Few figures of the Ancient World hold so powerfully the allure of myth and mystery as does the Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra. Much of the historical record of this most wondrous monarch is unknown, clouded in mystery, or garbled by a millennia of material penned by her enemies. Most of what we know was written by Roman historians in a language – Latin – unsympathetic to her and to her world. But despite these hindrances, the historical and mythical Cleopatra looms large in our consciousness.
Cleopatra has inspired artists as diverse as William Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw and Cecil B. DeMille. Even P. G. Wodehouse had a crack at her in this inspired lyric:
In days of old beside the Nile
A famous queen there dwelt.
Her clothes were few,
But full of style.
Her figure slim and svelte.
On every man that wandered by
She pulled the Theda Bara eye.
And every one observed with awe,
That her work was swift,
But never raw.
I'd be like Cleopatterer,
If I could have my way.
Each man she met she went and kissed.
And she'd dozens on her waiting list.
I wish that I had lived there.
Beside the pyramid.
For a girl today don't get the scope
That Cleopatterer did.
And when she tired as girls will do,
Of Bill or Jack or Jim,
The time had come, his friends all knew,
To say goodbye to him.
She couldn't stand by any means,
Reproachful, stormy farewell scenes.
To such coarse stuff she would not stoop,
So she just put poison in his soup.
When out with Cleopatterer,
Men always made their wills.
They knew there was no time to waste,
When the gumbo had that funny taste.
They'd take her hand and squeeze it.
They'd murmur "Oh you kid!"
But they never liked to start to feed,
Til Cleopatterer did.
She danced new dances now and then.
The sort that make you blush.
Each time she did them, scores of men
Got injured in the rush.
They'd stand there gaping in a line,
And watch her agitate her spine.
It simply use to knock them flat,
When she went like this and then like that.
At dancing Cleopatterer,
Was always on the spot.
She gave these poor Egyptian ginks,
Something else to watch besides the sphinx.
Marc Antony admitted,
That what first made him skid,
Was the wibbly, wobbly, wiggly dance,
That Cleopatterer did.
But that’s not all. Cleopatra was the lover of the two most powerful men of her age: Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. Her name is a synonym for feminine sexual power, for seduction, for unbridled ambition and for wanton sexuality. (We should all be so lucky.) With such baggage, what good does it do for the contemporary historian to set the record straight?
Well … much good. With Cleopatra: A Life, Pulitzer Prize winning biographer Stacy Schiff has written what might be the single most readable biography of this fascinating figure. Born in 69 BC, Cleopatra, like most of the ruling elite in Egypt, was Greek, descending from a long line of Ptolemies that traced ancestry back to Alexander the Great. Family relations were a complicated affair – brothers married sisters and most questions of succession were settled by inter-family butchery. But the Ptolemies had a genius for leadership and statecraft, and Cleopatra was one of the most accomplished of her line.
Cleopatra ruled from Alexandria, the most glorious city of the Ancient World. It had the world’s greatest library, was richly laden with civic art and treasures from Greece, and was populated by a worldly, educated and cosmopolitan people. It had a taste for luxury and spectacle, and may have been the richest nation in the civilized world. However, by the time Cleopatra had come to power, her empire was in decline and it was necessary to maintain good relations with the rising Roman republic. This she did through a heady mixture of bribery, bluff and bedroom shenanigans. Most dramatizations of Cleopatra, Schiff argues, are always weak tea in comparison to the genuine article: Cleopatra’s combination of genius, guile and the grandiose are too heady to load into a single artistic construct. Poets, playwrights and filmmakers often emphasize one component of her cosmic personality over another, distorting the complete picture.
Schiff’s book suffers somewhat from an overload of feminist sentiment. While it is important to appreciate that Cleopatra was out-maneuvering the boys in the all-male game of world domination, Schiff seems to argue that Cleopatra was history’s only significant female world leader, which surely would be news to figures as diverse as Queens Elizabeth and Victoria, Indira Ghandi, Margaret Thatcher and the Empress Dowager Ci'an. Schiff certainly would have scored higher points by detailing more of Cleopatra’s genius, sense of style, mastery of sexual politics and gift for statecraft and by harping less on her womanhood.
Where Schiff’s book excels is in her masterful evocation of the Ancient World, and the sense of scale, opulence and magnificence of Cleopatra’s Egypt. Reading the story of Cleopatra and her relations with both Caesar and Antony, you see giants walking the world stage, and get a sense of how beautiful and wondrous Ancient Egypt must have been.
Aesthetes have been tormented by visions of Egyptian beauty, and Schiff’s pages emit the rich, heady perfume of a bygone era. Here, in a particularly wonderful and particularly purple passage, Schiff details the preparations of Cleopatra and her barge for her first historic meeting with Marc Antony: The queen of Egypt’s presence was always an occasion; Cleopatra saw to it that this was a special one. In a semiliterate world, the imagery mattered. She floated up the bright, crystalline river, through the plains, in a blinding explosion of color, sound, and smell. She had no need for magic arts and charms given her barge with gilded stern and soaring purple sails; this was not the way Romans traveled. As they dipped in and out of the water, silver oars glinted broadly in the sun. Their slap and clatter provided a rhythm section for the orchestra of flutes, pipes, and lyres assembled on deck. Had Cleopatra not already cemented her genius for stage management she did so now: “She herself reclined beneath a gold-spangle canopy, dressed as Venus in a painting, while beautiful young boys, like painted Cupids, stood at her sides and fanned her. Her fairest maids were likewise dressed as sea nymphs and graces, some steering at the rudder, some working at the oars. Wondrous odors from countless incense-offerings diffused themselves along the river-banks.” She outdid even the Homeric inspiration … Earlier that evening or on a subsequent one Cleopatra prepared twelve banquet rooms. She spread thirty-six couches with rich textiles. Behind them hung purple tapestries; embroidered with glimmering threads. She saw to it that her table was set with golden vessels, elaborately crafted and encrusted with gems. Under the circumstances, it seems likely that she, too, rose to the occasion and draped herself in jewels. Pearls aside, Egyptian taste ran to bright semiprecious stones – agate, lapis, amethyst, carnelian, garnet, malachite, topaz – set in gold pendants, sinuous, intricately worked bracelets, long, dangling earrings. On his arrival Antony gaped at the extraordinary display. Cleopatra smiled modestly. She had been in a hurry. She would do better next time.
This is delicious stuff, and your correspondent read Cleopatra: A Life with considerable relish. This is a biography not to be missed.