Stacy Schiff can't help adding to myth in Cleopatra: A Life.

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 18 2010 10:19 AM

Cleopatra With Brains

Stacy Schiff can't help adding to the myths in her new biography.

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It's little things like this that make it hard to relate to the ancients "as people." One minute they seem just like us—Antony is a middle-aged fratboy, Cleopatra is a multi-tasking diva. The next they're murdering some poor devil while a slave peels them a grape. It's easier to get a handle on Cleopatra's world than on the woman herself, and Schiff evokes her Alexandria in all of its gorgeous, multicultural splendor:

During the day Alexandria echoed with the sounds of horses' hooves, the cries of porridge sellers or chickpea vendors, street performers, soothsayers, moneylenders. Its spice stands released exotic aromas, carried through the streets by a thick, salty sea breeze. Long-legged white and black ibises assembled at every intersection, foraging for crumbs. … Altogether it was a mood-altering city of extreme sensuality and high intellectualism, the Paris of the ancient world: superior in its ways, splendid in its luxuries, the place to go to spend your fortune, write your poetry, find (or forget) a romance, restore your health, reinvent yourself, or regroup after having conquered vast swaths of Italy, Spain, and Greece over the course of a Herculean decade.

How important was Cleopatra in history? Not very, according to the classical historian Adrian Goldsworthy, whose new book, Antony and Cleopatra, resists proto-feminist revisionism and argues for Antony as the more important figure. (Rather unfairly, Goldsworthy's book has been overshadowed by Schiff's, but it's quite fascinating, and I enjoyed its clear and straightforward narration of often murky political and military doings.) Cleopatra may have been the last independent ruler of Egypt until modern times, but Hellenistic Egypt was already a kingdom—and a civilization—in decline and a Roman client state in all but name. It was a Roman army, after all, that restored her father to the throne after he'd been ousted in a rebellion. Much of her political strategy was aimed at keeping Rome from simply annexing Egypt outright, and in that she failed, although for a few years she controlled an enormous swath of the Mediterranean. If she had sided with Octavian, we might be celebrating her as the miraculous preserver of Hellenistic culture. As it is, it's hard to say what kind of lasting mark Cleopatra made on her world.

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Myth and legend, however, are something else again. There, Cleopatra has reigned supreme as dangerous queen and love goddess for 2,000 years. Hard as Schiff works to clear away myths (romantic, misogynist, or both), what lies beneath them—the dense web of disturbing feelings evoked by powerful women—is too strong to be banished by a different interpretation of the same patchy historical record. Schiff doesn't so much dismantle the archetype as add another layer. Asp or no asp, carpet or no carpet, her Cleopatra is still a sexy Oriental temptress—only now she also has brains, courage, and a fine grasp of the Egyptian tax code. Some myths are indestructible, and the proof is that Sony will be turning Schiff's book into a biopic starring Angelina Jolie. I doubt she'll be wearing a beaky nose or a sharp chin.

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Katha Pollitt is the author most recently of The Mind-Body Problem, a collection of poems.

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