Little, Brown: 370 pp., $29.99
You think 21st century culture is celebrity-obsessed? Try Mediterranean society at the dawn of the first millennium, when politics were entirely personal, and rulers’ romantic entanglements could be as important as the battles they won. Who needed movie stars, when the gargantuan appetites of the rich and famous shaped empires, not Hollywood budgets, and their out-of-wedlock offspring were displayed in triumphal parades, not tabloid magazine photos?
Cleopatra, the most famous woman in the ancient world, got lurid coverage Angelina Jolie might find familiar — which should be helpful as Jolie prepares for her possible role in the big-budget movie based on Stacy Schiff’s superb new biography, “Cleopatra: A Life.” Indeed, as Schiff retells it, Cleopatra’s story serves as a cautionary case study in the perils of celebrity.
She nurtured her public image with sumptuous displays that didn’t always convey precisely the message she intended. Her fascination has endured through the centuries, inspiring Shakespeare’s greatest female role and Hollywood’s most notorious big-budget disaster with Elizabeth Taylor wearing too much eye makeup, but posterity has been more interested in her fabled affairs with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony than her able rule over Egypt, whose declining fortunes she defended for two decades. Cleopatra manipulated the love of powerful men for her own and her kingdom’s advantage, earning the savage hostility of contemporary Romans and classical historians, who depicted her as a capricious seductress.
Shrewd political strategist is more accurate, Schiff suggests, and she casts a cool eye on overheated antique sources. Cleopatra led an epic life, and Schiff captures its sweep and scope in a vigorous narrative aimed at the general reader yet firmly anchored in modern scholarship. The author’s greatest strengths remain the lucid intelligence and subtle analysis of personality that distinguished her Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Véra Nabokov. Digging beneath “the encrusted myths and hoary propaganda,” Schiff provides context and insights that deepen our understanding of even the most celebrated incidents in Cleopatra’s career.
Cleopatra’s clandestine approach to Caesar to plead for his help in Egypt’s civil war, for example, is best known for the picturesque detail of Cleopatra being smuggled past enemy soldiers while hidden inside a rug. (Actually it was an oversized sack.) Schiff uses Cleopatra’s first stab at international diplomacy, in 48 BC, to spotlight several key facts: “ruses and disguises came naturally to her”; she could charm anyone; and at age 21, married for three years to a brother eight years her junior, she was quite likely a virgin. She was soon pregnant with Caesar’s child, but Schiff argues convincingly that they were drawn together by politics as much as passion. She could not rule without the backing of Rome. He needed a stable Egypt to provide the quantities of grain required to keep the restive Roman populace on his side in the power struggle that ultimately destroyed the Roman Republic.
Sexual liaisons were common means of cementing alliances in antiquity, Schiff notes. What disconcerted Romans was the fact that Cleopatra entered those liaisons independently, not as the pawn of a male relative. The Ptolemy dynasty’s habit of keeping the throne in the family via sibling marriages gave Egypt’s royal women uncommon stature and authority. Cleopatra did not intend to surrender that authority. She knew that the once-mighty Egyptian empire was now a client state, in danger of becoming a subservient province unless she cultivated influential Roman support. Schiff makes it clear that Cleopatra’s personal relations were the strategies of a monarch.
She lost her first patron when Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC. After his nephew Octavian and Mark Antony defeated the assassins and divided the Mediterranean world between them, Cleopatra needed to cultivate Antony, who controlled the East. Again, Schiff digs beneath the surface of a mythic encounter to excavate more essential matter. Displaying her formidable flair for drama, Cleopatra’s showstopping entry into Tarsus fixed her image in Roman minds as the incarnation of “the intoxicating land of sex and excess.” When Cleopatra, clad as Venus, sent word that she had come “to revel with Bacchus for the good of Asia,” she unerringly struck the right note with Antony, who fancied himself as an incarnation of the god of wine and was instinctively attracted to Egypt, where rulers were also deities.
Once Cleopatra had established the power and wealth that made her a desirable ally, writes Schiff, “she assumed the role of boon companion,” adapting her nimble sense of humor to match Antony’s taste for earthy jests. Egypt’s precarious independence and the survival of her dynasty depended on this ability “to molt, instantly and as the situation required.”
But Cleopatra could not shape-shift enough to placate Octavian, Caesar’s official heir and natural enemy of the mother of Caesar’s son. Her hold on Antony endured but could not ultimately sustain her ambitions; he just wasn’t as crafty as Octavian, who was more of a rival than a partner. Schiff’s astute tracing of their prickly interactions from 42 to 31 BC shows Octavian cannily smearing Antony as the effeminate lackey of a power-hungry queen who schemed to rule Rome. Cleopatra’s real goal, Schiff persuasively contends, was to protect her position and her children (she also had three with Antony), but Octavian had the better circumstances: The world “divided into a masculine, rational West and a feminine, indefinite East.” Allies fell away; Cleopatra and Antony’s situation grew desperate as hostilities swept them toward the disastrous battle of Actium.
The grim denouement shows Antony sinking into despair while Cleopatra, quick-witted and resourceful as ever, negotiated with the victorious Octavian to salvage what she could. Her maneuvers may have included betraying Antony — “she had been ruthlessly pragmatic before,” Schiff acknowledges — but the author also notes that the accusations of hostile chroniclers hardly constitute proof. In the end, Cleopatra realized she could salvage nothing and chose to commit suicide after Antony. Schiff’s stark rendition of her final days captures the desolation of a sovereign who knew that her dynasty and the independence of her nation died with her. Taking Cleopatra’s political goals seriously, Schiff reanimates her as a living, breathing woman: utterly extraordinary, to be sure, but recognizably human.
Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.”