In “Cleopatra: A Life,” Stacy Schiff handles the politics of the ancient world from 48 to 30 BC with the immediacy she might bring to a book about the Clinton or Bush administrations.
For two millennia, according to Schiff, the Egyptian queen has suffered from an image problem — largely because what we know about her comes not from Egyptian historians but from Roman ones, who had an agenda.
Schiff’s enthralling book has its own feminist agenda: to save this “capable, clear-eyed sovereign” from the slanders of history.
“Citing her sexual prowess,” Schiff complains acidly of the writers before her, “was evidently less discomfiting than acknowledging her intellectual gifts.”
Cleopatra was superbly competent, commanding Egypt’s military, regulating its economy, presiding over its temples (as high priestess and goddess) and negotiating with foreign powers.
“How wealthy was she?” Schiff asks. “Into her coffers went approximately half of what Egypt produced” — a fabulous amount that made her “incomparably richer than anyone else in the Mediterranean.”
During the 22 years of her reign, the Roman state was racked with civil wars. One war ended in 48 BC, when Julius Caesar defeated Pompey the Great, whom he chased to Egypt, where Pompey was murdered and Caesar was captivated by the 21-year-old Cleopatra. He was 52.
Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC. In the war that followed, the autocrats — chief among them the rivals Mark Antony and Octavian — defeated the republicans.
With their treasury depleted, the victors desperately needed Cleopatra’s money. She needed Roman favor for her empire to flourish.
In 41 BC, in Tarsus, she met Antony, making what Schiff describes as the most spectacular entrance in history. (Shakespeare lifted Plutarch’s description of it for the “barge speech” in “Antony and Cleopatra.”) Thereafter they were partners and lovers.
Nearly a decade later, Octavian finally declared war. He routed the lovers at the Battle of Actium, in late 31, closing in on them in Alexandria the following summer. Antony killed himself on Aug. 1, 30 BC, Cleopatra on Aug. 10 (probably, Schiff shows, by means of poison, not an asp).
Note the month. Octavian became Augustus Caesar, and “Augustus’ ego is embedded in the calendar, where it remains to this day, commemorating the fall of Alexandria.”
Cleopatra, meanwhile, became “the wickedest woman in history” (as Cecil B. DeMille called her when he was offering the role to Claudette Colbert), because that was the image that suited Augustus’ purposes.
He was a master of spin, and Schiff never has to belabor the point to bring out the parallels with present-day Washington. Ruthless, calculating and blandly mendacious, he was the Dick Cheney of Rome. The warm, impetuous and foolhardy Antony could have been its Bill Clinton.
More than a biography, Schiff has written a Fodor’s of the ancient world, with stops in its most famous cities: Rome, Athens, Jericho and, of course, Alexandria, “a scholarly paradise with a quick business pulse and a languorous resort culture ... a city of cool raspberry dawns and pearly late afternoons.”
After Cleopatra’s death, Egypt was downgraded to a Roman province. Its capital declined; much of it slipped into the sea and remains either underwater or buried under the modern city.
“Cleopatra” is published by Little, Brown (368 pages, $29.99).