Among the most famous women to have lived, Cleopatra VII ruled Egypt for twenty-two 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 any Egyptian ruler. For a fleeting moment she held the fate of the Western world in her hands. She had a child with a married man, three more with another. She died at thirty-nine, a generation before the birth of Christ. Catastrophe reliably cements a reputation, and Cleopatra’s end was sudden and sensational.
In lively, often sarcastic, prose, Schiff presents a portrait of Cleopatra only a woman, I think, could paint.
Cleopatra descended from a long line of murderers and faithfully upheld the family tradition but was for her time and place, remarkably well behaved. She nevertheless survives as a wanton temptress, not the last time a genuinely powerful woman has been transmuted into a shamelessly seductive one.
Speaking of those who wrote her first biographies, writers who viewed not only females, but the mysterious east itself as uncontrollable and therefore licentious, Schiff says, “A Roman could not pry apart the exotic from the erotic.” And the Romans weren’t alone. Centuries earlier, Euripides had warned that clever women were dangerous.
And clever she was. Though probably not beautiful. We don’t know for sure, but it seems certain she was no Elizabeth Taylor (RIP) in the looks department. Her powers as a politician and administrator were at least as great as her powers as a seductress, but historical lore gives her no credit for her skill as a ruler. Virtually every male king or emperor formed sexual and/or marital liaisons to extend and preserve his wealth and power (Henry VIII was atypical only in his excess.) That’s taken as a matter of course, and those guys credit for tactics and strategy. Cleopatra gets blamed for whoring and deceit. Schiff does an admirable job of making the case for these matters without preaching or self-pity.
I’m no student of Hellenistic history, so I just about doubled my knowledge from reading this one book. I was also mightily entertained. Schiff had precious little reliable information to work with. Huge amounts of the records of Cleopatra’s life and reign perished in the fires that destroyed the famous library (391 a.d.?) and the earthquakes that put much of the city underwater (1303). On the one hand, the lack of material is a handicap, on the other it gives a writer freedom to infer from what’s there and fill in gaps with educated guesses and imagination. This Schiff does with style and panache. It’s refreshing to encounter a scholarly work that’s as educational as it is entertaining. Nice job, Stacy, and thank you