She was the child of incest, born a goddess, a queen at eighteen and the richest person in the world by twenty. She married her brothers when she needed them, killed them when she didn’t. She had a son with Julius Cesar, had three more children with Marc Antony, raised an army, held the fate of the West in her hands, and was the last pharaoh of ancient Egypt. She did not go down in history as the sole woman to reign alone and play a major part of Western affairs, but is instead remembered as a wanton seductress, an Elizabeth Taylor with the thick eyeliner, a temptress with an insatiable sexuality who bedded some of the most famous and powerful men in the Western world. But history is written by those who win, and the Cleopatra we know is a creation made by Roman men who both hated her and sensationalized her. In many respects, Cleopatra is the most famous woman we don’t know.
Author Stacy Schiff has dug through innumerable sources, sifting fact from fiction, from Shakespeare to propaganda, to write the true story of the Egyptian Queen. And right from the start, we learn that even our most basic preconceptions of Cleopatra are wrong. The Egyptian Queen was mostly Greek, a descendant of one of Alexander the Great’s generals. She was incredibly well-educated, trained in oratory, and fluent in nine languages. She was born into a family of bloodshed, and murdered her siblings who tried to usurp her power. In her time people would not have thought of her as the sexy seductress, but rather as a gifted, shrew and persuasive politician. She may have liked sex, but liked an interesting conversation more. Julius Cesar and Marc Antony probably did not fall for her looks (she most definitely did not look like Elizabeth Taylor) but instead fell for her wit, intelligence and quick sense of humor. And her story isn’t really that of a tragic love story a la Romeo and Juliet. When Cleopatra met Marc Antony, they partnered up to achieve their own political ambitions; Egypt needed Rome’s protection and Rome needed Egypt’s money.
Shiff’s historical analysis is fascinating and beautifully written. Unlike many historical authors, she is quick to admit that she isn’t sure about how some events played and, and provides multiple interpretations of what might have occurred. She constantly reminds the reader what the sources are and the biases that each one carries. She describes Cleopatra’s Alexandria as full of splendor and beauty, from the sphinxes, to the decorated tombs, to the falcon statues that lined the streets. It doesn’t read like a traditional history book because Schiff spends quite a bit of time setting the scene, describing the details of this ancient world. One of the most intriguing aspects in the book was the role of Cleopatra as a woman. Cleopatra was raised to be a queen, not a princess or a stagnated pawn in a political game. I was surprised to learn of the equality and respect women possessed in Egypt. In Egypt, women negotiated their own marriages, had the right to divorce and inherit property while in Rome, women only existed to give birth to more men.
What fascinated me while reading Shiff’s book, is how unfair history has been to Cleopatra. The quick, ambitious, resourceful, unremitting woman, celebrated as a goddess in her time, has been reduced to a cliché, the power-hungry woman who uses sex to get what she wants from men. Shiff notes, “We have been putting words in her mouth for two thousand years. In one of the busiest afterlives in history she has gone on to become an asteroid, a video game, a cigarette, a slot machine, and a strip club.” We have suffered from only knowing this version of Cleopatra because the real woman was a far more interesting character.