Book Review: Cleopatra, A Life

“Can anything good be said of a woman who slept with the two most powerful men of her time?” asks Stacy Schiff in the introduction to Cleopatra: A Life, the biography that has topped book-of-the-year and bestseller lists since its publication in September. Unlike most of Cleopatra’s myriad biographers, Stacy Schiff is female – and one of the very few to see Cleopatra as not merely a woman, but wholly a woman. It’s impossible to talk frankly about Cleopatra without addressing what her femininity did to the narrative. Schiff puts that issue at the front and center of her work. For that alone, this book is worth picking up. It’s a slim biography, as far as biographies go: a tad over 300 pages, without endnotes.

As Schiff herself says in the introduction: “I have not tried to fill in the blanks”¦mostly I have restored context.” Context is something we have always denied Cleopatra, singling her out among women in her time. You could argue, I suppose, that by stepping out onto history’s stage as she did, bundled in a sack, she indelibly set herself apart from the crowd. But especially by virtue of her femininity and her “exotic” Eastern sensibilities, Schiff shows us that Rome, certainly, and history, to follow, could never quite stomach the grand historical role she had played, and took great care to demonize her as a result.

Schiff’s introduction and conclusion do the most to examine the problem of Cleopatra, bringing in Elizabeth Taylor, Shakespeare, and Plutarch’s wildly different representations of her. She does not err in pointing out that Western culture is obsessed with Cleopatra. Her epic story sits on the cusp between the ancient and the modern worlds, between East and West – between male and female. In rhapsodizing over her seductive femininity, prior historians have glossed over other characteristics that made her the central figure in history she was: She was the queen of Egypt, and therefore the richest woman in the world. She was a calculating strategist, a benevolent leader, an absolute monarch, and a ruthless adversary. She was not, by the standards of the time, particularly beautiful. She was a loving mother, a sensual lover, and a murderous wife. Though Cleopatra’s legend may not be accurate, there is no doubt in Schiff’s analysis that she richly deserves that legend.

Schiff has a lyrical bent – early in the book, she remarks that “excessive good fortune” has “its flamboyant consort, calamity.” Indeed, sometimes her artistry went entirely over my head, though I appreciated its form. Unlike other historians, Schiff seems as captivated by the charms of history as if she had come to it just today. Though her endnotes are relentlessly detailed, you get no sense of the piles of paper she must have had to work through to produce such a detailed work. Instead you get rich descriptions of the boulevards of Alexandria, the gilded palace of the Ptolemies, and the fertile landscape of the Nile. It is fitting that a biography of Cleopatra would be beautifully written, because though she herself may not have been conventionally lovely, she lived and died in the most opulent court of its day.

Though Schiff can impart significance and drama to events we aren’t even sure actually happened, there are times where – perhaps due to academic restraint – she falls short. I felt this especially in the latter half of the book, when Cleopatra takes up with Mark Antony. Presumably this must have been the great love of Cleopatra’s life. Even Schiff does not dispute that, though she also provides many reasons for why it was politically expedient for Cleopatra to be in love with Antony in particular. I am happy to hear who said what about their relationship, but more interested in what these two people felt themselves. (With Cleopatra’s earlier relationship with Caesar, Schiff seems more confident – or had more sources.) And yet, frustratingly, the truth there eludes us. We spend chapters with our idle heroes, waiting for them to act, getting minute reports of their movements and meetings, and yet feel strangely removed from their humanity. I don’t  necessarily blame our biographer. Schiff does her best to restore truth to the narrative, but there are many holes in Cleopatra’s story, especially when it comes to what she herself may have seen, felt, or thought.

Schiff’s biography is not a replacement for the grand romantic tales of Cleopatra’s romances. With a story such as Cleopatra’s, as Schiff herself writes, “myth rushes in, the kudzu of history.” Even when she was still alive, Cleopatra cannily took part in her own mythmaking, styling herself as Isis and occasionally Venus, and naming her children after gods. A propaganda campaign spanning thousands of years would not have surprised her, she who looked back to the legend of Alexander the Great for cues, though he lived hundreds of years before her time. But it is the necessary complement to those romances This is a very valuable book, lush with descriptions of the ancient Mediterranean world and the personalities who so famously populated it. It is also unapologetic in its examination of how history has treated and interpreted a woman’s story simply because she was a woman, which may well make you make some modern comparisons – and wonder if we really are so post-feminist, after all.

7 replies on “Book Review: Cleopatra, A Life”

This review convinced me to buy the book – I’ve long wanted to get a better understanding of her legacy because what little I do know is all based off white washed movies (Liz Taylor, I love you, but no) and very basic 101 history. I only recently learned that she was Greek (what what) and some of the more “clear sighted” bits of her life.  And like you said, Its strange (who am i kidding..normal)  to see such a powerful woman assigned mostly to how she looked and the sexual relationships she had.

Anyway, I had no idea about this book and now I’m extremely excited to read it.

So, Question: Did the biographer do the whole “Eastern vs Western” thing or did you? If she did, did she note the context of it?

Because the Dynasty Cleopatra was a part of was ethnically Greek. This dynasty, in order to legitimize what was basically a post-conquest Hellenistic appointment, adopted “eastern” or Egyptian customs for political purposes, and many of those only later in their dynasty. Indeed, it was only Cleopatra’s father who invested heavily in looking culturally Egyptian- The vast majority of the dynasty refused to even speak Egyptian, allowing only Greek to be spoken in their courts.

There is no doubt that Cleopatra used the mystique of the foreigner, of the “Easterner” in her interactions with Rome. We have too many examples of how she used it for PR. But to the Egyptian people, she and her family were Greeks, even if they were accepted as legitimate Pharaohs generations before. Chances are Cleopatra herself had an early childhood that was culturally Greek in a number of respects, even if it was Structurally Egyptian, until her father needed the political power that being culturally Egyptian would have provided. (He was deposed for a while and had to reclaim his throne.)

Schiff basically takes several more pages to say exactly what you just did about the history of the Ptolemaic dynasty. Her Roman detractors (so, most of the Roman Empire) also made much of her “Eastern”-ness, which they even then already conflated with “dangerous” femininity.

May I recommend: She-Wolves (about the women who were queens of England before Elizabeth I: Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France, Margaret of Anjou, and Mary Tudor) and Bess of Hardwick, who was contemporary of Elizabeth I, the 2nd richest woman in the country, a fascinating woman in her own right and whose granddaughter Arbella was almost the heir to the throne instead of James VI.

I have to say this was the most amazing read, because Stacy Schiff managed to bring alive a Cleopatra that was a great departure from her portrayal in films and television, that was more interesting than those portrayals for the lack of anything overly definitive. With no real guide to her true beauty, and scarce and scant details, but much in the way of anecdotal reference, Schiff’s descriptions of Cleopatra’s motion through the world of ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire imbued her with a majesty that even Elizabeth Taylor could not replicate.

I think where descriptions or accounts lack depth, it is merely from the fact that there must have been periods where little was written about her, especially during her dalliance with Marc Antony. It was perhaps not expedient for anyone at the time to chronicle their comings, goings, and gossip too closely, for fear of incurring the royal wrath. Too far removed from the events, historians no doubt constructed narratives that met their particular prejudices toward her, which Schiff intimates.

An amazing book that I highly recommend for its vivid descriptions of a world of mystery and majesty and the woman who commanded it, ever so briefly.

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