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19 february 2011

Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra is one of those rare learned books that becomes an A-list pop-culture item overnight. I learned about the book from Entertainment Weekly, which isn't where I usually hear about meticulously documented, metahistorically self-conscious biographies of figures from the ancient world.

Although I have a mild interest in ancient Egypt, and I was a classics minor as an undergraduate, my ability to assess Stacy Schiff's use of sources in Cleopatra is basically nil. I can say that the book feels right. It doesn't expound on things that nobody can know anything about. Schiff takes sides, for sure. She admires her subject. Her intent is revisionary. But she seems careful not to become tendentious.

In fact, Schiff makes us aware of how there really are no untendentious accounts of Cleopatra in the historical record. When it comes to the Egyptian queen, everbody's a columnist and nobody's a reporter. Of the historians who describe Cleopatra's final interview with the victorious Octavian, Schiff says, "Plutarch is writing for Puccini, Dio for Wagner" (279). Dispassionate historiography was not the order of the day in the early centuries AD, and all the less when it came to the serpent of the Nile.

Schiff picks up the story of Cleopatra when her sources do: in 48 BC, when the fugitive queen was deposited at Julius Caesar's feet. In a roll of carpet, I had always heard; but it appears to have been more of a primeval duffel bag. Caesar's great opponent Pompey had just been assassinated by agents of Cleopatra's brother Ptolemy, who was fixing to assassinate Cleopatra herself. In this situation one would think that Caesar and Cleopatra would have been natural enemies, but evidently having assassinated one Roman strongman was giving Ptolemy a taste for more, and the endangered Caesar saw in Cleopatra an ideal ally, not to mention girlfriend.

As I was reading Schiff's exciting account of Caesar's sojourn in Alexandria, I kept wondering: what the hell was Caesar doing in Alexandria? If you are trying to avoid assassination by an Egyptian king, there are better places to do it, like one of the three parts of Gaul, or maybe even Rome. There's an idea! Stay in Rome, Egyptians are unlikely to murder you there. But no, Caesar appears to have chosen the most hairy moment of an Egyptian civil war to imprison himself in a palace in Alexandria, under constant fear of the authorities and the fickle populace.

But here's where I really came to appreciate Stacy Schiff's approach. Just when you are baffled by the motivations of her characters, she'll admit to being just as baffled:

Why did he stay? There is no convincing political explanation for the interlude, an illogical adventure in the life of a supremely logical man. It remains baffling that the greatest soldier since Alexander, "a prodigy of activity and foresight" on every other occasion, should have been blindsided and sandbagged in Africa. (62)
I used the term "characters" advisedly just now. Caesar and Cleopatra were eminently real people. But they come to us not as collections of life records but as creations in literary texts – in Caesar's case, many of them written by himself. And literary characters have the disadvantage of sometimes lacking motivation – or alternatively, of having entirely too much motivation.

The motivation that literature has always ascribed to Julius Caesar, and later to Mark Antony, has been sexual intoxication. Cleopatra is synonymous with being just so damn hot that men under her influence lose the power of reason. Schiff, however, finds an inconsistency behind this myth. If Cleopatra were simply a walking pheromone trap, then how did she herself run an enormous, horrendously complicated kingdom for the better part of two decades, mostly in peace, stability, and prosperity?

Cleopatra met the same fate as many Roman "client" monarchs did: expropriation and premature death (the latter probably not asp-related, according to Schiff). But she deferred that fate for 15 or 20 years longer than many of her peers. And in the process she became the richest person in her world, perhaps (though comparisons are largely useless) one of the richest who ever lived. She did not have a bad innings. And despite her deserved reputation as a party girl, she worked hard in between bouts of playing hard. She ran a big country – indeed, a big polyglot empire – and she played high-stakes politics in the most glamorous venue in Western history: the Rome of the first century BC.

Hence the revisionism of Schiff's biography, which is feminist both on principle and in light of the evidence. However much she used sex and motherhood to win over the leading men of her era, Cleopatra pursued rational and highly successful political policies. None of the later Roman and Hellenistic historians gave her much credit for that, but they were interested in defining male gravitas in retrospect. Somebody had to play the role of lightweight female counterpoint, and Cleopatra was the most obvious candidate.

For all her overt feminism, Schiff can succumb to an eternalizing essentialism about Woman. At one point she says that Cleopatra "had not seen Mark Antony in three and a half years, years any woman would want to render invisible" (190). A few pages later, our heroine is "resorting to loud, choking sobs, depending on the occasion the first or last weapon in a woman's arsenal" (212). My irony detectors weren't going off when I read those phrases, though it's possible they've been deadened over the past few years by the extremities of 21st-century rhetoric. Schiff often sees Cleopatra as cold-heartedly playing the part of a warm-blooded woman. But I think there's a tone in Schiff's book that sees Cleopatra as exceedingly strong and capable and highly gendered in a conventional sense.

Vanity having changed little in two millennia, it seems fair to assume that she and her attendants took scrupulous pains with her appearance. (190)
Female vanity may indeed have changed little in two millennia, but it has changed a lot over the past two decades in American popular culture, from radical insistence on the basic androgyny of our drives to a far greater acceptance, even among academic critiques of gender politics, of essential gender traits. Schiff's book comes at a 21st-century moment when you can enjoy being a girl and at the same time kick some serious geopolitical butt. Perhaps the same was true 21 centuries ago.

Schiff, Stacy. Cleopatra: A life. New York: Little, Brown, 2010.