Saturday, 9 July 2011

Cleopatra: A life

In 2000 Stacy Schiff won a Pulitzer for her biography of Vera Nabokov, wife of Author Vladimir Nabokov. In this biography she casts her researching skills a little further back in time and tries to pierce the glare and glamour of mythology, push past the propaganda and traverse the abyss of 2000 years of history in search of Cleopatra VII. At hand she has a wealth of sources that might be as daunting as searching for truth buried by two millennia of hyperbole and obscurement. On ancient historians Schiff comments, "They are by modern standards polemicists, apologists, moralists, fabulists, recyclers, cut-and-pasters, hacks."
She sets out as her mission plan, in dealing with so many biased, unsafe testimonies and incomplete evidence, most of which written centuries after the event or destroyed by the censor of the victorious or the ravages of time and environment, to not add to the confusion with her own opinions and supposition but rather, as she puts it, to coral the probabilities. Considering that according to Schiff, Cleopatra VII, "Effectively ceases to exist without a Roman in the room." it is no surprise that this account pretty much begins with the young queen rolling out of that famous travelling sack at the feet of Caesar. History doesn't do childhoods apparently. In many ways the author seems to suggest that Cleopatra and Egypt at that time were synonymous, and in the absence of a clear account of the woman, a detailed portrait of Alexandria and Egyptian society would have to suffice, initially at least. It's with a note of indignation that Schiff bemoans that in an age of accomplished, realistic portraiture there is not a single authoritative bust of Cleopatra. The Romans general opinion of both the woman and her country was:
"A shame to lose,
a risk to conquer,
a headache to govern."
Portraiture aside there is some time spent in supposing why Cicero, that prolific Roman speaker and writer, (Schiff quotes him endlessly in the first half of the book) says so little of Cleopatra during her time in Rome. The second half of the book is dominated by Cleopatra's first meeting with Mark Antony. If there are an almost infinite number of things we don't know for sure about Cleopatra, one thing we do know is that the woman could throw one hell of a party. The lush dinners she held in Tarsus, primarily to court Antony were unimaginably opulent, though Plutarch, our primary source for these overblown nosh-ups, seems to have had a good attempt. So what is the truth behind one of histories most famous and notorious love affairs, Cleopatra and Mark Antony? Was it love? And to what degree? Or was it purely an association based on political and military machinations? Schiff presents the evidence but leaves the question unanswered. Ultimately it is a question that is unanswerable beyond mere opinion or preference. Too much time has passed. Too much Roman propaganda disseminated. Too many myths have accrued. And as history becomes entertainment, from Shakespeare to Elizabeth Taylor, the truth, even were it known, never draws the greatest crowd.
And so to perhaps one of the greatest death-bed scenes of history, though again as an end-game of such notoriety the truth is obscured by the grand stage. After Mark Antony's bloody demise the negotiations between Cleopatra and Octavian and her eventual end, as represented by history, are differentiated by Schiff by mise-en-scene; Plutarch is writing for Puccini; Dio for Wagner. "'The truth of the matter,' Plutarch announces, to centuries of deaf ears,'No one knows.'" Schiff declares that Octavian created the myth of the snake, a bit of propaganda that stuck to the event so indelibly it could never be separated, even in the face of so much contradictory evidence.
The book as a whole is a work of questions unanswered. But they are fascinating unanswered questions. Schiff does the hard and boring part for the reader in collating and presenting the clues, opinions, document and context, advising where necessary of bias, agenda or obscurement and if she doesn't explode all the popular myths, she at least points a spotlight at their unlikelihood.
This review was from an Advance Reading Copy


  1. That's a great book review, thank you.

  2. This book has getting a lot of attention and i really appreciate this thoughtful and depth review. I don't read many nonfiction biography but this one intrigues me.