Last updated on July 23rd, 2016
Who was Cleopatra? The erotic queen of Egypt? “The wanton seductress” who consorted with the two most powerful Romans of her time—Julius Caesar and Mark Antony? The “insatiable, treacherous, blood-thirsty, power-crazed” destroyer of men, a woman who “hailed from the intoxicating land of sex and excess”—“the occult, alchemical East?” From the writings of Cicero, Augustus Caesar, and Plutarch—all Romans—to Shakespeare’s play Antony and Cleopatra to the 1963 movie Cleopatra, we have been the captives of a powerful legend that distorts the life of one of the most intelligent, capable, and highly educated rulers in history.
And, now, with the publication of Stacy Schiff’s biography, Cleopatra: A Life, we have an opportunity to reappraise our understanding of this most unusual woman, who has fascinated millions of people for over two thousand years. Schiff lays out her strategy in the first chapter: To strip away the narrative myth and restore Cleopatra’s rightful place in the pantheon of gifted rulers. The deed requires, she explains, not only peeling “away the encrusted myth and the hoary propaganda” but also salvaging the few facts that are known about her. Several primary sources, written about her long after she died, had a distinctly Roman bias and perpetuated this “encrusted myth”: Plutarch, Appian, Dio. But the most deceitful propagandist lived during her lifetime, and he defeated her. Octavian (also known as Augustus Caesar)—archrival of Mark Antony—“elevated her to a perilous adversary,” convincing his Roman subjects that this Egyptian Queen who, for twenty-two years, “sustained a vast, rich, densely populated empire,” was a whore.
Because “there is no universal agreement on most of the basic details of her life, no consensus on who her mother was, how long Cleopatra lived in Rome, how often she was pregnant, whether she and Antony married, what transpired at the battle that sealed her fate, how she died,” no one knows for sure the “facts” of Cleopatra’s life. Only one authentic image of her exists—on her coin portraits. Only one word she uttered meaning “Let it be done” can be attributed to her. “No papyri from Alexandria survive.” Not much of Cleopatra’s Alexandria bears witness to her life or reign. Her palace slid into the Mediterranean Sea after a fifth-century earthquake. Nothing of the vast Ptolemaic library her predecessors built is extant. And Alexandria itself has sunk more than twenty feet since the time she lived. It is almost as if Cleopatra’s Alexandria never existed, “its Hellenistic chapter forgotten.” And yet, according to Schiff, the advanced civilization that was the center of Cleopatra’s life “was reborn with the Renaissance.”
Given that Cleopatra has been enmeshed in myth and drama and hyperbole for two thousand years, Schiff relies, then, on her own examination of the sources that do exist, searching for the possible, the probable, the plausible, and separating the truth from the lies and the probable from the dramatic. (She also relies on the most recent research about women who lived in the ancient world.) She does not attempt “to fill in the blanks, though on occasion I have corralled the possibilities. What looks merely probable remains here merely probable…. The irreconcilable remains unreconciled. Mostly I have restored context.”
“Context” refers to “the part of a text or statement that surrounds a particular word or passage and determines its meaning.” It can also refer to “the circumstances in which an event occurs,” or to a “setting.” In the broadest sense, what follows is an abridged version of the “setting” or “context” in which Cleopatra lived her thirty-nine years: Born a Macedonian Greek, she inherits at the age of eighteen a declining Ptolemaic empire from her father Ptolemy XII (Auletes) in 51 B.C.; she begins her Egyptian rule with Ptolemy XIII, her ten-year-old brother, as co-regent; they live in the royal palace in Alexandria, the city founded by Alexander the Great three hundred years before; she calculates that the sovereignty of her empire depends on keeping Rome, a rising superpower, at bay; she befriends Julius Caesar (a man of voracious sexual appetite, according to the sources), and gives birth to his son whom she names Caesarion; she sails to Rome for the first time and introduces Caesarion to Caesar—she is not welcomed by the populace; she returns to Alexandria after Caesar is assassinated and rules Egypt with complete authority, majesty, and popularity; she and her empire are threatened with annexation when Antony and Octavian defeat Cassius and Brutus (complicit in Caesar’s assassination) in a brutal war; Egypt falls under Antony’s purview; Cleopatra woos him and they begin a nine-year relationship; they have three children together—half-Egyptian, half-Roman; Cleopatra and Antony end their lives within days of each other after Octavian’s forces defeat Antony at Actium.
In its specific meaning, “context” refers to the part of a text in which a word or passage is embedded and determines how it is to be interpreted. With this denotation in mind, Schiff’s determination to restore Cleopatra’s image as “a capable, clear-eyed sovereign,” who “knew how to build a fleet, suppress an insurrection, control a currency, alleviate a famine,” necessitates her sifting through the sources, comparing the different versions, weighing the bias against her, and interpreting the context in which this bias occurs so that a more honest and truthful picture of Cleopatra emerges. This bias is clearly present in the numerous misogynous representations of Cleopatra that snowballed into an “encrusted myth” that Schiff successfully deconstructs. For example, Dio, who was writing two centuries after her death, passed on the version of her as “a woman of insatiable sexuality and insatiable avarice.” Dante called her “a carnal sinner,” Boccacio, “the whore of eastern kings,” Dryden, “a poster child for unlawful love.” Even Florence Nightingale got into the act and named her “that disgusting Cleopatra,” and Cecil B. DeMille identified her as “the wickedest woman in the world.” Schiff attributes this malicious attribution to the fear that men felt about her when they realized she was as intelligent, confident, and educated as any man. She “was versed in politics, diplomacy and governance; fluent in nine languages; silver-tongued and charismatic,” and she could declaim as well as they could. As Schiff writes: “She elicited scorn and envy in equal and equally distorting measure; her story is constructed as much of male fear as fantasy.” It was more consoling to the male ego to accuse her of sexual predation than it was to recognize “her independence of mind, the enterprising spirit.” Her enemies had perpetrated a lurid myth that she could not escape. Schiff concludes: “Citing her sexual prowess was evidently less discomfiting than acknowledging her intellectual gifts.”
Schiff’s Cleopatra was neither a sex siren nor a nymphomaniac who ensnared men and subjected them to her wiles. She, like any ruler in the first century B.C., engaged in some of the more lethal machinations of governance, such as her assassinating Ptolemy XIV, her brother, and Arsinoe, her sister (who, it should be said, tried to depose Cleopatra). She was also the commander in chief, and as such, prepared her fleets for war, sometimes switching sides when it became apparent that her ally was going to lose. As “the sole female of the ancient world to rule alone and to play a role in Western affairs,” she needed to be a realist and pragmatist, as well as a brilliant manager of stagecraft and performance. After all, she was playing with the big boys in the area.
In mid-October 48 B.C., Cleopatra staged her first performance—for Julius Caesar. Small and lithe and honey-skinned, she made up for her not-so-beautiful looks with intelligence, wit, and an incisive instinct for survival. (Was she as homely as Plutarch recorded: “Hooked nose…full lips, a sharp, prominent chin, a high brow,” wide and sunken eyes?) Schiff describes the circumstances in which Cleopatra found herself. Caesar had defeated the Roman General Pompey, a family patron, friend and ally (he was bought off by Cleopatra’s father, Auletes), in Greece; Pompey sought refuge in Egypt; Ptolemy XIII, Cleopatra’s brother, and his advisers, stabbed him to death and decapitated him to gain favor with Caesar; when Caesar landed on Egyptian soil, they handed him Pompey’s head. Caesar was not amused, though he declared victory and proceeded to install himself in Cleopatra’s palace.
While the civil war between the two Romans was raging in the Mediterranean, Cleopatra was raising an army to depose her brother, who had banished her from the kingdom the year before. She had been living in the desert in Syria and was preparing to regain her rightful place as queen of Egypt. Caesar summoned the feuding siblings to appear before him. Ptolemy XIII refused the invitation. Cleopatra, fearing her brother would kill her if she breached his offensive line, divined a ruse that would establish her as a master of bold and ingenious stagecraft. Schiff describes the ruse in scripted delight: Cleopatra hired a “Sicilian retainer named Apollodorus” to smuggle her “back into her own house”; they “presumably” (Schiff’s word—a note of assumption, not “fact”) sailed up the Nile and into the Alexandrian harbor where Apollodorus maneuvered “a tiny two-oared boat” and docked it; Cleopatra “crawled into an oversize sack of hemp or leather” that the Sicilian rolled up and secured “with a leather cord, slinging it over his shoulder”; she then “rode through the palace gates and directly into Caesar’s quarters, rooms that properly belonged to her.” Caesar must have been impressed, Schiff claims in a note of understatement.
Cleopatra had nothing to lose and everything to gain if her bold act worked. She could choose to be killed by her brother or by Caesar, but she reasoned Caesar was the better bet if she wanted to live. The Romans were all over their neighborhood in the Mediterranean, and “it was essential to befriend the most powerful Roman of the day.” This was a masterpiece performance. As Schiff observes, “Many queens have risen from obscurity, but Cleopatra is the only one to have emerged on the world stage from inside a sturdy sack….”
The outcome of this adventure, one of the first in which she broke every rule in the book? Schiff reports: “The balding veteran general and the agile young queen [she was twenty-one years old] emerged as close allies, so close that by early November, Cleopatra realized she was pregnant.” The Alexandrians were not pleased. They despised the Roman General that their Queen was now embracing, literally. Ptolemy XIII used the Alexandrians’ anger to fuel a guerilla war outside the palace grounds. Eventually, Caesar defeated Ptolemy XIII in a fierce battle in which Ptolemy apparently threw himself off the ramparts and was killed.
When Caesar landed in Alexandria, he could have killed Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIII. For a number of reasons, some unknown to us, he gambled that saving Cleopatra’s life was more beneficial to him and to Rome, if only for the indisputable fact, among others, that he needed a stable Egypt that “produced more grain than it consumed. Cleopatra could single-handedly feed Rome.” Schiff aptly captures the Roman’s probable thinking: “The captivating young woman before him—who spoke so effectively, laughed so easily, hailed from an ancient, accomplished culture, moved amid an opulence that would set his countrymen’s teeth on edge, and had so artfully outfoxed an army—was one of the two richest people in the world.” Confident, intelligent and charming, Cleopatra impressed the old General. According to Schiff, he did not want to rule Egypt: “He had clearly discovered that Cleopatra was in many respects similar to her country: a shame to lose, a risk to conquer, a headache to govern.”
Cleopatra was not all ruse or disguise, stagecraft or spectacle. If she needed these skills for a specific purpose, she could ably put them to good use, but they were not sufficient to rule a territory as diverse and wealthy and civilized as the Ptolemaic empire that she had inherited. Cleopatra had passed this first test on the world stage and had saved her life, but she would need more than this savvy to govern: It would require every ounce of political acumen she had learned as a child living in a Ptolemy household fraught with high drama. She knew that the essentials for effective governance—“affluence, power, and legitimacy”—“were inextricably bound together.” She also correctly diagnosed that her destiny and that of the Ptolemaic empire specified something more transcendent than political transactions. Thus, when Cleopatra identified herself with Isis, the goddess of Egypt and Greece, she was elevated to the divine. She would add wisdom to those other essentials.
In Egypt, Isis, the ancient goddess and “consummate earth mother” enjoyed nearly unlimited powers, and she “ranked as the greatest deity of the day.” “Isis had invented the alphabet (both Egyptian and Greek), separated earth from sky, set the sun and the moon on their way…. She cured the sick and raised the dead. She presided over love affairs, invented marriage, regulated pregnancies, inspired the love that binds children to parents, smiled on domestic life.” For Cleopatra, it was a stroke of luck that Ptolemy XV (Caesarion) was born almost at the same time as the annual feast of Isis at which Cleopatra’s subjects gave her gifts to celebrate the holiday. Cleopatra’s motherhood conjoined with the worship of Isis to ensure Cleopatra’s unquestioned legitimacy, especially her new role as mother of the kingdom. Schiff writes at length about Cleopatra’s identity as Isis. It is a big deal: “Cleopatra played up the role of Isis as provider of wisdom and of spiritual sustenance,” and she appeared in “striking Isis attire”—linen mantle, chiton, corkscrew curls, diadem. “On religious occasions, a traditional pharaonic crown of feathers, solar disk, and cow’s horns” rested on her head. As Cleopatra-Isis, she appealed to her two constituents, Greek and Egyptian, and this identity offered “a versatile conflation of two cultures.”
As Queen, as Isis, Cleopatra “was magistrate, high priest, queen, and goddess”—and CEO. Schiff enumerates her responsibilities: “She not only dispensed justice, commanded the army and navy, regulated the economy, negotiated with foreign powers, and presided over the temples, but determined the prices of raw materials and supervised the sowing schedules, the distribution of seed, the condition of Egypt’s canals, the food supply.” As merchant-in-chief, she ensured that her people reaped the bounty of the Nile: Her “harvests were the greatest in the Mediterranean world,” and Egypt, producing “more grain than it consumed,” could not only feed Rome but also starve it. The bureaucracy she administered functioned to her advantage: “It was Cleopatra’s role to tax the people, the people’s role to fill her coffers.” She taxed oil, salt, dikes, pastures—anything she could name, she taxed it. Its industries included “wheat, glass, papyrus, linen, oils, and unguents”—all royal monopolies. Into Cleopatra’s coffers went half of what Egypt produced. This was what was owed her as Queen, and the wealth she derived from it was a buffer against Rome. Schiff emphasizes how fabulously rich Cleopatra was; it was her wealth that prevented Rome from toppling her empire.
Schiff’s Cleopatra: A Life presents a woman in the prime of her life who successfully ruled a wealthy, vast kingdom, while Rome, a rising superpower, breathed down her neck. She lived during a time when it was dangerous for a woman to exhibit power, especially a queen who was intelligent, educated, shrewd, decisive, and wise. She was a formidable foil for the Romans. She gave birth to Caesar’s son to protect her kingdom. She wooed Mark Antony, Caesar’s protégé, and bore his three children to maintain an imperfect peace between the two countries. As Schiff reads her, she was a client queen, a friend and ally of Rome, who “had little choice but to cultivate and mollify Mark Antony…. Antony controlled the East. Egypt fell under his purview.” To keep Egypt sovereign, she adhered to the ruling principle that Egypt was always vulnerable to Rome.
And she accomplished this feat the Cleopatra way. When Octavian and Antony joined forces and defeated Cassius and Brutus in Phillippi in 42 B.C., their triumph brought Antony to the borders of Cleopatra’s kingdom. Like Caesar before him who had summoned Cleopatra to her palace in Alexandria, Antony summoned her to Tarsus (near the southeastern coast of modern Turkey). Cleopatra, twenty-nine years old and the mother of Caesar’s son, was vulnerable to Rome’s predation, again—this time she would lose everything if she did not gain Antony’s favor. She was not going to leave anything to chance. No clandestine trip up the Nile. No sneaking into her own home in a sack. No pleading to a Roman general twice her age. Given her predilection for spectacle, Cleopatra traveled by barge to meet her future lover in style. Schiff quotes Plutarch: “She herself reclined beneath a gold-spangled 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 ropes. Wondrous odors from countless incense-offerings diffused themselves along the river-banks.” (This was pure over-the-top Cleopatra, according to Schiff, even if Plutarch was the source.) When Cleopatra arrived and greeted Antony in Tarsus, she declined his offer for dinner—“she did not answer summonses; she delivered them”—and, instead, invited him to dine with her. At this dinner (or another one like it), Cleopatra displayed her wealth for Antony: “Thirty-six couches with rich textiles,” “golden vessels, elaborately crafted and encrusted with gems,” and, according to Schiff, “it seems likely that she, too, rose to the occasion and draped herself in jewels”—semiprecious stones, such as “agate, lapis, amethyst, carnelian, garnet, malachite, topaz.”
Cleopatra’s Egypt and Antony’s Rome were contrasts in the extreme. Egypt’s Alexandria was the “greatest intellectual center of its time,” while Rome was a parochial backwater. Alexandria’s library was the pride of the civilized world, scholarship its core. Alexandria was the city where “the circumference of the earth was first measured, the sun fixed at the center of the solar system, the workings of the brain and the pulse illuminated, the foundations of anatomy and physiology established, the definitive editions of Homer produced.” Perfumes and unguents wafted everywhere: on the streets, in the shops, at banquets and ceremonies. The atmosphere was festive—colorful, sensuous, musical, raucous, fragrant. Its main avenue, the Canopic Way, “could accommodate eight chariots driving abreast.”
No wonder the Romans called that other city two thousand miles across the Mediterranean depraved; for them it was an “intoxicating, intemperate, irrational realm,” “a sinuous, sensuous land.” Serious, sober, coarse, literal-minded, straight and narrow, they had no time for those Egyptians, whom they considered perverse and deceptive. Their city, Rome, was monochromatic; their buildings wood and plaster, their streets crooked, congested, muddy. There was no main avenue like Canopic Way, no central plan. According to Schiff, it was “squalid and shapeless…perpetually in shadow.” In short, it was a city that did not have much to recommend itself, especially for a visitor like Cleopatra, whom the Romans labeled erotic and exotic. (They could not tell the difference.)
And, yet, Alexandria and Rome needed each other like two co-dependents that cannot adjust to the other but also cannot leave the other alone. It was a political cat and mouse game for Cleopatra and a military and economic one for Rome. Rome needed Egypt because of its wealth, and Egypt needed Rome because Rome protected it. This equivalence Cleopatra accepted, but annexation would be a blow. In 30 B.C., this is exactly what happened. Cleopatra was beaten and committed suicide. With her death, the great Ptolemaic empire came crashing down. Egypt was undone.
Perhaps Cleopatra’s demise had begun as early as Caesar’s assassination in 44 B.C. Surprisingly, Caesar left nothing to her or to their son, Caesarion. He also left nothing to his protégé, Mark Antony. Instead, he named his eighteen-year-old-nephew, Octavian, whom he formally adopted, as his heir and gave him three fourths of his fortune and, “more valuably,” his name. Whether Caesar intended it or not, his action set up almost fifteen years of an on-and-off struggle for dominance between Octavian and Antony, and it would, as Schiff so cogently shows, implicate Cleopatra in the most intimate and devastating way.
Octavian and Antony were physical opposites. Whereas Antony was a hunk—“barrel chested, mighty-thighed” and “ridiculously handsome with a thick head of curls and aquiline features”—Octavian was diminutive, sickly (he had to be carried on a litter at the battle of Philippi), and “wore lifts in his shoes.” Antony was Dionysus; Octavian a “rash boy.” (He was also a hypocrite. Octavian had a “habit of making off with the wives of his banquet guests and returning them, disheveled, to the table.”) Schiff describes Antony’s sexual prowess: “The truth was that wherever Mark Antony went, sexual charm inevitably followed. His tunic tucked high on his rolling hips, he had slept his way across Asia at least once; he was fresh from his liaison with another client queen” when he and Cleopatra began their affair. Temperamentally, Antony and Octavian lived on different planets. Antony was joyful, capricious, sentimental, simple, impulsive; Octavian was ruthless, calculating, patient. As Schiff explains, the rivalry between the two men must have started early on, but Antony was slow to catch on: “And yet at every juncture he continued to surprise Antony. A victim of his own easygoing confidence, acting from what he perceived to be his superior position, Antony regularly found himself manipulated. He engaged in a rivalry he had not even considered one, with a ‘rash boy’ who had come from nowhere. Antony was without guile, of which he was often oblivious. Octavian was without charm, equally lost on him.” Antony’s temperament and his inattention to Octavian’s obsessive hunger for power would be Antony and Cleopatra’s undoing. Octavian accused Cleopatra of conquering Antony. She had seduced him and he had embraced her. He “was no longer a Roman, but an Egyptian, a mere cymbal player, effeminate, inconsequential, and impotent.” Octavian’s logic was simple: “The Egyptian queen had subdued Antony.” Rome was next. He declared war on Cleopatra in 32 B.C.
Perhaps Octavian was motivated by a personal vendetta against Antony, but clearly he did not want Antony back in Rome. Quite the contrary. Antony had been, for the better part of nine years, either away from Rome conquering parts of Asia, or with Cleopatra in Alexandria. His absence did not make him popular in his native city, and his tarrying with that hyper-sexualized queen gave Octavian wide berth to command authority and power among the Roman populace. Whatever improbable the chances, the “rash boy” had bested Antony; his “star had ascended in Rome. He had piled up victories as Antony bogged down in the East.” And Octavian used Antony’s lover to ensnare him. Octavian had reason to begin a civil war—his country was hungry and exhausted after two decades of warfare, and Cleopatra had what it took to feed Rome. The greatest treasure outside Rome was still hers: “Octavian could not succeed without her famed gold and pearls and ivory. They had long motivated his men; more than anything else, Cleopatra’s hoard held his rank and file in check.” Antony had nothing to give. Cleopatra had everything. Octavian needed her as the excuse to wage war against Egypt.
Schiff builds a solid case against Octavian as the guilty party who inspired the myth of Cleopatra that continues to dog her to this day. Octavian declared war on Cleopatra, but he could not officially charge her because there were no charges to be had. This didn’t seem to matter to Octavian. He accused Antony of taking “up war on the side of the Egyptian woman against his native country.” Antony was ostracized from Rome, deprived of his “consulship” and relieved of all authority. Among the justifications for his actions, Octavian parlayed these: “Antony was under the influence of some powerful narcotic, ‘bewitched by that accursed woman’”; he was a slave to that subversive, insatiable, queen; Cleopatra was a parasite working through Antony to conquer Rome; she was plotting “to make Rome a province of Egypt”; she was a pestilence “with designs on all Roman possessions.”
The denouement happened quickly after Octavian defeated Antony and Cleopatra at Actium. Cleopatra was under no illusions that the end was near. Cleopatra imprisoned herself with her maidservants inside her mausoleum, into which “she heaped gems, jewelry, works of art, coffers of gold, royal robes, stores of cinnamon and frankincense, necessities to her, luxuries to the rest of the world. With those riches went as well a vast quantity of kindling. Were she to disappear, the treasure of Egypt would disappear with her. The thought was a torture to Octavian.” Octavian sent his men to prevent her from killing herself. They forced their way into the mausoleum and set up a round-the-clock guard. On August 1, 30 B.C., Antony bled to death after a suicide attempt; Cleopatra was by his side. Antony was fifty-three years old. Cleopatra asked for permission to bury Antony, and, as it was with any first-century woman at a burial, she screamed and thrashed and clawed at her skin, which, according to Schiff, probably caused an infection. “She was pleased; if she now swore off food, she could, she reasoned, manage a quiet, Roman-free death.” Eight days after Antony’s death, she sent a request to be buried at Antony’s side, while inside the mausoleum, “her maidservants fitted Cleopatra in her formal robes, to which they added the ornaments of her office, the pharaonic crook and flail. Around her forehead they tied her diadem, its ribbons dangling down her neck.” After Octavian received the message, he realized what she was up to, and messengers rushed to the mausoleum. They were too late.
Contrary to Octavian’s popularizing the myth that Cleopatra died from an apse bite, Schiff thinks that she died from poison or a toxin. And, yet, no one knows for sure. Killing herself, Cleopatra had done something right by the Roman definition. Hers was an “honorable death, a dignified death, an exemplary death. She had presided over it herself, proud and unbroken to the end.” She was thirty-nine years old, and she had ruled Egypt for over two decades—longer by ten years than Alexander the Great. The Ptolemaic Empire came to an end when Octavian formally annexed Egypt on August 31.
Schiff performs an exemplary literary and historical, and I might add, public service in deconstructing the “encrusted myth” that has clogged Cleopatra’s reputation for centuries. Not only does she use the extant primary sources and recent scholarship on the ancient world to separate the lies from the truth, as best as can be deduced, but she writes an accessible and thoroughly enjoyable biography about a famous woman who has been trashed by, well, mostly men. Schiff corrects the hyperventilation surrounding her sexuality, and she places her properly in the annals of history as a “remarkably capable queen, canny and opportunistic in the extreme, a strategist of the first rank. Her career began with one brazen act of defiance and ended with another.”
Cleopatra was an astute politician, performing a high-wire act in a dangerous world. She dazzled with her courage, wisdom, ambition, and spirit. A “master at self-presentation,” Cleopatra “sustained a vast, rich, densely populated empire in its troubled twilight, in the name of a proud and cultivated dynasty.” Her constituents admired and some would say, loved and feared her—in the same breath. It is sad to think that such an intelligent and courageous woman has, throughout history, been reduced to “the sum of her sex life.” Yet, Schiff persuasively argues that Cleopatra’s “myth” is a lie. Her biography of this powerful woman illuminates as it thrills. As Schiff argues, “Cleopatra unsettles more as sage than as seductress; it is less threatening to believe her fatally attractive than fatally intelligent.”