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.

"Cleopatra" by Stacy Schiff.

Who is the most famous woman of the Greco-Roman world? No contest: Cleopatra. In fact, you may have to think a bit to come up with someone for second and third place (Sappho? Pericles' mistress Aspasia?). Queen of an ancient, exotic, immensely wealthy land, twice married to her much younger brothers, mistress of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, flamboyant flinger-about of royal treasure, international power player, glamorous suicide, Cleopatra has been poeticized, dramatized, painted, and prosed about countless times.

And yet, as Stacy Schiff shows in Cleopatra, a lushly written, highly entertaining biography, almost everything people think they know about her is wrong. She wasn't Egyptian, she was Greek—the last ruler in the dynasty established by Alexander the Great's general Ptolemy in 305 B.C.—and she lived in Alexandria, a Greek city. She may not have been especially beautiful. A coin with her face shows a beaky-nosed, sharp-chinned woman with a rather cranky expression; if she took after her ancestors, she may even have been—wait for it—fat. A sexpot? She slept with only two men in her life. It is most unlikely that she killed herself with the bite of an asp hidden in a basket of figs. Did I mention that she had four children? No wonder she was worshipped as a goddess.

In separating the woman from the myth, Schiff has her work cut out for her. The historical record is remarkably thin: Not a lot of documentary evidence has survived from the Egypt of her day. Of her own writing only one word remains: the Greek for "let it be done," appended to a tax-related decree. We know her mostly through Roman or Roman-influenced sources: Plutarch, Dio, Sallust, Suetonius, and others. All these men wrote many years after her death and were eager to burnish the greatness and glory of Rome in general and that of her enemy and conqueror Octavian, later Augustus, in particular. They were also huge misogynists, for whom the combination of women and power meant everything wicked and unnatural. In a trope Edward Said would find sadly familiar, Cleopatra represented the exotic, erotic, effeminate East ensnaring moral, manly Rome. Womanizing was one thing—both Caesar and Antony were prodigious adulterers—but that the two greatest warriors of the day were so captivated by a woman and a foreigner was deeply unsettling. It must have been through magic or drugs—Egyptian specialties both.

Schiff's Cleopatra is tough, daring, and smart. She was a great conversationalist and well-educated. According to Plutarch, she spoke at least eight languages (really? I suspect a bit of royal image-making here), including Egyptian, which, remarkably, she was the first Ptolemy in almost 300 years to bother to learn. She ruled Egypt well, despite the fact that a staggering 50 percent of its GDP went as taxes into her own personal account; she had her relatives murdered (a family tradition) only when necessary.

Above all, she was a survivor. When a palace coup by her first brother/husband triggered a Roman invasion and sent her packing to the Syrian desert, she had herself smuggled back into the palace, now occupied by Caesar, in a sack (not a carpet, as legend had it). Whether their affair was driven by politics or passion (or both), she was soon paying a long visit to Rome. There Caesar installed her in a villa across town from the one in which he lived with his wife and put up a life-size golden statue of her in the temple of Venus. Cleopatra had a baby son, whom she daringly named Caesarion, or little Caesar, and whom Caesar acknowledged as his own. To the Romans, who allowed little independence to women, this was all very shocking and thrilling. Roman ladies eagerly copied her pretty "melon" hairdo of tiny braids gathered into a loose bun.

Cleopatra's liaison with Mark Antony, whatever it may have done for Shakespeare, was her big mistake. A wise ruler should have striven to stay out of Rome's ferocious civil wars, not jumped in with both feet as Cleopatra did, and in any case I will never understand the appeal of this drunken, boastful character, always going on about his descent from Hercules. Besotted, Antony divorced his wife, Octavian's virtuous and beautiful older sister, Octavia, abandoned his children by her, and, in an ostentatious public ceremony known as the Donations of Alexandria, publicly promised Roman provinces and client states as kingdoms to the three small children he had fathered with Cleopatra. Their downward spiral had an undeniably campy quality, with much confusing military maneuvering, all-night revelry, and hysteria. As Octavian closed in after winning the Battle of Actium, Antony botched his suicide and ended up being ignobly hauled up half-dead into Cleopatra's chamber by a jerrybuilt contraption of ropes. Cleopatra made a more dignified exit, having prepared for immortality by testing poisons on prisoners.

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.

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.

Like Slate on  Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter.

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