A shrewd ruler, not a wastrel, though she worked her bed as no one before or since.
Cleopatra was the last of the Ptolemies, a Greek dynasty that ruled Egypt from 305 B.C. to 30 B.C. Had her power lasted, she might have become the greatest female sovereign of all time. She was fated instead to be remembered mainly for two melodramatic liaisons with powerful men, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.
Cleopatra was barely out of her teens when she became a contestant for serious power, in 48 B.C. She had been deposed from precarious rule by her younger brother, but now she gambled boldly by making her way back into the Egyptian capital, Alexandria, where she had herself smuggled to the recently arrived Julius Caesar. She managed to ingratiate herself intimately with the Roman general, who helped secure her independent reign. But he did not act entirely from personal motives.
Rome at the time was involved in a cataclysmic civil war. The main contestants had been Caesar and Pompey; Cleopatra’s rivals overreached in their efforts to win Caesar’s favor: They murdered Pompey the moment he arrived in Egypt in 48 B.C. as a refugee after a major defeat. The killing was too crude a tactic. Though Egypt was not yet a Roman province, it was weak and unstable enough that its rulers had to calculate carefully in their dealings with powerful Romans.
Cleopatra seems to have understood this. She and Caesar became lovers, and—more important—were allies until Caesar’s assassination in 44 B.C.—after which she found a new ally in Marc Antony.
Antony was Caesar’s lieutenant and heir apparent, but Octavian, Caesar’s grand-nephew, turned out to be Caesar’s legal heir, and a new round of civil war was inevitable. Antony and Cleopatra met when she came to him at Tarsus (in modern Turkey) in 41 B.C. She would lavishly court him, win his affections and form a tight military alliance with him. Their end, so memorably depicted by Shakespeare, came about in 30 B.C., some months after they withdrew from a naval engagement off Actium (in western Greece) and fled to Alexandria, where Octavian’s forces could corner them. They both committed suicide.
It is unlikely that Cleopatra would have made herself available either to Caesar or Antony if not for hard-nosed political calculations and her insistence on being an ally, not a vassal, of Rome. She worked her bed as none has been worked before or since, but contrary to Shakespeare, her victimhood (if any) was not that of a captivated (and captivating) woman but rather of a strategist overcome by unpredictable events. Had not the teenage Octavian emerged as a ruthless rival of the veteran Antony, the fate of Cleopatra, Egypt and even the Roman Empire might have been quite different.
Cleopatra, it should be said, was not the beauty represented by Elizabeth Taylor in the infamous 1963 movie. Contemporary coin portraits show a jutting nose and a chin. But her charm was probably as enthralling as reported. Intelligent and highly educated, she was fearless and practical, too.
With “Cleopatra: A Life,” Stacy Schiff draws a portrait worthy of her subject’s own wit and learning. There are many modern accounts of the queen, but this one alone takes up the Modernist project, started by Virginia Woolf, of penetrating the “silence” of women in history and literature. One of Ms. Schiff’s previous books, a biography of Véra Nabokov, the novelist’s brilliant but retiring wife and collaborator, undertook just such a reclamation.
A woman like Cleopatra, however, conspicuous and yet unable to speak for herself, is a special challenge for a biographer. The layers of self-interested, alien observation will be numerous. And in this case they carry great authority as well. In the years that followed Cleopatra’s death, men such as Horace, Propertius and Virgil were on hand in Rome to celebrate the conquerors—especially Octavian—and deplore the conquered, especially Egypt’s late ruler. Cleopatra the witch and seducer is near the foundations of Western literature. Professional classicists (like me) naturally succumb to the classical authors’ venom, if only through our slowness to ask questions.
Ms. Shiff’s biography is an excellent antivenom. Drawing on a range of ancient written sources and archaeology, she plausibly gets into Cleopatra’s head—by picturing Alexandria through the eyes of the Ptolemies, for example, and giving an in-depth description of the Greek curriculum she would have studied. It’s an alluring way to reread the queen’s story, emphasizing her most likely inward experiences instead of the maneuvering around her.
Her genius is most evident from her rule of Egypt. She inherited tricky ethnic divisions—with Greeks and Egyptians sharing little but rowdiness—and a huge economy. Roman interest in Egypt had a great deal to do with Egypt’s agricultural surplus, which could feed a restive populace in Italy, and with its royal treasures, which could pay for the personal army of a civil-war leader.
Cleopatra won over the neglected indigenous Egyptians with a campaign of rituals and images, presenting herself as Isis, the greatest local goddess. But there would have been no way to stabilize the economy and government (which she clearly did) except through attentive work. Cleopatra appears to have been a hands-on administrator in a dynasty that had often left contentious detail to flunkies and let corruption run wild. Roman tales of Cleopatra as louche and languid, a bedizened wastrel, are probably crudely slanted.
Ms. Schiff manages to tell Cleopatra’s story with a balance of the tragic and the hilarious. With exquisite timing, for instance, she unfolds the source of one of the most famous brandings in history: the title “Augustus”—meaning something like “font of all prosperity”—which Octavian adopted and later emperors would inherit. The title, as it happens, was the brainchild of a Roman deserter from Antony and Cleopatra’s faction who had shown up at one of Cleopatra’s dinner parties nude and painted blue, in the role of a sea-god. It is as if the guy best known for his antics on a photocopier at a White House party became the new president’s communications director. Through this story, among many others, Ms. Schiff does a rare thing: She gives us a book we’d miss if it didn’t exist.
Ms. Ruden is the author of “Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time” (2010)