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Keeping Up with the Romans: The Phenomenon of Her

By (November 1, 2010) No Comment


By Stacy Schiff
Little, Brown, 2010

Many years ago, an old friend of mine, commissioned to write a biography of Cleopatra, got jittery and told me he was worried he’d fumble the ball. I was confused. “What can possibly be the problem?” I asked. “Every school child knows the story of Cleopatra!” This made him even more grave. “That’s the problem,” he said. “The best-known stories are always the toughest.”

I thought he was being overly dramatic, but many, many biographies of Cleopatra have been published since his came and went, and I have long since seen his point. The tough part for any writer isn’t getting the facts right (that’s what I’d foolishly thought was worrying him), it’s standing out in any way from the numberless ruck of people who’ve recited those facts for the last twenty centuries. If somebody wants to stand out, then my friend was right: the best-known stories are the toughest.

The facts themselves are certainly manageable. They fill no more than a paragraph, and they go something like this:

She was the eldest daughter of Ptolemy Auletes, heir to four centuries of Greek Ptolemaic rule in Egypt, and at his death in 51 B.C she and her younger brother Ptolemy became co-rulers. She was expelled by Ptolemy’s advisers but contrived to meet and win the support of the visiting Julius Caesar, who as Roman consul wanted to settle any hereditary disputes in Rome’s richest client-kingdom. Cleopatra had a son by Caesar, and when the consul left for Rome, she followed him and lived there until his murder in 44 BC, when she returned to Egypt. At age 28, in 41 BC, she met and thoroughly besotted Caesar’s former first general Mark Antony, who was then ruling the Roman world jointly with Caesar’s adopted great nephew Octavian. When these two came to battle at Actium in 31 BC, Cleopatra saw that Antony’s forces were losing and withdrew her fleet to Alexandria, where a beaten Antony soon joined her. While Cleopatra was in secret negotiations with Octavian to desert Antony, Antony gave credence to a rumor that she was dead and stabbed himself – he was brought to her and died in her arms. And when she saw that the victorious Octavian was immune to her charms and intended to parade her before Rome in chains, she took her own life at age 39.

Even such a short paragraph, there are marvels and problems. Astounding that we should be talking about a single woman doing all this governing and wooing and maneuvering, at a time when most women – even most female rulers – were beaten and impregnated chattel. Plutarch, writing over a century later, tells us she was not reputed to be a great beauty but possessed in abundance a certain charm, an ineffable quality that ensnared most men and even some women; Cicero fell in love with her before he just as violently fell out of love with her, and Fulvia, Antony’s wife and the only Roman, male or female, to match Cleopatra in every way, grudgingly granted her significance even while scheming for her destruction – Fulvia’s the one who drove her hair-pin through dead Cicero’s tongue, so winning her respect was no mean feat.

Problems too, even in summary. We don’t know for certain that Caesar was the father of Cleopatra’s boy, for instance – he acknowledged little Caesarion as his own, but his branch of the Julian’s was particularly stingy of progeny, and it would have been a wise state move in any case. And we don’t know that the queen was in Rome at the time of Caesar’s assassination – in truth, there are large swathes of her brief life about which we can only guess. Even in her own time, the phenomenon of her was clearly seen by everybody, and yet our sources – mainly Plutarch, Appian, and Cassius Dio – can be maddeningly opaque. Modern biographers must master a small amount of classical literature and then do a large amount of educated guessing. No wonder my old friend was a bit intimidated.

Into this morass steps Stacy Schiff, whose life of Nabokov’s wife won the Pulitzer Prize and whose insight into the challenges of her current task is obvious on page one. Those challenges are manifold, and despite the fact that they haven’t changed in 2,000 years, they continue to trip up the unwary. Just this year, veteran classical writer Adrian Goldsworthy wrote a book on the same subject that’s nine-tenths factual regurgitation and one-tenth jocular over-familiarity – and he’s a writer who knows what he’s doing. This last queen of Egypt is every bit as dangerous today as she was in her own lifetime to those who would underestimate her.

From Joseph Mankeiwicz’s 1963 movie Cleopatra

Schiff succeeds beyond any wild estimation of the odds. Her book is a masterpiece of lightly-worn learning and scintillating deduction. It’s thrillingly, brazenly written. It rises in a single movement above the whole sea of Cleopatra biographies and gives us in some ways an entirely new woman for a new century. Dryden once commented that there are no new subjects, only old ones that rise or fall by the wit of the artist. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a clearer demonstration of this than the biography Schiff has written here.

She is the liveliest of narrators, going over every detail not only with an array of sources at her fingertips (it’s a refreshing thing for a Cleopatra biography to make such intelligent use of the Talmud, for instance – not all her biographers even know the queen puts in a few appearances in it) but with an alert eye for the real, human story lurking under the ancient narratives. She cheerfully relates the propaganda of the era, but she is not fooled by it. She knows that virtually every detail she’s relating could be false or falsified, but she relates them with a knowing exuberance anyway, since they’re all we have.

The story of Cleopatra is the story of Rome’s insatiable imperial appetite, as Schiff sees clearly:

The Romans had the temperament of wolves. They hated the great kings. Everything they possessed they had plundered. They intended to seize all, and would “either destroy everything or perish in the attempt.” The implications for the last remaining wealthy country in Rome’s sphere of influence were clear.

To an extent many modern authors on the subject are unwilling to admit, that march of conquest, that gobbling up of countries, would have made a piquant tragedy out of anybody who happened to be sitting in Cleopatra’s palace when it finally happened to Egypt. It was precisely that pathetic little drama that an ancestor of Cleopatra’s had attempted to avoid by the extravagant gesture of leaving the country to Rome in his will, but such gestures could never have worked. To the Romans, conquest meant victory parades not codicils, and this meant that sooner or later, a Roman governor and a Roman garrison would subsume the nominal independence the country enjoyed even as late as the rise of Julius Caesar. If ancient estimates of her intelligence are to be trusted (I think they can; Cicero was never petulant about dimwits), Cleopatra must have seen all this quite clearly – it’s entirely likely she spent her entire reign knowing there would never be another quite like it (her grooming of doomed little Caesarion seems always done with an eye toward his meaning something to Rome, not Egypt). When pinned between the wall of the inevitable and your own self, there is only aplomb – and the last queen of Egypt had that in abundance. Schiff’s summaries of Cleopatra (who was, she says, “approximately as Egyptian as Elizabeth Taylor”) pop up throughout the book, and they’re always pointedly delightful, with an undercurrent of teasing:

An eminent Roman general vouched for her grasp of military affairs. Even at a time when women rulers were no rarity she stood out, the sole female of the ancient world to rule alone and to play a role in Western affairs. She was incomparably richer than anyone else in the Mediterranean world. And she enjoyed greater prestige than any other woman of her age, as an excitable rival king was reminded when he called, during her stay at his court, for her assassination. (In light of her stature, it could not be done). Cleopatra descended from a long line of murderers and faithfully upheld the family tradition but was, for her time and place, remarkably well behaved.

Schiff’s no less lively when widening her focus to the broader world around her subject – and canny in her invocation of her true literary forebears:

Our view is further obscured by the fact that the Romans who told Cleopatra’s story very nearly knew their ancient history too well. Repeatedly it seeps into their accounts. Like Mark Twain in the overwhelming, overstuffed Vatican, we sometimes prefer the copies to the original. So did the classical authors. They conflated accounts, refurbishing old tales … Iniquity and opulence went hand in hand; your world blazed purple and gold. Nor did it help that history bled into mythology, the human into the divine. Cleopatra’s was a world in which you could visit the relics of Orpheus’s lyre, or view the egg from which Zeus’s mother had hatched. (It was in Sparta.)

Cleopatra may have lived in a credulous age (elsewhere Schiff has called it “pre-literate,” which I doubt would have won her many favors with Virgil), but she herself lived an entirely factual life. She had to: Egypt was hers to rule. Some quirk of genetics or tutelage had spared her the habitual stupidity of the Ptolemies – she was sharp and adaptable and did not want to imitate the foibles of her own father and grandfather. Although we have no actual records, Schiff is right to infer a wide-ranging competence on the part of her subject:

At some appointed afternoon hour she received callers, on state, temple, and judicial business. Those audiences could be stultifying; they had lulled an earlier Ptolemy to sleep. Cleopatra’s responsibilities very nearly rivaled those of Isis: She not only dispenses justice, commanded the army and navy, regulated the economy, negotiated with foreign powers, and presided over the temples, but determined the prices of raw materials and supervised the sewing schedules, the distribution of seed, the condition of Egypt’s canals, the food supply. She was magistrate, high priest, queen, and goddess. She was also – on a day-to-day basis and far more frequently – chief executive officer. She headed both the secular and the religious bureaucracies; she was Egypt’s merchant in chief. The crush of state business consumed most of her day. And as that early, weary Hellenistic monarch had acknowledged, absolute power consumes absolutely.

This is a far cry from Shaw’s “silly little girl” or the drug-addled nymphomaniac viewers were presented in HBO’s Rome, but as Schiff points out, “In the match between the lady and the legend, there is no contest.” She does her best to extrapolate the real-world grounding that is the only defense against the encroachment of legend, and she does this better than any other re-imaginer of Cleopatra, ancient or modern. One of the best recurrent themes of the book is the peculiar juggling act that was the rule of Egypt; in this, Cleopatra could have had long and sympathetic complaining sessions with both Ramses the Great and Anwar Sadat:

Motherhood not only enhanced Cleopatra’s authority – in her day the Egyptian queen was more earth mother than femme fatale – but solidified her links with the native priests, to whom she granted significant privileges. In this she continued the work of her father. Even while abroad he had distinguished himself as a prolific builder of temples and had cultivated his relations with the Egyptian clergy. The were central to order amid the native populace, also intimately engaged with matters of state. As temples stood at the center of both religious and commercial life, there was a thorough interpenetration between the Greek bureaucracy and the Egyptian hierarchy. The minister of finance might equally supervise the feeding of the sacred animals. The priest in charge of cult revenues for special occasions might double as a reed merchant.

Antony and Cleopatra by Lawrence Alma-Tadema. Private Collection

This shrewd and agile ruler faced the unenviable position of being caught in the vise of Roman power-politics at its most world-shaking, and she used every edge and tactic at her disposal – or within the compass of her enormous imagination – to stay free, prosperous, and at peace for as long as she could through it all. It’s seldom that the personality of someone from the ancient world speaks so clearly to the modern world as does that of Cleopatra – any modern world, for she was chameleon enough to fit them all. Her nationalism stands out in an era when Roman fought Roman for possession of Rome; her intelligence was respected by such intellects as Julius Caesar and Cicero (and she outwitted brainy Octavian, in the end); even her comfort with celebrity speaks to our own star-addled age (on the cover of Schiff’s book, she seems almost to be turning away from the flashlights of paparazzi). In an age of marvels, she stood apart – a magnificent gambler, a ruthless loss-cutter, exuberantly alive.

Almost inevitably, she was an object of scorn and ridicule from the moment she stole a march on her local rivals by capturing the support of Julius Caesar, and that scorn has followed her through the centuries. Schiff is alert to the original reason why:

The years of Cleopatra’s career also coincided with the birth of Latin literature; it was her curse to inspire its great poets, happy to expound on her shame, in a language inhospitable to her and all she represented. Horace wrote exuberantly of Actium. The first to celebrate Octavian’s splendid victory, he did so while Cleopatra was still frantically fortifying Alexandria. He celebrates her defeat before it has occurred.

In fact, perhaps Schiff’s a bit too alert – the one small distraction in her magnificent book is a knee-jerk feminism that can erupt at a moment’s notice. In a footnote on Livia, the wife and co-ruler of the Augustus young Octavian would become, Schiff writes, “As ever, a capable woman was suspect; it would be whispered that Livia had killed him. Curiously, she was said to have done so with poisoned figs.” That ‘curiously’ is just a trifle too coy; the story, after all, is ‘said’ in Suetonius, a source she uses without such picky fingers everywhere else in her book, and it’s almost inconceivable that she’s never read Robert Graves or watched the immortal dramatization of the moment in the BBC’s I, Claudius. Figs are no more ‘curious’ than an asp, when it comes to that.

But that’s only a minor distraction in what is a bravura achievement of historical reclamation. Schiff’s genius sifts every last grain of sand in this oft-told story, and her characterizations – such as referring to Mark Antony as “politically astute only on alternate days of the week” – are almost always joyously perfect. Reading her for page after enormously fun page, we’re ashamed at how often we’ve been lectured into forgetting that history is first and always a story of people. This is a book full of living, savage, thriving, laughing, dying people.

And what of Fulvia, that force of nature, so bitterly overlooked by the popularizers of history? Not surprisingly, Schiff gets her right too:

Fulvia had been handsome and serious-minded and devoted. She had come to the marriage with money, influential friends, and shrewd political instincts. She had borne Antony two sons. If in truth she was a virago, she was, as has been pointed out, “at least an infinitely loyal virago.” Antony had thrived at her side.

Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.