What does anyone really know about Cleopatra? Her Alexandria is underwater, her appearance a mystery, her childhood a blank. Early chroniclers of her life wrote not for the sake of truth but for Rome. Later ones wrote not for the sake of truth but for tragedy. Historians have cited Shakespeare as a source—which is “a little like taking George C. Scott’s word for Patton’s,” notes Stacy Schiff in her new biography of Egypt’s final queen. Cleopatra is a name, a legend. And yet Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life, is startling. Rarely have so distant a time and obscured a place come so powerfully to life. It is a great achievement. It is also a provocative one. Faced with the perplexing question of how to write about a person when the evidence is sketchy and often misleading, Schiff has hit on an ingenious solution. She has written a biography in negative, describing the outlines of what she cannot know by brilliantly coloring around the queen.
Schiff does have a skeleton to work with, some (mostly) uncontested facts. Born in 69 B.C., Cleopatra VII was the last of the Ptolemaic rulers, kings and queens who fashioned themselves pharaohs and boasted of their descent from a general of Alexander the Great. Her lineage is impossible to untangle but certainly inbred and stunted; her ancestors had a tendency to kill each other (as Cleopatra would later kill her siblings). She was the lover—though what part love played is a matter for speculation—of Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, the world’s two most powerful men, and the mother of their children. For good measure, she was a nemesis of the third, Octavian. Independent, intelligent, charismatic, and ambitious, she was a ruler first and last.
Her enemies called her a harlot. Schiff sees her as pragmatic. Throughout her life, Rome would need Egypt’s money, and Cleopatra would need its favor. Seduction is always a part of diplomacy, and Cleopatra knew how to cajole, humor, flatter, and intimidate. She understood that appearances matter. When Cleopatra went to Marc Antony in Tarsus, she arrived on a barge dressed as Venus, fanned by little Cupids. She could control her entrance, if not her reputation.
Schiff repeatedly summons other historians’ accounts and then points out why they can’t be trusted. But once she has established the likely motivations, she is not afraid to tell the good story. At times, she does what she more often condemns, indulging in flights of fancy—even while establishing what’s speculative, what’s false, and what’s grounded in truth. While Antony “gaped” at one show of luxury, “Cleopatra smiled modestly. She had been in a hurry. She would do better next time.” Considering the patchy historical record, it’s unsurprising that the queen is sometimes overwhelmed by the vividness of those around her. Cicero—priggish, fuming—nearly runs away with the story. Caesar is alluring, and Antony almost ridiculously so, a man renowned for conquests of land and women alike, his “tunic tucked high on his rolling hips.”
It’s also unsurprising that Cleopatra seems like a woman we would admire today: smart, practical, strong, loving, and feminine. Some of this is correcting past biases; clearly, Cleopatra was a strong and ambitious ruler, not just a consort or a vixen. One of Schiff’s accomplishments is to establish how historians (like rulers) write with their own agendas. Schiff, of course, does too. And yet, comforted and convinced by the careful disclaimers and swift story, one hates to feel suspicious. Schiff has the reader in her hand, as Cleopatra had Antony on that riverbank.