Another retro review, this one from September 15, 2010.
Retro Review: Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff, 2010.
So what does Stacy Schiff bring to the study of Cleopatra?
A dramatic narrative that opens with a 21 year old Cleopatra smuggling herself, in a rug, to meet Julius Caesar at her old palace in Alexandria. A prose that strives so hard to be elegant that it occasionally trips up, is a bit too discursive at times like going into Florence Nightingale’s impressions of Alexandria, comparing the entrance of Cleopatra into Tarsus with other famous entrances that include Howard Carter into King Tut’s tomb and the Beatles on Ed Sullivan’s show. A tone of rather conventional feminism – history as one long tale of male domination with strong women resented and lied about – rubs against passages where Cleopatra wistfully fears her most beautiful years are behind her, where she resorts to a woman’s first and last weapon of tears. We are sometimes faced with a false choice of seeing Cleopatra as a seducer or a superbly intelligent woman of many talents. Why not both?
Those are all minor quibbles. The Cleopatra of drama and song and painting has so much allure, so much name recognition, that Schiff would have to be a truly pathetic writer to make her into a boring, obscure figure, another one of those figures from the ancient world who is mute on their own life. Instead, Schiff’s prose accomplishes what a good historical narrative should – propels you forward through a story whose end you already know.
Does she bring anything new to Cleopatra? I have no idea. This is the first biography of the queen I’ve read.
I can tell you that, since I usually read general or topical histories of Rome, I found this biography offered some perhaps trivial, perhaps important events not covered in those books. For instance, is Cicero’s hostility towards Cleopatra really just because she didn’t deliver a book she promised him? It’s also an interesting parallax on Caesar’s dictatorship and the chaos after his death, a good companion to Adrian Goldworthy’s Caesar: Life of a Colossus. Because we have, at most, one word in her hand, we must see Cleopatra the seducer, general, poisoner, doctor, and mother through other eyes. And, while I think Schiff is a bit too skeptical of them, I agree with her conclusion, after carefully examining the Roman and Roman collaborator ( i.e. Josephus) accounts of her, that they do sound suspiciously formulaic in parts.
Schiff takes time to cover some important contextual matters of Cleopatra’s life. The command and control of the incredibly wealthy Egyptian economy was a revelation to me as was the native Egyptians’ loyalty to the first Ptolemic ruler to take an interest in them. We also learn a fair amount about the young Herod and his particularly viperous family.
And we get a look at some mysteries of the queen’s life: Why did she flee the Battle of Actium, a battle vaguely covered in ancient records? Why did she keep the defeated Antony around Alexandria afterwards? Love? Pity? Fear of Roman reprisals if she killed him? How did she die?
Schiff gives us a life that is better and more interesting than the legend.
More reviews of Roman related non-fiction are indexed at the Rome page.