Given America’s recent and somewhat uneasy fascination with women in politics, it makes sense that we are seeing a revival of interest in Cleopatra, the subject of millennia of anxious caricatures about female power. As Stacy Schiff writes in her epic new book about the Egyptian queen, “All the issues that disrupt the dinner table, that go to our heads like snake venom, combine in her person…Female ambition, accomplishment, authority, trouble us as they did the Romans, for whom Cleopatra was more a monster than a marvel, but undeniably a little of both.” She was a brilliant politician and strategist who became, second only to Eve, an icon of sinuous feminine danger and manipulation. She has long been the archetypical femme fatale. And now she is becoming a different sort of archetype: the grossly underestimated female leader, mocked and demonized for her sexuality.
Schiff’s book is not the only new Cleopatra biography to come out this year. In April, Oxford published one by Duane Roller, a professor of Greek and Latin and the author of a book about King Herod, one of Cleopatra’s hostile contemporaries. (A Hollywood version is also in the works—Angelina Jolie, our own contradictory icon of homewrecking glamour and world-bestriding political activism, is set, fittingly, to star.) While Roller undoubtedly has the greater expertise as a scholar, Schiff, who has written lives of Saint-Exupéry, Vera Nabokov, and Benjamin Franklin, is unparalleled as a popular biographer. She excels at bringing distant settings to life, at spinning comprehensive research into juicy human drama.
Still, the two volumes have a broadly similar thrust. Both seek to rescue Cleopatra from what Roller calls “male-dominated historiography.” That is the kind of phrase that makes some people cringe, but these volumes demonstrate why feminist history is necessary, even if the line between correction and revisionism can be blurry. Cleopatra, Roller points out, “was a skilled naval commander, a published medical authority, and an expert royal administrator who was met with adulation throughout the eastern Mediterranean.” She probably had sex with no more than two men in her life—Caesar and Mark Antony—and yet she is remembered, above all, as a high-level slut.
Roman historians started it. Propertius called her “the whore queen.” Dio described her as “a woman of insatiable sexuality and insatiable avarice.” In the ensuing centuries, the view stuck. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the “lustful queen” occupies the second circle of hell, where “carnal sinners are condemn’d.” Shakespeare has Antony’s friend Philo lamenting his transformation into a “strumpet’s fool.” Cecil B. DeMille reportedly described her as “the wickedest woman in history.”
Such slurs are often hurled at powerful women. One of the most fascinating things about Schiff’s book is her depiction of the way the ancient world’s gender politics shaped epochal events. Cleopatra’s Egypt was reviled by Rome in part because Egyptian women had so much autonomy. As Schiff writes, they made their own marriages, inherited equally, and controlled property. Alexandria, which Schiff depicts as a kind of pagan Paris, had female mathematicians, doctors, and poets. “As much as one third of Ptolemaic Egypt may have been in female hands,” she reports.
Rome, meanwhile, was profoundly patriarchal. “Romans marveled that in Egypt female children were not left to die,” Schiff observes. “A Roman was obligated to raise only his first born daughter.” Roman women were without political and legal rights. They cast their eyes down in public. To Romans, Cleopatra’s power was horrifying, depraved. And when tensions between Rome and Egypt mounted, the rhetoric was saturated with misogyny. As Schiff notes, when Octavian declared war on Cleopatra he rallied his men with their obligation “to allow no woman to make herself equal to a man.” It was in Octavian’s Rome that Cleopatra’s history was written. The result, Schiff writes, “is a nineteenth-century British life of Napoleon or a twentieth-century history of America were it to have been written by Chairman Mao.”
Her attempt to correct the record suggests an audacity worthy of her subject. She is a generalist wading into a field full of experts steeped in the history and languages of the era. The original Roman sources are unreliable as well as hostile. There is little archaeological evidence: “No papyri from Alexandria survive,” writes Schiff. “Almost nothing of the ancient city survives aboveground. We have, perhaps and at most, one written word of Cleopatra’s.” Many of the most elementary details of Cleopatra’s life—who her mother was, whether she married Mark Antony, how she died—are unknowable. Others are a source of scholarly controversy. Given so many lacunae, what’s left for Schiff to do is to try to reconstruct the context in which Cleopatra lived and to deconstruct the carapace of myth that surrounds her memory.
She does not deny that Cleopatra was wildly decadent and, when need be, ruthless. Cleopatra had her rivalrous siblings murdered, though, as Schiff points out, this wasn’t at all unusual in the famously bloody and incestuous Ptolomaic dynasty. She used sex to secure power, first through her liaison with Caesar, then with Antony. But Schiff, like Roller, makes the case that Cleopatra’s intelligence and courage were what made her remarkable. She inherited the Empire when she was eighteen, and she steered it through droughts, currency crises, and complex diplomacy. She united her people and ran a vast, intricate bureaucracy with skill. “Her reign is notable,” Schiff remarks, “for the absence of revolts in Upper Egypt, suddenly quiet as it had not been for a century and a half.”
Schiff’s Cleopatra is a voluptuary as well as an administrator. The biography contains delicious scenes of Anthony and Cleopatra “at the height of their power, reveling amid heady perfume to sweet music, under kaleidoscopic lights, on steamy summer nights, before groaning tables of the finest food and wine in Asia.” Such cinematic flair makes Schiff’s Cleopatra far livelier and more readable than the more academic version by Roller, but it also may make it a little less reliable. According to Roller, some of the most dramatic episodes that Schiff recounts may not have happened, including the wonderful scene in which Cleopatra is smuggled across enemy lines and into Caesar’s quarters in a sack. It is hard, reading Schiff, not to suspect that her Cleopatra is a little too contemporary, a bit too much the fulfillment of our own ideas about female power. She is, among other things, spectacularly savvy about her image, using identity in a way that is almost postmodern.
When Cleopatra assumes the guise of a goddess, Schiff sees it as a deft deployment of religious symbolism rather than an actual religious identification. Traveling to meet Antony in Tarsus, Cleopatra “seemed determined to conjure a display so stunning it would propel Plutarch to Shakespearean heights, as it would elicit from Shakespeare his richest poetry.” The anachronism is bold and playful, but it is anachronism nonetheless. Schiff describes the queen floating up a bright, crystalline river “with gilded stern and soaring purple sails,” dressed as Venus, surrounded by boys made up like cupids and maidens disguised as sea nymphs and graces, with an orchestra playing on deck. “Had Cleopatra not already cemented her genius for stage management she did so now,” writes Schiff. But we do not know that Cleopatra was performing, or that she was engaged in some knowing exercise in image making. Isn’t it at least as likely that she believed herself divine?
Then again, maybe all biography is necessarily anachronistic. Perhaps, in order to understand historical legends as human beings, there has to be some sort of translation into the categories of our own experience. Schiff’s version of Cleopatra’s life has clearly corrected earlier biases and distortions, but it has probably added new ones. The Egyptian queen has proved even more protean in death than she was in life.
Michelle Goldberg is the author of Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism and The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power and the Future of the World. She is working on a book about the actress, adventuress and pioneering yoga exponent Indra Devi, to be published by Knopf in 2012.