“How would you like to be the wickedest woman in history?” This, Schiff tells us, is what Cecil B. DeMille asked Claudette Colbert when offering her the movie role of Cleopatra. It’s an indication that with the Egyptian queen, “In the match between the lady and the legend there is no contest.”
Cleopatra’s story was told first by her vanquishers and later by men wildly incapable of facing the reality of a smart, immensely powerful woman. Stacy Schiff, in her superb biography of Cleopatra, does her best to repair the damage. She takes on the myth and the tangled and muddled evidence surrounding this most intriguing of women, and builds a persuasive portrait that leaves behind the simplistic seductress and gives the empress her full due as brilliant leader, adroit politician and strategist, as well as beautiful and sexually alluring woman.
Schiff is a historian of the first rank. With each episode in Cleopatra’s life, she tells us what the ancient historians said—Dio, Plutarch, and others. She parses out their differing views, their contradictory “facts” and analyzes why they disagree. She points out how each Roman leader in turn, especially Octavian, that best all time rewriter of history, employed Cleopatra’s life for his own propaganda. She does this without boring us or bogging down in footnotes or academic small-mindedness.
So, for example, early on in the book, she creates a vivid first meeting between Julius Caesar and the young Cleopatra, to which the queen is taken bundled in a sack. We learn about the dire predicament in which Cleopatra finds herself, the rash gamble she makes, what she most probably wore and spoke about, the sublimely luxurious palace room she had herself smuggled into in order to present herself to the Roman general in a brilliant moment of one-upmanship that pushed her ruling brother aside. She achieves all this suspense and detail while still clearly defining what the knowns and unknowns are, what the sources do or don’t specify with certainty.
She pulls together not only information about Cleopatra but also about Egyptian life at that period so that we can see the setting, the apparel, the jewels and solid gold dinnerware, the statues of gods, the Alexandrian streets, the warships in the harbor and royal barges plying their way up the Nile with thousands of servants in attendance. She appraises the Romans with a satisfyingly satirical eye: Their sanctimonious hypocrisies, their insistence on preserving a republic while doing everything to undermine it, their nimble switching of sides during civil wars, their self-serving use of history are all accurately described. She gives full due to the faults and strengths of all the figures in this famous tale, Egyptian and Roman.
While this is history, not the page-turner a novel can be, it is an entertaining as well as elucidating read. The understanding Schiff gives us of leaders, sexual politics, global strategy, and human nature extend well beyond the first century B.C. For more ancient history reviews and articles www.judithstarkston.com