‘Cleopatra’: A Legendary Story Told in Swift, Engaging Prose

Stacy Schiff writes that, if ever Cleopatra were troubled by self-doubt, the great queen made every effort to conceal what she was feeling. Like her subject, Schiff is extraordinarily intelligent, forceful, and poised. Schiff gives us a portrait not only of a fascinating monarch, but also of an era: She dramatizes the turbulent final days of B.C. Alexandria and Rome, and she peers into the minds of Cicero, Antony, Octavian, and Cleopatra. Schiff adopts several identities–political scientist, critic, comedian–to tell a legendary story in swift, engaging prose.

In Schiff’s view, Cicero wants a sturdy Roman Republic governed by wise, skeptical men — a Republic of Ciceros. He wrings his hands, frets, and writes volumes and volumes of scornful commentary on the political scene. (Cicero “was a great writer,” notes Schiff, “which is to say self-absorbed, with an outsize ego and a fanatical sensitivity to slights real and imagined.”) When Julius Caesar begins to seem too big for his britches, Cicero attacks Caesar in his writing. Later, Cicero dislikes both of Caesar’s potential successors: Antony is a villain in search of plunder, Octavian is young and weak. It’s no surprise that the loud, perennially dissatisfied Cicero ends up dead by another man’s hand.

Antony, by contrast, seems to spend little time thinking and a great deal of time feasting and sleeping around. Like Caesar, Antony is famously virile, and he works his way through several marriages. He enjoys Cleopatra’s elaborate hospitality and frequent gifts, and he is a hotheaded foil to this cool, calculating queen. Antony sometimes allows sentimentality to guide his decisions: Schiff implies that, at times, Cleopatra may have been more exasperated than entranced by her adulterous Roman lover.

Meanwhile, Octavian wants vengeance for the death of Caesar. He manipulates Antony so that he, Octavian, may assume sole control of Rome. He is cautious; he seems rarely to speak without first having written out his comments, and he travels with a broad-brimmed hat to protect himself from the sun.

Finally, Octavian’s great enemy, Cleopatra, wants to flourish–and sometimes, simply, to survive. As a teenager, Cleopatra already rules Egypt, and she travels incognito to plead with (and possibly seduce) Julius Caesar. As an adult and a lover of Mark Antony, Cleopatra consistently tries to act in her own best interest–even if this program involves killing a sibling or betraying a friend. Though this particular version of Egypt is in its dying days,

(since Egypt survived in a diminished form after Cleopatra’s death), Cleopatra rules over a remarkably peaceful country; she persuades her followers that Egypt is approaching “a new dawn, not a twilight.”

Throughout her incredible story, Schiff offers many gems of political insight. Cleopatra succeeds in part because she controls her country’s narrative; after the Battle of Actium–hardly a glittering success–Cleopatra returns to her people to claim that Egypt has performed gloriously. Schiff notes that politics is the organization of hatreds; it’s a Hobbesean universe, and a ruler must keep track of her enemies and their grievances. Also, Schiff cannily observes the difference between Mark Antony and Cleopatra; Antony stews over his subjects’ apparent lack of gratitude, whereas Cleopatra, a tough woman and a careful student of human nature, knows that this kind of behavior is a waste of time.

When she is not a political scientist, Schiff is a student and critic of past historians. She notes that Plutarch describes one scene as if he were writing for Puccini; Dio describes the same scene as if he were writing for Wagner. At times, Shakespeare cannot improve on Plutarch, Schiff notes, so he borrows extensively from his predecessor. (An alleged comment from one of Cleopatra’s assistants makes it all the way through the centuries to Elizabethan England, where it appears in Shakespeare’s story of Cleopatra, verbatim.) Schiff points out that the life of Cleopatra was narrated mostly by victorious Romans after Cleopatra’s death; if Cleopatra’s first biographers had been sympathetic to her cause, we might have an entirely different image of this controversial queen.

One of the most surprising pleasures of the book is Schiff’s tart humor. At one point, she notes, “Octavian was good at restoring traditions, including those that had never existed.” In another aside, Schiff describes a young man who had an unusually strong sense of filial devotion; given the frequency with which monarchs undermined their own parents in the ancient world, “in the normal course of events [this young man] would have been preparing to depose his mother about now.” When Cleopatra must tactfully advocate for her own survival, Schiff points out, “She always knew how to talk to a man.”

Finally, there is the pleasure of Schiff’s rich, descriptive prose. Recounting Octavian’s schemes, Schiff writes,

Suddenly reports of Athenian excess, of Antony’s subservience to Cleopatra, the sensational, salacious details of which had been widely understood to be falsehoods, appeared credible. In a world entranced by rhetoric — addicted to “honeyballs of phrases, every word and act besprinkled with poppy-seed and sesame” — the plausible reliably trumped the actual. Octavian had at his disposal plenty of generous veins to mine.

Sharp aphorisms, well-chosen quotations, juicy and surprising language — storytelling rarely gets better than this. Schiff takes her understandably limited array of credible sources and creates a coherent, believable narrative. May she set herself the task of effortlessly illuminating another monarch’s life, either ancient or recent, in the very near future.

RATING 9 / 10