Cleopatra: A Life

  • Author: Stacy Schiff

  • Published: September, 2011


Cleopatra. The name itself conjures the mysterious and exotic. The all powerful Queen of Egypt. The eternal shape-shifter. The wanton seductress of history’s greatest men. The scheming and beautiful Empress with the world at her feet and a snake lurking in the grass. 

For centuries the myth has so outraced the reality that it seems she may have only existed in stories and dreams. Bringing her back from the brink of limbo and legend is akin to resurrecting her ancient city of Alexandria, now 20 feet under the Earth. 

With so much buried under the sands of time, only the most gifted of authors could complete a worthwhile excavation. But we are in luck, because the pulitzer prize winning writer Stacy Schiff has undertaken the task, and she works wonders. 

With a discerning eye for hyperbole and falsehoods, combined with a historian’s tireless research and a novelists sense of story, Schiff presents us with the most factual and realistic Cleopatra we have yet seen. By relentlessly researching the time period Cleopatra lived in, Schiff is able to fill in many of histories blanks with educated and persuasive conjecture. This is a restoration project, and Cleopatra’s throne was badly in need of repair.

As usual, the truth is far more interesting than Shakespeare’s overcooked drama or Elizabeth Taylor’s white washed portrayal. Yes, Cleopatra was manipulative, flamboyant and highly sexual. But she was also a skilled arbiter, an astute economist, a gifted diplomat, a master linguist and a cunning rival. She had a firm grasp of military affairs and was a brilliant public showman (or show-woman), inspiring awe amongst her subjects and suitors. Schiff opens her book by rattling off her impressive resume:

Among the most famous women to have lived, Cleopatra VII ruled Egypt for 22 years. She lost a kingdom once, regained it, nearly lost it again, amassed an empire, lost it all. A goddess as a child, a queen at eighteen, a celebrity soon thereafter, she was an object of speculation and veneration, gossip and legend, even in her own time. At the height of her power she controlled virtually the entire eastern Mediterranean coast, the last great kingdom of an Egyptian ruler.

Her high profile affairs and heirs with Julius Ceasar and Mark Antony, two of the most powerful men on earth, are well known. But her ability to beguile diplomats and dinner guests with her remarkable intelligence, less so. Given her family history, Cleo’s intellect was wielded like a sharp blade. She descended from the Ptolemy’s, a long line of Macedonian Greeks who had ruled Egypt since Alexander the Great. Killing, coups and incest were the norm, and Cleopatra herself was married to her brother, whom she eventually had killed, as well as her calculating sister, with a little help from her Roman lovers.

Cleopatra was the first of the Ptolemy’s to speak Egyptian, and she represented herself publicly as the reincarnation of the Goddess Isis, complete with Gold diadem and pearls amongst her dark curls. This gave her an influence and control over her Alexandrian subjects her ancestors could only dream about. Aligning herself and sharing her bed with Rome’s top generals solidified her hold on power, allowing her to rule unimpeded for more than 20 years.

But these were turbulent times, and with the assassination of Julius Ceasar Rome descended into chaos. Eventually Mark Antony, Ceasar’s greatest General, and Octavian, his nephew and heir, broke their alliance and battled for the future of Rome. One would think Cleopatra had chosen wisely when she started her love affair with Antony. But young Octavian proved to be more resourceful and unscrupulous than any had foreseen, and he routed Antony at the naval Battle of Actium, spelling doom for Cleopatra and her children.

It seems most rulers of the ancient world met bloody ends. Mark Antony, a doomed broken man after his defeat, fell upon his sword but stayed alive long enough to die in Cleopatra’s arms. Cleopatra, also doomed to eventual execution by Octavian, also greeted death on her own terms, most likely with small vial of hidden poison, rather than the snake bite of popular folklore. This last act of defiance was typical of her, and remains a captivating part of her legacy.

Indeed her life reads as the epic it was. Her exile in the desert by her brother. Her dramatic re-entry into the Palace as a stow-away inside a knapsack. Her sleepless nights while her brother’s armies lay siege outside her palace. Her victorious pleasure cruise down the Nile with Ceasar. Her trip to Rome and an audience with Cicero. Her impassioned affair with the hunky Mark Antony. Her desperate retreat at the Battle of Actium. And finally her secretive suicide under Octavian’s nose. All told for the first time as truthfully as possible.

Thus Cleopatra’s spell over us remains as strong as ever. As Schiff writes, “Two thousand years of bad press and overheated prose, of film and opera, cannot conceal the fact that Cleopatra was a remarkably capable queen, canny and opportunistic in the extreme, a strategist of the first rank.” Statements like these make Schiff’s marvelous book all the more important. They say “History is written by victors,” but it must be noted that history is also written mostly by men. Schiff scrubs away the chauvinistic critiques of Cleopatra’s mental state, the adolescent obsession with her sexuality and the tawdry details of her love life, to reveal a powerful and unvarnished ruler. A force to be reckoned with. She concludes, “Cleopatra remains alone at the all-male table, in possession of a hand both flush and flawed.” As long as Stacy Schiff is spilling the details, deal me in.