• Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff : Reviewed by Lucretia

    There are a few facts that have passed into folklore about Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt. She was an Egyptian ruler, who, as a mere girl, seduced Julius Caesar by making her entrance wrapped in a carpet. She later transferred her affections to Mark Anthony, Caesar’s General. He was utterly infatuated with her, and when he died in her arms she committed suicide by allowing a snake to bite her.

    Stacy Schiff, however, deftly demolishes all these so called facts, one after the other. But the real history of Cleopatra is even more amazing than the version that has come to us through plays and film. The real Cleopatra was Greek, from the elite Ptolemy clan. She began her life as a ruler when she was about sixteen by waging a civil war against her younger brother, who was also her husband.
    The opening chapters of Schiff’s book set out to give a flavour of the world in which Cleopatra grew up, and how she developed into an astute politician. However, reader and author also have to wade through the Ptolemy dynastic wars. The average baby Ptolemy had a very slim chance of growing to adulthood, not because of natural death, but because siblings poisoned and assassinated each other with grim determination. Cleopatra did for her brother/husband, and later in life had her sister, Arsinoe, despatched. (Arsinoe means ‘male-minded’, by the way – a perfect name for an Arrse maiden). If a Ptolemy daughter survived, she was then married off to her brother, uncle, nephew or even grandfather.

    However, the women of this family were by no means passive child-bearers, content, as the Romans said to ‘stay at home and spin wool’. Ptolemaic women ruled in their own right, with equal powers. Cleopatra was extremely well educated, and could speak several languages, a talent she put to use when charming Roman Emperors and Generals. Schiff emphasises the actual skills that Cleopatra had; this young Queen had no need to use magic or supernatural abilities to get what she wanted.
    Now for the carpet – Cleopatra used the disguise to be smuggled into the sight of Julius Caesar, in order to seek Rome’s protection against her brother. When Queen of Egypt and Ruler of Rome first met in BC48, he was fifty-two. She was not a young girl, being twenty-one, but as her husband was under ten when they married, it is likely she was a virgin. Caesar advanced her education; she soon became pregnant.

    This biography is careful to prize apart myth from reality, showing the reasons for near-contemporary writers to exaggerate Cleopatra’s achievements, or to blacken her name as “the painted whore”. However, when Cleopatra met Mark Anthony, myth and history collide. She really did make the journey up river to him on a gilded barge, incense wafting to the banks. And she had roses strewn a foot deep in their intimate dining room. Schiff, and I, find it hard to believe that after all that effort Mark Anthony had only a political interest in Cleopatra. However, he did have other women to whom he was promising the world, so alas, this may not be the greatest love story of myth and history.

    Anthony did redeem himself by dying in the arms of his Queen, and poor Cleopatra was left with no lover, and no political allies at all. A prisoner of Octavian (Caesar’s grandson, now Emperor) she committed suicide on Anthony’s tomb, although probably not with an asp in her grasp. Cleopatra, while confined under Octavian’s watch, had been experimenting with poisons and potions, and probably concealed something fatal in a basket of figs. And so the Queen died, and the legend was born.

    This is a fascinating biography from a very accomplished writer. (Schiff’s biography of Antoine Saint-Exupery won the Pulitzer Prize) This account of the life of Cleopatra is easy to read, but packed with lively historical details and sound analysis of primary and secondary sources. It is also a well-produced, good-looking volume that would make a lovely Christmas present for anyone with an interest in history, or interesting life stories. I have no hesitation in giving it the whole five mushrooms.

    Published on 4 November 2010 by Virgin Books

    Score: 5 Ms Winos