I don’t read a lot of biographies, but if more of them were like Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra, that would change.
On the other hand, it’s hard to know how there could be more biographies like this, because what Schiff does is more or less turn the genre on its head, simultaneously pulling apart two thousand years worth of misinformation and re-constructing a new version of the Egyptian queen’s life, complete with rich and lively descriptions of the historical context and settings. I have never been particularly interested in the ancient world, largely because it seemed too alien. I could not get a purchase on it, so to speak. Schiff fixes that situation permanently with her sense-rich descriptions of settings: the flamboyant glory of Alexandria, the self-conscious rectitude of Rome, the insect-ridden swamp of Actium, where Antony and Cleopatra’s military strategy came unglued. Schiff on Cleopatra’s visit to Rome, a “provincial backwater” in the year 46: “It was still the kind of place where a stray dog might deposit a human hand under the breakfast table, where an ox could burst into the dining room. As displacements went, this one was akin to sailing from the court of Versailles to eighteenth-century Philadelphia.”
You can see the appeal: Schiff writes with graceful, wry authority, able to mobilize the ideal detail and the ideal quotation to make her point. Which is, to be crudely reductive, that history has distorted Cleopatra’s character. After all, the sources are Roman. Winners get to write history, so Cleopatra’s startling intelligence and competence — not to mention her immense wealth — are eclipsed by tales of her beauty and sexual sorcery. What, after all, do most of us believe about Cleopatra? That she seduced both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, and later killed herself with an asp.
The true story is actually much more interesting. Cleopatra was not even Egyptian, for starters — the family of Ptolemies from which she descended was Greek in origin. She may not have been beautiful but she was certainly magnetic, extremely well-educated, and a brilliant linguist. Alexandria, the richest and most culturally advanced city on the Mediterranean (remember, the famous library was one of the wonders of the Western world) was the capital city of Egypt, which was in turn a vassal state to Rome. The Ptolemies were thus often called on to provide arms, men, and ships to Roman military efforts. The difficulty was deciding which Roman to back, as the Republic was politically unstable. Cleopatra supported successively Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, and her support included not only the usual war matériel but also strategy, luxury, and sex. As Schiff says of Antony and Cleopatra, “As of the winter of 35 it is impossible to deny a full-blooded romance, if by romance we mean a congenial, intimate past, a shared family, a shared bed, and a shared vision of the future.” But Cleopatra had bet on the wrong man. Antony’s conflict with Octavian for control of the Roman republic ends in disaster. He commits suicide, messily, and Cleopatra follows suit using, sorry, plain old poison. This final section of the book lays out the inexorable progress of their tragedy in completely gripping fashion. It’s easy to see what writers like Plutarch and Shakespeare have seen in Cleopatra’s story, but for my money Schiff’s version is even more captivating.