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Review: Smart, witty, political woman emerges in Stacy Schiff's 'Cleopatra: A Life'

For the past 2,000 years or so, history has painted a sexy, scheming veneer on the queen of Egypt known as Cleopatra, so discarding the propaganda and finding a more accurate picture of the ancient monarch is no easy task. But Stacy Schiff's new biography, Cleopatra: A Life, scrapes away the grime to reveal a smart political strategist, a first-rate military contractor, a proud mother and a witty conversationalist. It's a startling, invigorating look at a history that has mostly blamed Cleopatra for the fall of great Romans. Perhaps that just comes with the territory when you're fabulously wealthy and a lover of two of the world's most famous military commanders. Schiff, who has also written biographies of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Vera Nabokov, begins this recounting with a 21-year-old Cleopatra in exile, banished by her brother Ptolemy. By the traditions of the day, Cleopatra and Ptolemy were supposed to rule over Egypt not only as brother and sister but as husband and wife, a family custom going back 300 years. But feuds among the Ptolemies were also something of a tradition. Cleopatra responded by smuggling herself back into the city of Alexandria, hoping for an audience with the visiting Roman general Julius Caesar. Rather than rolling herself up in a rug, as artists have depicted, she hid in a bag and let an adviser carry her in over his shoulder to meet Caesar.

She more than likely seduced him with her brains rather than her beauty, Schiff reports. Cleopatra received an excellent education from the finest tutors in the land, but coins with her face on them show she had a hooked nose and a jutting chin.

Thus begins a grand adventure: Cleopatra was the last pharaoh to rule over Egypt, always in the shadow of Roman power, which itself was transitioning from a republic to a monarchy. Her alliances with Caesar, and later Mark Antony, were not only romantic but overtly political — attempts to keep her throne and hold on to power during a tumultuous historical moment.

Cleopatra was a dictator at home and a power broker on the world stage, thanks to her access to Egyptian wealth and her ability to raise a formidable navy. The most refreshing aspect of Schiff's biography is that she credits Cleopatra as being a rational actor, someone who has strategic interests to look after, not merely a seducer of men. In Schiff's telling, Cleopatra had the kind of killer political instincts that we see in politicians of 2010.

Yet it would be a mistake to see this new Cleopatra as delightfully modern. The Cleopatra of old kept up the family tradition of ruthlessly murdering siblings and other relatives who threatened her right to the throne. She conducted grisly medical experiments on prisoners, poisoning and torturing them to discover which methods worked "best." And in a pagan culture, Cleopatra styled herself as a new Isis, the Egyptian deity. She reveled in pageants and parades throughout Egypt, and presented her children — a son by Caesar, two sons and a daughter by Antony — as godlike and herself as the great mother, becoming "Mother of Kings, Queen of Kings, the Youngest Goddess."

Her alliance with Caesar was cut short on the Ides of March, the day of Caesar's murder. Their union may fairly be described as at least a contributing factor to the motives of the conspirators who killed him in the name of preserving a republic. "If one prefers not to be perceived as a king, one is ill advised, for starters, to spend one's time consorting with a queen," Schiff notes wryly.

Cleopatra then moved on to Mark Antony, who at the time had military control of the East. Again, Cleopatra's romantic goals and political goals were intertwined. Antony's fall, though, took Cleopatra with him. Schiff spends some time on the days after his death when Cleopatra isolated herself and planned her suicide.

The most pleasing aspect of Schiff's biography is a fine sense of balance. She reminds us of the particulars of the ancient world we might have forgotten, but she also assumes we have some familiarity with world history and doesn't get bogged down in the basics. She tells us when she thinks the source materials get it right or wrong. She is authoritative while open to other interpretations. And she answers fun questions, like what happened to the wives of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony while the men were hanging out with Cleopatra?

"As has been pointed out, there were no plain, unvarnished stories in antiquity. The point was to dazzle," Schiff writes in her introduction. "I have not attempted to fill in the blanks, though on occasion I have corralled the possibilities. What looks merely probable remains here merely probable — though opinions differ radically even on the probabilities. The irreconcilable remains unreconciled. Mostly I have restored context." Schiff's restoration reveals a finer portrait of the woman known as Cleopatra.

Cleopatra: A Life

By Stacy Schiff

Little, Brown, 384 pages, $29.99

Review: Smart, witty, political woman emerges in Stacy Schiff's 'Cleopatra: A Life' 11/20/10 [Last modified: Saturday, November 20, 2010 3:30am]
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