By Marie Arana
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; C01
By Stacy Schiff
Little, Brown. 368 pp. $29.99
She was a child of incest, a born goddess, a queen by 18 -- and possibly the richest magnate in the Mediterranean before she turned 20. By 21, she was cavorting in bed with the most powerful emperor of her day, all in the service of her country. She married her brothers when she needed them, murdered them when she didn't. In time, she became a mother of four. But family concerns never crimped her. The fathers of her children were always somewhere else, on the other side of a sea, already married. Which left time to raise armies, build fleets, run with the big boys. She was Cleopatra, last of the great Egyptian pharaohs. Isn't history fun?
If you think two millennia of dusty research and hoary legend have told us all we need to know about this woman, you're in for a surprise. Stacy Schiff, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of three highly praised biographies -- of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Véra Nabokov and Benjamin Franklin -- has dug through the earliest sources on Cleopatra, sorted through myth and misapprehension, tossed out the chaff of gossip, and delivered up a spirited life.
First, she was not Egyptian; she was Greek. She was not dark-skinned; more like honey. If she and her ancestors murdered one another, they considered it no crime; if they practiced incest, there was never a word for it. She was hardly beautiful by Hollywood standards -- no Angelina Jolie, mind you. She was tiny, birdlike, with a pronounced hooked nose. She spoke numerous languages and was a gifted orator. She liked sex, but liked a good conversation better. She was no nymphomaniac: It is likely that Julius Caesar deflowered her. And, no, she wasn't delivered to him in a rug, as Elizabeth Taylor was delivered to Richard Burton; she came in a sturdy bag, tied with string, slung over a Sicilian's shoulder.
Schiff is especially skilled at limning the social contours of the story. The Romans were warriors, hooked on conquest, hard on women. To make wealth they needed to build empire. The Egyptians of Alexandria, on the other hand, were cultured, inventive, masters of the intellect. They built a vast library to prove it. They were astronomers for centuries before Rome even existed. Theirs was a city of mechanical marvels, and it boasted among its novelties "automatic doors and hydraulic lifts, hidden treadmills and coin-operated machines." But Alexandria was also a paradise of perfumes, a repository of the arts, an agricultural wonder -- a center that could feed and amuse its people in equal measure. If Cleopatra had needed to, she single-handedly could have fed all of Rome.
The differences between Rome and Egypt were nowhere so acute as in the ways they treated women. In Egypt, the females negotiated their marriages. They inherited alongside brothers, owned property independently. If a husband was financially irresponsible, the law sided with the wife and children. If Cleopatra needed a role model from among her ancestors, she could have chosen from any number of ruthlessly powerful queens. As Herodotus put it, Egypt was a country where a woman urinated standing up. In Rome, on the other hand -- even in palaces -- a woman was for horsetrading and making babies.
Nevertheless, Egypt relied on Rome for protection. As war-loving Rome hungrily gobbled its way through the Mediterranean, Egypt lost one neighbor after another. By the time Cleopatra inherited her father's throne, she was surrounded by Caesar. In order to consolidate her power against her brother, she appealed to Caesar himself. (Enter: muscular Sicilian, large sturdy bag.)
Schiff has a magpie's eye for detail; her Cleopatra, as a result, is hung with shiny bits of history. To wit: An infatuated Caesar struts through Rome in tall, scarlet-red boots to visit his mistress; Cleopatra cooks up recipes for baldness (equal parts burnt mice, burnt rag, burnt horses' teeth . . .) as handily as she might for contraception (salt, mouse excrement, honey and resin); Marc Antony likes to drink a little too much, and he's a master at crashing weddings; and, in a scene only a modern-day working mother could appreciate, Cleopatra sails to Jerusalem to negotiate with Herod, even as she is large with Marc Antony's child. But for all its splendor of detail, Schiff's book is a model of concision, and its brisk, vividly written chapters move with a swiftness the Nile never enjoyed.
Even as she recounts Cleopatra's exploits -- from bed to high sea -- Schiff is careful to separate what is likely to be true from what is likely to be twaddle. Well aware that most of the sources on which she must rely were written in biblical times, 50 B.C. to A.D. 150 -- anywhere from two decades to two centuries after Cleopatra was born -- she informs us whether she is quoting Plutarch or Cicero or Dio in her characterizations, and, in the process, these thoroughly feisty, opinionated bards, too, become part of the tale.
What fascinates Schiff, and fascinates us as we move through the story, is how unfair history has been to Cleopatra. Despite Caesar and Marc Antony's rampant sexual profligacy with uncountable wives, concubines and passing assignations, it is (serially monogamous) Cleopatra who is remembered as the panting seductress. Despite the reality that it was her staggering wealth and powerful fleets that Rome desperately needed, literature reduces her to a marginal exotic with a few womanly wiles. And despite her remarkable command of languages, razor-sharp mind and transcendent abilities as a ruler -- "every bit Caesar's equal as a coolheaded, clear-eyed pragmatist" -- it is the libidinous queen who lives on.
Perhaps, as Schiff says, too many poets and playwrights have spoken for her: "We have been putting words in her mouth for two thousand years. In one of the busiest afterlives in history she has gone on to become an asteroid, a video game, a cliche, a cigarette, a slot machine, a strip club." If Shakespeare once attested to her infinite variety, little did he know what half a millennium more would do. To add further irony, the publisher of this book announces brightly that none other than Angelina Jolie will star in Schiff's book's Hollywood adaptation.
Make no mistake, "Cleopatra" will drive some historians cuckoo: It conflates, guzzles centuries in a single sentence. It's too in love with the slick phrase. It has hiccups of repetition a more careful editor might have eradicated.
But it is a great, glorious spree of a story. In it, a formidable queen with brains, resources and a talent for having her way is caught in a shape-shifting moment over which she had no control. Struggling against the tide, as Schiff tells it, "she convinced her people that a twilight was a dawn and -- with all her might -- struggled to make it so."
She was a politician.
Arana is a writer at large for The Post. She is also a Distinguished Scholar at the John W. Kluge Center, Library of Congress.