington Book Prize. Despite their disparate subjects, Schiff's books share a literary character and integrity -- in addition to their meticulous scholarship -- that make them both rewarding and a pleasure to read. Cleopatra is no exception, and our discussion of its composition and its contents proved to be animated, stimulating, and enlivened with her palpable fascination with the life and legend of her latest protagonist. What follows in an edited transcript of our conversation.            -- James Mustich

James Mustich: It's been five years since your book about Benjamin Franklin, A Great Improvisation, came out. Have you been working on Cleopatra all that time?

Stacy Schiff: For the most part, if you don't count carting kids to hockey practice. This idea had been on my mind for a long time. I spent most of the summer after the Franklin book trying to talk myself out of it, toying with more traditional and more contemporary subjects. But I kept circling back to Cleopatra, who had been an obsession even before Franklin. She's the most compelling of subjects, and her story is without equal. I just couldn't figure out how to write about her: was it possible to construct a straight biography given the holes in the story and the tendentious sources?

JM: It's a different kind of subject for you. Your first two books, Saint-Exupéry and Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov), were pretty firmly set in the twentieth century, and, given their literary pedigree, provided you with plenty of documents to work with.

SS: And they were legible documents too. [LAUGHING] Not moldy, and not in code, unlike the Ben Franklin material.

JM: But I imagine that even for Franklin there must have been a plethora of documents.

SS: Well, let me suggest something, and not entirely in jest. Insofar as there is an anxiety of influence for a biographer, it may be that each new book is undertaken in reaction to the previous book. There is an overload in the archives on Franklin. The French materials for Franklin's life are about two-and-a-half times as great as those for the rest of his life put together, and that's not counting the spy reports -- the French spy reports and on top of them the British spy reports -- or the voluminous records of the French foreign ministry. Even with all that, however, you still come away with basic questions unanswered. I think there was something about that, consciously or not, that made me wonder, "How about a book where the sources are scant? What would the difference be?" Sometimes, too many accounts spoil the truth. So there may have been a certain intentional wading away from another vast swamp of documentation.

JM: How do you embark on something like this? Once you decided to write about Cleopatra, did you do some preliminary scouting of the landscape to see what sources would be available and useful to you?

SS: I checked to see if there'd been a really good book published in the last few decades. Then I started with what Cleopatra would have read, asking myself, "What can we know about her education?" It turns out to be a very great deal, and bizarrely, no one had written about that before. It may seem an esoteric topic, but it tell us how she would have thought, the questions with which she would have conjured, what the themes of the day would have been. The fact that she could quote Homer, and that she knew her Euripides and her Aeschylus every bit as well as did Julius Caesar already tells you a great deal about her.

JM: The section on her education in the book is fascinating.

SS: I'm glad. I had so much fun writing that, based on some new and excellent Hellenistic scholarship.

JM: For some reason, even though people know she was a contemporary of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, there's something about her story -- I guess it's just the Egyptian setting -- that leads you to imagine Cleopatra much further back in history. But actually, as you explain, she wasn't Egyptian; she was Greek, and had an education shaped by the same cultural ethos that shaped Caesar.

SS: Exactly. In the version most of us have in our heads, they're opposites, exotics to each other. But the truth of the matter is that they were essentially graduates of the same elite institution. They could quote the same poetry; they had read the same books and pondered the same questions. They just happen to be meeting for the first time.

JM: Talk a bit about what the curriculum was. Homer was a big part of it.

SS: Homer was the keystone. Basically, the steady diet was Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and with them a vast training in rhetoric -- how to speak, how to present yourself, how to express yourself properly. It was a speechifying culture. Which, especially if you're being groomed for the throne, is something you would have taken seriously.

JM: And Cleopatra knew eight languages?

SS: Nine if you include Greek. We don't know if or how well she spoke Latin, however. My guess is that she would have spoken it well, but with an accent of some kind. But that's sheer speculation.

JM: Surprisingly, she was the first Egyptian monarch in some time who actually knew Egyptian. Right? She made a point of learning it.

SS: Plutarch credits her with being the first Ptolemy to have bothered to learn the language of the people over whom she ruled. Who knows why? Maybe her father suggested it, or maybe she was particularly gifted for languages, as Plutarch asserts. But whatever the reason, it came in handy, because she had to hire troops and to maintain peace in a country that was very restive at the time; it would have been an enormous advantage to be able to speak Egyptian. As we know, it makes a strong impression when our leaders reach out to us, and on our terms.

There's another thing I should have mentioned when you asked me about scouting the landscape, as you put it. I once interviewed David Herbert Donald, the Lincoln historian, and we talked about how one deals with the secondary sources and the previous biographies. He said something which kept coming back to me as I worked on Cleopatra, which was: "There's no further new material; there are only new questions." There is a huge amount of new scholarship on, for example, Hellenistic education, and on women in the Hellenistic world, but little primary material is likely to emerge. Cleopatra's diary isn't going to suddenly show up in the Alexandrian harbor. [LAUGHS] But I did, however, have new questions. The first was how she conveyed herself from her desert exile back to the Alexandrian palace to meet Caesar, a question that stumped a few of the scholars I consulted.

JM: If you could have had a primary source for one incident or conversation, what would it have been?

SS: As you know, she was in Rome when Caesar was murdered. Those two facts are so tantalizing. We don't really know all the reasons behind Caesar's murder. We know he's comporting himself like an autocrat, and paying little attention to the political climate. Honors are being heaped on him as if he's some kind of deity, which rubs the good republicans in Rome the wrong way. But does the fact that he has the Egyptian Queen living across town, with his child, in his villa, have any bearing on what happens? There the silence speaks volumes; none of Caesar's admirers had any reason to write Cleopatra into his life. And after his death, he is deified. No place for an Egyptian queen in that story.

So my answer to your question would be: she is up in his villa, he's murdered mid-day. Someone has to hustle there very quickly to deliver the news. She and Egypt have banked on this man; everything is riding on him. What's her reaction? It's so frustrating not to have any sense of what that moment might have been like.

She would have been in danger at that point. And she knows she will have to start again from scratch. She has no idea what's going to happen. The desperation must have been pretty great. She's a woman who doesn't usually lose her cool. How did she react?

JM: In your other three books, you clearly have a sense of your subjects' voices, which you share with the reader through their letters and the like. There's a literary record in each case, allied to the reader's knowledge, at least in the case of Saint-Exupéry and Franklin, of these people outside your pages, so they are present in a way Cleopatra cannot be. With Cleopatra, you have a protagonist from whom only one word has come down to us, an approval of a royal decree: Ginestho, meaning "Let it be done."

SS: If that. I'm pretty skeptical about it.

JM: Did this make you approach the composition differently? Because you have voices entwined in the narratives of the other books that you don't have here.

SS: That's a really good question. Someone asked me recently, "When did you know the book could be written?" The answer to that is, "When I finished writing it." [LAUGHS] Seriously. After I'd written a chapter, I thought, "OK, maybe," but only when I finished the entire manuscript was I certain. Or at least as certain as I ever get. But what made me realize it could be written were the few lines of dialogue in Plutarch, and then only after I'd gone back to Plutarch two or three times did I really see them. It's a sultry Alexandrian afternoon: Cleopatra and Mark Antony are out fishing with their friends. To retaliate for a prank he has pulled on her, Cleopatra tricks Antony by attaching a salted herring on his line. This he delivers up to laughter all around. Then she delivers this wifely speech: "But darling, you shouldn't be fishing; you should be out conquering kingdoms." There was something in the voice that rang so true to me, a little like, "You shouldn't be golfing; you should be with the kids." I thought, "But really, we have two-thousand-year-old dialogue!" Suddenly I felt you could set a scene. You actually had a sense of Cleopatra's coyness and her sauciness and her wit. Even from those very, very few lines, I thought you could begin to glimpse a personality.

Otherwise, the answer is: I feel as if this one required more work from the biographer, much more of the biographer's voice. When the subject is inert, or coy, or for that matter missing from her own life, the biographer engages in a lot more legwork. I had a similar problem with Véra, where I had to spiral around an unwilling subject to animate he and coax her out. With Cleopatra obviously it was worse; you can't get very close. The result is that there is more of my voice in this book, which is not a coincidence, as I was in the first place looking to write something looser, more essayistic, than I had previously.

JM: Were there moments when you attempted to speculate or invent a scene?

SS: No.

JM: You couldn't even rely on geography.

SS: Tell me about it.

JM: Alexandria has changed a great deal since Cleopatra's day, hasn't it?

SS: Right. The Nile is in the wrong place.

JM: The Nile moved?

SS: The culture is different, the religion is different, and yes, even the Nile has moved. It's nearly two miles further east. Alexandria is flatter today; Cleopatra's palace, museum, library have all disappeared. The sky is the same. I went to Alexandria for two weeks, and as I sat there I thought: the weather is the same, the tides are the same, the sunsets are the same, and the color is the same. After that, all bets are off.

The one time I felt that this wasn't true was when I went out to where Cleopatra would have been camped in the desert, in exile on account of her war with her brother, at the moment with which the biography opens. Today that spot is just east of the Suez Canal. Now, the coast isn't in the same place as it was, and the fortress is in ruins (although it's being excavated -- it's actually quite astonishing), but you can get a real sense what it would have been like in the first century B.C. Also, parts of the coast of Turkey remain undeveloped today and look precisely as they would have 2,000 years ago. Otherwise you're on your own. Fortunately, many of the visitors to Alexandria in and around Cleopatra's time wrote about it in fabulous detail.

JM: There's one section in which you describe quite vividly the rambunctiousness of the ancient populace -- the volatility with which the city reacted to its leaders' actions or failures to act.

SS: That's entirely from the ancient sources. The problem, obviously, is that almost every one is inimical to Egypt or to the East or to Cleopatra. So when someone writes, a century later, "Oh, those incredibly lawless Egyptians," you have to remember that he's a Roman officer and is by definition going to say as much. But even Alexandrian natives and others from the Greek world talked about Alexandria as people now talk about New York: a city where you got your wallet stolen at the corner of 57th and 5th, and where everyone is always talking loudly and at once. It's precisely the way John Adams described New Yorkers in the eighteenth century. [LAUGHS]

The accounts of Alexandria are perfectly consistent. Also, they make palpable the physical details of that world. So even though we see none of it today -- there's a little bit of Roman Alexandria left, but almost nothing of Greek Alexandria -- the accounts are so vivid and sumptuous that it was easy to reconstruct a city from them.

JM: "Caesar became history," you write at one point. "Cleopatra became legend." That seems to me to provide the split seed from which the narrative grows; it's a narrative line in which the main trunk of events is entwined with vines of sexuality and exoticism. What an interesting historical moment, when the famously matter-of-fact Roman world meets another, which, if Cleopatra is any guide, was just as pragmatic, but has never been seen as such.

SS: Right.

JM: Perhaps it's because the shadow of the pyramids falls over anything we think about Egypt; whatever takes place in the shadow of those mysterious monuments is exotic to us. And the sexual dimension of Caesar and Antony's experience in Egypt certainly mystifies any simple idea of conquest. One of the things that's compelling about the book is the way you reveal Cleopatra to be their equal as a leader and a strategist; she may have been doyenne of romance, but she was certainly a master of realpolitik.

SS: Yes. Interesting that she happened to fall in with the two most powerful Romans of the day, no? Quite a coincidence. [LAUGHS]

Much of what I hoped to thread through the book, in a way that wouldn't interrupt the narrative if at all possible, was the idea that history comes down to us as propaganda and hearsay. The sources should always be read in that light. How history gets written is as important as what it tells us. In this case, three things unnerved the Romans: the occult, alien East; its perceived femininity, and with that a female sovereign; and Egypt's mind-boggling wealth. No Roman ever set eyes on the palace of Alexandria without finding he was without the vocabulary to describe it; it made for an extraordinary contrast with first century B.C. Rome, primitive by comparison. Cleopatra's personal allure aside, her rich and opulent country, her fortune, were in themselves rather compelling. Compelling and jealous-making, I should say.

JM: And anxiety-producing. There's a wonderful line towards the end of the book: "She made Rome feel uncouth, insecure, and poor, sufficient case for anxiety without adding sexuality to the mix." The conquering Caesars may have been on the road to becoming Gods, but she was a God.

SS: She was there already. And worse, she was a woman.

JM: Confronted with her wealth and her stature and her sophistication, the Romans didn't know how to behave. They were uncomfortable on her terrain.

SS: I was just writing a piece in which I was drawing a parallel between how the Romans felt about Cleopatra's retinue and how we feel today in Paris or London, when that convoy of Maybachs with the security detail descend on our neighborhood café. That's the impression that Cleopatra would have made.

Everything in Egypt belonged to her. Nothing left that country without enriching her coffers. Her corn supply is to some extent the ancient version of the Middle Eastern oil supply today. Rome stood to an uncomfortable extent at her mercy.

JM: You don't say it quite like this, but you imply that the era designated as B.C. could as easily be called "Before Cleopatra" as "Before Christ." I think you say you could date the modern world from the death of Cleopatra.

SS: There's a punctuation point there, yes. What's funny is that everything for which she is held up as a bad example -- she's a decadent woman who spends heedlessly and kills off relatives, who holds court in an opulent world of impure morals -- all of this, of course, becomes true of the Roman Empire itself within a minute-and-a-half of her death. The fact that the Roman Republic, in its pious, pure state, pretty much ends with Augustus, which is to say with the death of Cleopatra, is telling. She leaves quite an impression on Rome after her suicide.

It seems to me that this was the first real grappling of East and West, one with which we still conjure today. Here we are two thousand years later, and the geography has changed, the division of East and West has changed, religion has clouded the picture, but the issues remain constant. There's something still very sexualized and dissolute and primitive to our minds when we look East, while we consider ourselves forward-thinking paragons of rectitude.

JM: Also, the Romans, as we do, had a hard time imagining sophistication elsewhere.

SS: Precisely.

JM: One of my favorite passages in the book is your description of the preparations for a sea battle, during which the Egyptians built a fleet bigger than Rome's in two weeks. Out of spare parts, more or less.

SS: To a Roman, ingenuity was a Roman specialty. It bothered him that Alexandria was such an advanced civilization, and that Rome was a backwater in comparison. That, too, will change within a minute, and that shift fascinated me. How could life have been so incredibly sophisticated in the first century B.C. in Egypt, and then how could we have lost so much of that culture for so many hundreds of years? Similarly, how could it take two thousand years for women to become independent members of society again, as they were to a great extent in Cleopatra's day? And could we go backward again?

JM: We have a hard time thinking of the Roman Empire as doing anything other than bestriding the ancient world with confidence. But as you say, they were encountering a civilization more sophisticated, more splendid, and older than theirs. So they were kind of the innocents abroad, if you will.

SS: Well [LAUGHING], that's why Mark Twain creeps into the book a couple of times. The reaction to Cleopatra's world was akin to that of an American going abroad in Twain's time, and trying to decide, "Is this barbarism or is this decadence?" They couldn't imagine any other option, because they were so discomfited by what they were looking at.

That's one of the reasons I had so much fun with Cicero. He never has a good thing to say about anyone. He has problems with women. He can't stand anyone who has a better library than he does. And he has a deep aversion to wealth and to royalty. He resists an appointment to Egypt because he thinks posterity might think less of him for taking it. So you can guess how he would have felt about Cleopatra. It's very easy to see how he would fail to take to this woman, no matter what she did to him. Cicero came as a relief, too, because with him I finally had a voice, and an immensely quotable one.

JM: Much of Cicero's considerable interest, and not just in the case of Cleopatra, is the way his unparalleled eloquence is transporting, and yet, ultimately, no match for the blunter truths of his contemporaries.

SS: Insofar as I have a weakness for discontents, I love him. It's just great how he always delivers that little twist of the knife.

JM: I do, too. What's next for you? Have you decided what you...

SS: Do you have an idea for me?

JM: [LAUGHING] I wish I did.

SS: I don't know. I'm very bad at predicting. After I finished my first book, I told myself that the second subject would have had to speak a Romance language, have as fine a sense of humor as did Saint-Exupéry, and have left great letters. Those were the three criteria, none of which applied to Mrs. Nabokov, about whom I wrote next. She had a limited sense of humor, her letters to her husband have never turned up, and she did not lead her life in a Romance language. So I wouldn't put any faith in any prediction I make now. Well, I would venture one prediction: give me a massive archive, please. Legible, typewritten, and mold-free. And preferably within 100 miles of my front door.

JM: What do you find compelling about biography? What draws you to it?

SS: Well, it has been called gossip with footnotes for a reason. I like to read my history through the lens of a personality. I don't think I'm alone in that. To be able somehow to view historical events through their impact on and through the eyes of an individual thrills me. Then, of course, there is always a beginning, a middle, and an end in biography. And there's a particular gratification to the genre: ultimately you get to kill off your subject. [LAUGHS]

As a biographer, you see things that the subject never saw. Nabokov writes to his mistress using the same words that he'd used fourteen years earlier to write to his future wife. I'm sure he never realized that. But I know that. Being able to locate the thematic consistencies throughout the life, to illuminate motivations and explain decisions as the person living the life could never have done, delights. It's a marvelous intellectual puzzle, if one you by definition can't solve for yourself.

--October 18, 2010

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