Cleopatra: A Life By Stacy Schiff
They called her the Queen of Kings. She built a kingdom into a mighty empire that stretched down the shimmering eastern coastline of the Mediterranean. She married—and murdered—her two younger brothers. She bankrolled Cesar and Antony and bore them both sons. She was worshipped as a goddess in her lifetime. She was lithe and darkhaired. She was not beautiful.
The scribes of her time were awestruck by her wit and money, never by her face—she was no Olympias, no Arsinoe II. The coin portraits she issued, our most accurate depictions of her, reveal a beaky little thing with a wide mouth and avid eyes, looking rather pleased with herself and resembling, of all people, Saul Bellow.
Why then this curious conspiracy (from Plutarch on) to recast Cleopatra VII, who lived from 69 B.C. until 30 B.C., as a great beauty? To market her—she who slept with only two men in her 39 years—as an insatiable sexual savant? (That the men in question were Julius Caesar and Mark Antony seems to speak more to her political ambition than any wantonness.) Why has this pragmatic and unprepossessing stateswoman been reduced to "the sum of her seductions?"
In her latest book, Stacy Schiff, the Pulitzer prize-winning biographer of Véra Nabokov and Benjamin Franklin, plucks at this riddle and what she discovers—about Cleopatra and the men who made her myth—is astonishing. To understand Cleopatra is to understand how ancient history was written, by whom and for whom, and why.
But first, Schiff must match her pen against the mischief-makers: Cicero and Horace, Shakespeare and Shaw. Artists from Boccaccio to Brecht have had a go at Cleopatra: Dio made her simper, Dante plopped her in the second circle of Hell (her sin: lust), Michelangelo coiled snakes around her throat. She's been distorted in sculpture, on the stage, made everywhere the pin-up girl for female faithlessness, guile, and corruption.
Schiff hacks through myth, "the kudzu of history," to search for the real woman. It's a formidable task—no papyri from Alexandria survive and other "lacunae are so regular as to seem deliberate." Schiff's is therefore a ginger history, a model of circumspection. Ready to leave the "irreconcilable unreconciled," she fills in the gaps with texture and context, careful speculation on places the queen would have been likely to go, duties she might have performed.