Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life chronicles the life of a remarkable woman who has captured the imagination for two thousand years. Schiff sheds light on a figure hovering in the shadows of recorded history.
In her extensively researched biography, Schiff untangles fact from fiction, the Cleopatra gleaned from historical records versus the Cecil B. Mille/Claudette Colbert/Elizabeth Taylor portrayals. What emerges is a portrait of a highly educated woman, a brilliant strategist, intelligent, articulate, and with an uncanny ability to intuit exactly what a situation demanded and to mold herself effortlessly to manipulate it to her advantage. Above all, Cleopatra skillfully ruled an empire, expanding her territory and amassing resources and wealth that provoked the envy of Rome.
To remember Cleopatra exclusively for her romantic relations with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony is to do her a great disservice. She was far more than the sum of her sexual exploits. She pivoted her relations with these illustrious Romans for mutual benefit. Cleopatra needed their support to protect her empire; they needed her extensive resources to fight their battles.
Schiff convincingly attributes Cleopatra’s success to her brains rather than to her beauty or sexual prowess. Her accomplishment in governing a vast empire populated with competing demands was impressive. For a while she was able to seize any and every opportunity to promote herself and her empire. But she was also a woman—independent, charming, strong, powerful, capable, politically savvy, and a free-thinking one at that. Couple her success with Rome’s rampant misogyny and one can begin to understand why she was misrepresented, demonized, and accused of exploiting her sexuality to achieve success. As Schiff argues, “It is less threatening to believe her fatally attractive than fatally intelligent.” In short, Cleopatra was a victim of male fear of female power.
Schiff’s wealth of information made for challenging reading at times. It required an effort to keep track of the different characters and the roles they played, who did what to whom, and which of the numerous Ptolemies intermarried and/or were murdered by their sibling/spouse. A listing of the primary characters and a family tree showing connections would have been helpful. On the plus side, Schiff’s meticulous research is buttressed with detailed notes and an extensive bibliography and index. Her writing is engaging. The last few chapters in the book when Octavian is closing in on Mark Antony and Cleopatra have all the makings of a thrilling novel.
There is much we cannot know about Cleopatra. But by piecing together what is known with her informed suppositions, Stacy Schiff has gone a long way to unearth the background and exploits of this exceptional woman, arguably the most famous woman in history.
Highly recommended for those interested in biographies and history.