Stacy Schiff ‘s Cleopatra: a Life is simply the most enjoyable biography that I have ever read. This book was both enormously entertaining as well as very informative. Schiff is an extraordinary writer. In terms of historical scholarship, her research and attention to detail are unparalleled and she is an excellent crafter of prose. This is my second Schiff book, her A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America is also a highly recommended work.
I loved this book so much for three reasons. First, the intrigue, politics and personalities involved are fascinating. Cleopatra is but one player on a world stage that included Julius Caesar, Marc Anthony, Octavius, King Herrord, Cicero and many other lesser known personas who maneuvered, intrigued, charmed and warred with one another for enormous stakes that included the lives and deaths of the players as well as control over vast wealth and portions of the earth.
Secondly, while familiar with many fictional accounts of these times and people, this is the first time that I have delved into information that was even close to historically accurate. Aside from brief mentions in a college textbook, I have only been exposed to fictional accounts of this era from sources such as Shakespeare as well as television shows and films.
Finally, as eluded to earlier, Schiff is a great writer whose books are a joy to read. Her prose is often poetic and she is a mistress of allegory and clever allusions. She is extremely witty and is often bitingly direct and ironic. For instance, below are a few quotes from various parts of her narrative,
“And in the absence of facts, myth rushes in, the kudzu of history”
“Cleopatra descended from a long line of murderers and faithfully upheld the family tradition but was, for her time and place, remarkably well behaved.”
“Cicero, was the Roman John Adams”
Schiff explains that this biography of the Egyptian Queen was a little problematic, as available sources were both scarce and suspect. As a result, through no fault of the author, there are missing pieces here. We get some idea of Cleopatra’s personality, but very little of it is first hand and it is full of gaps. Though very literate, no actual writing by the Egyptian Queen herself has survived. Furthermore, very little writing about her by fellow Egyptians remains and most of the available sources are Roman. There is, unfortunately, a sense that certain truths about this woman will remain forever unknown. For instance, Cleopatra’s actions during the battle of Actium, which would shed an enormous amount of light upon the Queen’s character, are maddeningly obscured by a lack of facts.
In addition, as Schiff herself points out, we need to be weary of “facts” and stories that have been presented about the Egyptian monarch. Many of the sources that are available are those of Roman “historians”, such as Cassius Dio and Plutarch, who were often more interested in pushing political and misogynistic agendas as well as telling “good stories” as opposed to getting their facts correct.
Cleopatra VII Philopato, born in 69 BC as an heir to the Ptolemy throne. This family of Greeks was descended from Alexander the Great and had ruled Egypt for centuries. Throughout the years down though Cleopatra’s time, Ptolemaic siblings married and murdered one another in a dizzying battle for power and succession. Cleopatra herself was successively married to two of her brothers and was directly responsible for the murders of multiple siblings including her second husband - brother. Of course these same siblings were attempting to murder and usurp her.
Cleopatra ruled Egypt at a time when the superpower Rome was gobbling up kingdoms and empires throughout the Mediterranean region and beyond. While still an independent nation in her time, Egypt was more or less reduced to that of a client state of Rome. However, due to its enormous wealth, it was a satellite nation that possessed enormous power and influence in the Roman world.
Both Rome and Egypt were in the constant throws of complex and often bloody power struggles. These contests often intertwined with one another and involved intricate connections between people and events starching over enormous distances.
As a Ptolemaic heir Cleopatra was considered to be a human incarnation of a Goddess. She was extremely educated as well as literate. Her studies were not only scholastic, but included what we would describe today as standards of social grace befitting a queen and a human deity. In a world where royal persons usurped and murdered children, parents, siblings and spouses, it was unusual that Cleopatra maintained a loyalty and closeness to her father, the on again off again ruler of Egypt.
After the death of her father, Cleopatra married her brother Ptolemy XIII and, for a short period, the two co – ruled Egypt. Civil war soon broke out between the sibling – spouses. While in exile, Cleopatra ingratiated herself with Julius Caesar. The two became lovers and Caesar subsequently allied his Roman forces with the queen. Ptolemy XIII was eventually defeated and may have been killed in battle.
Cleopatra bore a son whose father was accepted at the time to be Caesar’s. Throughout Caesar ‘s reign as leader of Rome, Cleopatra consolidated her power. Under her control, Egypt enjoyed a period of unusual stability and prospered. After Caesar ‘s assassination Rome descended into complex and multisided civil wars. Cleopatra eventually allied herself with Marc Anthony who also became her lover and who sired additional children with her.
The armies and navies of Octavius eventually defeated Antony and Cleopatra’s forces. As Egypt was overrun first Marc Antony took his own life followed by Cleopatra shortly thereafter.
There are so many directions that this marvelous book takes us into. I want to talk about what I would define as Cleopatra’s competence. In a world of rulers who often were far better at gaining power then actually ruling, Schiff paints Cleopatra as an extremely able head of state.
Schiff describes the Egypt of the time as possessing a controlled economy somewhat comparable to that Soviet Union. During Cleopatra’s reign the land prospered economically. Beholden to the flood cycles of the Nile, Egypt historically gyrated between periods of prosperity that were followed by periods of famine. Cleopatra deftly managed food and other resources during the hard times to lessen the misery of her people. During the prosperous times the nation thrived under her leadership.
She was also a great patron of arts and science. Egypt’s capital, Alexandria, may have been the world’s greatest city at that time. It was the center of culture, art and learning. It had, however, been experiencing a period of decline in the proceeding century. Innovation in the fields of art and science rebounded and blossomed during Cleopatra’s time thanks to her efforts.
She was extremely popular with the Egyptian people. Schiff credits this esteem to a combination of economic success, an embrace of Egyptian native religion often ignored by her predecessors, as well as a strong dose of charisma and propaganda.
Cleopatra also expertly played the world game of influence and power. While ultimately Egypt was subdued and absorbed by Rome, this end result was likely inevitable. During her reign, the Egyptian sovereign took an Egypt that had been threatened and was in decline and expanded its wealth, territory and influence. Once she consolidated her power the country also enjoyed an uncharacteristic period that was distinguished by the absence of dynastic disputes and civil war.
Part of Cleopatra’s success on the international stage was attributed to what Roman historians and writers labeled as scheming and seduction. Schiff reminds us that these writers described similarly successful men who employed nearly identical strategies as possessing great skill, intelligence and virtue. An accomplished female ruler was labeled as lascivious and cunning. Her male counterparts were lauded as great men.
Schiff does point to strong evidence that while not a classical beauty, Cleopatra was very good at charming and flattering people and therefore had a knack of talking others into seeing things her way. Whether her charm was related to an erotic charisma is far from clear. While the Egyptian monarch certainly did have sexual affairs with powerful men, her male peers, including Caesar, Antony and Octavius, had scores of liaisons with both female and, at times, male royal personages all over Europe, Asia and Africa. Little criticism was ever leveled against these men for their promiscuity.
While she did have affairs with both Caesar and Marc Antony, she was not the manipulating seductress portrayed by her detractors. Instead she was an intelligent and skilled leader contending for the interests of herself as well as that of Egypt. While Schiff concedes that Caesar may have acted against his own best interests as a result of being smitten with her, Cleopatra’s alliance with Anthony made perfect strategic sense for both leaders and neither was under the other’s sensual “control”, at least early on.
It is possible that later in the relationship Antony may, from his point of view, have made some poor strategic decisions that benefitted Cleopatra. This is not entirely clear however. Conversely, Schiff postulates that very late in the game it may have been in Cleopatra’s best interest to jettison an Antony whose fortunes were in decline. Despite the distorted interpretations of Roman historians, this betrayal likely never occurred.
Finally, even in the method of her death did Cleopatra show great competence. She carefully planned the event for at least several months. Schiff reports that the famous story that the deed was accomplished with the aid of a poisonous snake is almost certainly apocryphal. The Egyptian monarch likely used a poison that did not cause convulsions or other horrendous “side effects”. Instead she likely just went to sleep and died.
Lest I be accused of pouring too much praise on the Egyptian Queen, like her peers such as Marc Antony, Caesar, Octavius, etc., Cleopatra, by today’s standards, cannot be described as a moral person. For instance, she ordered multiple executions, was complacent in enslaving large numbers of people, used prisoners as experimental subjects in her quest to find a painless and effective poison for herself, just to name a few of her transgressions. While these actions were consistent with the leadership of many nations and empires of the day, they should not be glossed over.
Once again, I have not focused on all of the interesting ideas presented in this biography. Readers will find many additional important and compelling themes. Schiff has indeed written a book that is both accessible and entertaining. Cleopatra: a Life successfully throws some light on the enigmatic story of one of the most famous and intriguing women who ever lived. Anyone with even a casual interest in Cleopatra or the era in which she lived will find this biography both engaging and enlightening.