Book of the week: Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff

Schiff’s enthralling new biography uncovers some startling facts about the Queen of the Nile. 

(Little Brown, 368 pages, $29.99)

We have underestimated Cleopatra for too long, said Kathryn Harrison in The New York Times. Stacy Schiff’s enthralling new biography reveals to those of us misled by literature and film that the 20-year reign of this legendary queen of Egypt was far more than a “sustained striptease.” Yes, Cleopatra seduced both Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. But Schiff’s empress is not merely a decadent hedonist. Born in 69 B.C., and granted Egypt’s throne at age 18, she made strategic use of her “megawatt charisma and formidable intelligence” to prolong Alexandria’s relevance at a time when that great center of wealth and learning was being eclipsed by ambitious Rome and its army. If she often staged “jaw-droppingly over-the-top” spectacles and put herself at their center, that was mostly because her subjects needed to believe that their ruler was in part divine.

Schiff cuts through mountains of myth to uncover some startling facts, said Marie Arana in The Washington Post. The Queen of the Nile was not Egyptian but a descendant of the Greek Ptolemies who had ruled the country since 305 B.C. She also was “hardly beautiful by Hollywood standards.” Far from an Elizabeth Taylor, she was instead “tiny, birdlike, with a pronounced hooked nose.” Yet her charms were apparently formidable. After being briefly deposed by allies of her younger brother, she regained the throne by climbing into a sack and having herself delivered to Caesar, who both restored her to power and fathered her first child. When this important ally was assassinated, she cast her fate with Antony, and bore him three more children.

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Picking Antony over his rival, Octavian, turned out to be her biggest mistake, said Sarah Ruden in The Wall Street Journal. Eventually hunted down by Octavian’s forces, the two lovers committed suicide in a display of passion that Shakespeare himself couldn’t resist. Schiff, who’s already a Pulitzer Prize–winning biographer, somehow “manages to tell Cleopatra’s story with a balance of the tragic and the hilarious.” She relishes, for instance, the fact that the man who dreamed up Octavian’s more familiar moniker—“Augustus”—once showed up at one of Cleopatra’s parties wearing nothing but blue paint. Needless to say, we never heard such details from the Roman historians who first told Cleopatra’s story. If their accounts poisoned our view of this complex and remarkable figure, Schiff’s book serves as “an excellent antivenom.”

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