Cleopatra by Stacy Schiff: Reviewed

Forget the sexy seductress of history. Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra proves that she was a steely master of realpolitik at home, in war, and grand strategy, says Michael Korda.

Some people are so famous that the legends about them and the cultural aftermath of their life altogether obscure the real human being. A few years ago, when I told a well-wisher, who had asked what my next book would be, that I was writing a biography of Lawrence of Arabia, she gushed, “Oh, I long to read a book about Peter O’Toole!”

I am no better. Speak the name Cleopatra and I think not at all of the historical figure, still less of the real woman, but of Vivien Leigh at the height of her beauty playing her on stage in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra (with Lawrence Olivier as Mark Antony), or on film in Gabriel Pascal’s ambitious “box-office stinker” of Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra, and, of course, Elizabeth Taylor playing the Egyptian queen in Cleopatra, the disastrous 1963 film that cost $44 million (approximately $308 million today) and nearly sank 20th-Century Fox for good. Extravagant mascara and long false eyelashes are as much a part of my mental image of the queen as her committing suicide by pressing an asp brought to her in a basket of figs against her breast.

She managed to combine the gifts of Mrs. Thatcher (albeit on a much larger scale) with a degree of sex appeal to which Mrs. Thatcher did not aspire.

With a clear eye, great courage, and formidable erudition, Stacy Schiff has succeeded in removing these and many other misconceptions from my mind, and replacing them with the fascinating portrait of an altogether more substantial woman, albeit one who apparently had enough sex appeal to sleep with the two most powerful and charismatic men of her day, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, and bear one child with the first and three with the second.

Not to argue with Shakespeare, but his Cleopatra is one of the less interesting roles for a woman among his plays (as compared, say, to Lady Macbeth or Portia), and Shaw’s Cleopatra is altogether too slight, innocent and kittenish a figure to have captured or held the attention of a man like Caesar, let alone that of a handsome, virile, and ambitious brute like Mark Antony, while Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra seems merely shrill and vixenish, like a star whose assistant has been a minute late with her morning coffee rather than the coldly calculating ruler of a great power who intends to dominate what we now call “the Middle East,” and to prevent Rome, the “superpower” of its day, from swallowing up her country.

Most biographers are apt to be discouraged by the sheer volume of papers left behind by their subject. For example, apart from blowing up Turkish trains, T.E. Lawrence’s chief activity seems to have been writing letters, and the same is true for John Adams, and, judging by the reviews of Ron Chernow’s Washington, of George Washington in spades. Indeed, it is mildly depressing to realize that the work of collecting and publishing Washington’s papers is still going on, nearly two centuries after his death, though hardly surprising. When I was thinking of writing a biography of Ulysses S. Grant, I thoughtlessly asked an assistant to order me a complete set of his letters, only to be startled a couple of weeks later when two men from UPS with a handcart delivered from their brown truck to my door hefty cartons of 31 stout volumes, together with an apologetic note from the university press that more would be coming over the years.

Stacy Schiff’s problem has been the opposite: Not much remains in the way of archival material of Cleopatra herself, nor even of Alexandria, the city over which she ruled, and which was the envy of Rome for its beauty, cultural treasures, elegant high fashions, and eroticism. Cleopatra’s Alexandria was destroyed and eventually sank beneath the sea, a victim of changing geography, to be replaced by an altogether different city bearing the same name. The intimate letters, the diaries, the portraits, and in more modern times the photographs, that are the lifeblood of the biographer, are gone. Indeed, it is measure of how little we know about Cleopatra that the only images of her are either the coins she struck, bearing very unflattering official portraits of her, or some doubtful busts, which may be of other women imitating her coiffure.

Nevertheless, Stacy Schiff has managed to create a masterpiece: both a hugely readable portrait of a fascinating, unscrupulous, and powerful woman, and a brilliant explanation of the politics that lay behind her actions—for whatever Cleopatra’s feelings for Caesar and Mark Antony may have been (and very few women have three children with a man without strong feelings for him), she was a masterful geopolitical player for supremely high stakes—and daring, bold, ruthless, energetic, a bad enemy and, very often, a loyal friend. The Mediterranean world in which she lived was dominated by the military power of Rome—and by its bitter, personal “winner-takes-all” internal politics and interminable civil wars—in which Egypt, because of its rich agriculture and its reach up the Nile toward the South (then known as “Upper Egypt” and now Sudan), was in the process of becoming Rome’s indispensible granary and source of gold. Her aim was to preserve Egypt’s independence and her own rule, to dominate the eastern Mediterranean (in just those areas which are still the source of strife today in the form of Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq), and to make of Rome an ally and a partner, rather than allowing her to acquire Egypt as a colony. In this particular “Great Game,” Cleopatra played her hand deftly, until the very end, when she paid the price for having chosen the wrong Roman as her lover and general.

It has become conventional to write of a biography “that it reads like a novel,” which can be construed as praise or disparagement depending on who writes it, but Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra in fact reads a whole lot better than all but a few novels, without ever abandoning for a moment her strict scholarship and adherence to the known facts and sources. What is more, she writes with verve, tongue-in-cheek humor, and elegance. Unlike a good many biographers, she has a gift for describing the glamour and the exoticism of the court of Egypt and its queen, indeed one would have to turn to Flaubert’s Salammbô to find her equal: “She floated up the bright, crystalline river, through the plains, in a blinding explosion of color, sound, and smell. She had no need for magic arts and charms given her barge with gilded stern and soaring purple sails. This was not the way the Romans traveled...”

Indeed not. The Romans came from a proud and virile republican patriarchy, with an instinctive dislike for the very idea of monarchy, and a determination to appear as austere as possible, and to avoid the appearance of ostentation in all its forms—a determination that the accruing wealth of empire and contact with the opulent east would soon sap. Roman women were not supposed to meddle in politics, except to the degree that they influenced their husband or their sons, and lived in an age of arranged marriages that were intended to link politically important families to one another.

The Romans were not accustomed to dealing with a woman like Cleopatra, who, as Stacy Schiff points out, deftly separating legend from fact, was “a goddess as a child, a queen at 18,” and was “...a capable, clear-eyed sovereign [who] knew how to build a fleet, suppress an insurrection, control a currency, alleviate a famine.” She was married twice, both times to a brother (this was par for the course in dynastic Egypt since nobody outside the royal family was of sufficient stature to marry into it), she waged a brutal civil war against one and poisoned the other, and ultimately had her sister murdered as well. This was not as unusual as it sounds—the court of her rival and sometime friend Herod was run along similar lines, indeed the Eastern way of dealing with siblings when it came to succession survived in the Ottoman Empire until quite modern times. She was not, of course, Egyptian at all, but tenth in line of succession in a dynasty of Macedonian Greeks who had succeeded to the rule of the Pharaohs in the wake of Alexander the Great and made a habit of marrying their siblings in the Egyptian tradition, and of murdering them out of ruthless, practical politics.

Still, Cleopatra is not just history, but her story. Schiff is a wonderful storyteller, who not only manages to make one of the world’s more familiar and extraordinary stories seems fresh, as if we had had never read about any of it before, but also manages to keep the reader in suspense, as if we didn’t know how it turns out in the end. Cleopatra, to judge from her coins, was neither the equivalent of Vivien Leigh nor Elizabeth Taylor—the prominently hooked nose and the fierce, jutting chin are her most prominent features—but she clearly had the kind of will, intelligence, ambition and gift for practical politics, as well as the fantastic opulence of dress, that made Elizabeth I seem dazzling to her court some 16 centuries later, and that made Catherine the Great one of the most effective rulers of Russia. Schiff makes the very sound point that Cleopatra, even during her own lifetime, was condemned (and more important dismissed) as a seductress, since it suited the Romans to portray her in that role, rather than in the more radical and unacceptable one of a powerful woman, a view of her that has continued with many embellishments for over 2,000 years, but neither her portraits nor her actions support this view of her. Hard as it may be to imagine, she managed to combine the gifts of Mrs. Thatcher (albeit on a much larger scale) with a degree of sex appeal to which Mrs. Thatcher did not aspire. No doubt Cleopatra could be seductive when she chose to, but neither Caesar nor Mark Antony were easily seduced, and both were shameless womanizers on a grand scale. In Cleopatra, very clearly, they met their equal, and were fascinated by her, as well as impressed enough to involve her in the politics of Rome and to support her ambitions, in Mark Antony’s case to his death.

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The story of Cleopatra’s second visit to Rome in 44 B. C. stands out as extraordinary account of the clash of two cultures, as well as for Stacy Schiff’s witty, but precise observation that Cleopatra’s bitterest critic Cicero, the great orator, was “the Roman John Adams,” a vain and spiteful man determined to stamp his view of events and people on posterity. This he—and future Roman historians to a man—succeeded in doing: Cleopatra got and continued to receive bad press for 20 centuries, which Stacy Schiff is determined to correct, replacing the wanton seductress of two great men with the steely statesperson and strategist that Cleopatra clearly was. She played a role which would be denied to women for centuries (with a few very rare exceptions) and for which her reward has been to be treated like a mindless vamp by the playwrights, novelists, and historians of the world ever since her own day.

It is a rare achievement to successfully combine serious historical writing with the colorful flamboyance of a Hollywood epic, and to integrate both with the radical revision of a person most of us felt we already knew about, but Stacy Schiff has triumphantly succeeded, with a book that ranks behind such great historical reads as Garrett Mattingly’s The Defeat of the Spanish Armada or Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror. Moreover she has brought to life Cleopatra, who turns out to be far more interesting than we ever knew, while giving us a view of the ancient world, a generation before the birth of Christ, that challenges many of our basic assumptions, many of them drilled into us in school, about the way people lived, felt, and acted.

In the end, what we have here is the portrait of a ruler. It is not surprising that the only known fragment of Cleopatra’s writing to survive (though it may be that of a scribe taking dictation from her) is, as Stacy Schiff tells us, the Greek word “ Ginestho”: “Let it be done.” Like Louis XVI’s famous phrase, “ L’etat, c’est moi,” the word defines the person: The important thing about Cleopatra is not whether or not she was beautiful or seductive (Shakespeare’s view), or tempting and childishly charming (unlikely, but Shaw’s point of view), but that she was a bold and effective ruler, and the equal of any man she ever met.

Even one so great as Julius Caesar himself.

New York Times bestselling author Michael Korda's books include Ike, Horse People, Country Matters, Ulysses S. Grant, and Charmed Lives.

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