For Christmas my aunt gave me Stacy Schiff’s internationally best-selling biography Cleopatra: A Life. Studying history at university has given me a knee-jerk aversion to reading anything past-related outside of term-time, but I gave it a go anyway – I so rarely get to read a book dedicated to exploring the life of a female historical figure. It’s marvellous. It’s on Hilary Mantel levels of making history fascinating (although hopefully a bit more accurate). It’s an amazing insight into the life of someone right up there amongst history’s-most-misunderstood-characters, as well as the times that she lived in and the people and cultures that surrounded her. Who knew that Macedonian Greeks sat on the Egyptian throne for centuries? Who knew how sumptuously lavish an Alexandrian feast could be, and that the guests would all be gifted the cutlery and the furniture afterwards? Fabulously written and incredibly detailed, Schiff opens up a whole new world of family feuds and erotic scandal, priceless jewels and an unimaginable city that has been lost to the past. The book is amazingly written, and the story amazingly told.
It’s a sympathetic account to be certain; Schiff’s Cleopatra is no “whore queen” sleeping her way to the top, but rather shapes her Roman lovers to her political needs whilst having a jolly good time simultaneously (as her litter of dynasty-uniting children might attest). Hers is not Chaucer’s “martyr to love” whose only tool was sexuality, or Shaw’s “silly little girl” play-acting at politics with the big boys. The Cleopatra of this biography isn’t even particularly beautiful, as the hooked nose and strong chin of her only surviving contemporary likenesses prove. Schiff’s Cleopatra is a phenomenally clever strategist, a polyglot and an educated intellectual, a woman who ruled over an enormous and ancient empire that ended with her death. Schiff is no impartial historian (who is?) and that’s exactly what makes this book so great – it’s a very personal biography, as all biographies should be. It’s deeply pro-Cleopatra and her sex – the succinct passing put-downs of the countless (male) writers who have besmeared her subject’s reputation and memory over the last two thousand years were some of my favourite passages. In an endearingly witty interview with The New York Times Schiff delightfully dismisses centuries worth of assertions that Cleopatra’s diplomatic skill-set ended at the door to the bedroom by scoffing that “it has always been preferable to attribute a woman’s success to her beauty rather than her brains”.
I’m all for the image-rehabilitation of history’s scapegoats, especially if they happen to be powerful and independent females existing a couple of millennia before that was in vogue. I can’t pretend to have any of the ancient history credentials to confirm or deny whether the portrait Schiff paints is an accurate one, but it’s certainly a cracking read – and I also can’t pretend that I was not crackingly convinced.