I heard of this book thanks to The Daily Show. I love bios about royal women and the author is obviously super-smart. So I went out and bought the book, and I promptly left it unread for a couple of years. (That’s a bad habit of mine.) The whole kerfuffle over Sony’s film adaptation brought it back to my attention.
Stacy Schiff gleefully debunks everything you thought you knew about Cleopatra. No, she wasn’t Egyptian. Not only was she Greek, she came from the same Macedonian stock as Alexander the Great. Yes, Cleopatra slept with both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, but she probably didn’t have to work hard to seduce two known womanizers decades older than she. No, her appeal did not come from drop-dead gorgeousness, but rather from intelligence, wit, and a sexy voice. (Actually, Cleopatra wasn’t described as a great beauty until after her death. It surely helped with the narrative of a man-eating, power-hungry femme fatale.)
But once you scrape away the myth – or as Schiff charmingly calls it, “the kudzu of history” – there’s not a lot of meat left. Schiff is very upfront about not having much to work with. Unlike with Caesar or Mark Anthony, none of Cleopatra’s writings remain. Surviving historical records don’t appear until more than a century after her death in 30 BC, and their accuracy is questionable to say the least. While Plutarch (AD 46-120) admires her and takes a more flattering approach, Cassius Dio (AD 155–235) has no qualms portraying her as a scheming, greedy hussy. (Keep in mind that Dio was greatly influenced by Octavian, Cleopatra’s nemesis and the conquerer of Egypt. As always, history is written by the victors.)
So what does that mean for this particular bio? Essentially, Schiff is reinterpreting biased accounts. Her method is to present a solid fact, and then reasonably conjecture around that fact. Cleopatra was born in 69 BC. Her upbringing would have been like this. Cleopatra regained control of the throne in 47 BC. On a typical day she would have done this. These passages are enlightening, yes, but focus on Cleopatra herself tends to get lost in them. It doesn’t help that she is surrounded by men whose stories are better documented. Mark Antony and Octavian probably get as much page time as the leading lady. Even Herod – yes, that Herod – gets a pretty in-depth aside.
If it ever gets off the ground, I’m curious about what the movie would do with Cleopatra’s story. It’s more entertaining, as well as easier, to depict this powerful woman as a sexpot rather than a politician or CEO. Her transformation is the most fascinating part of this book. History, as written by men, stripped her of every power except her sexuality, and then condemned her for using that sexuality. Three and a half stars.