Cleopatra and 2,000 Years of Slander

Cleopatra is what you might call the epitome of a VIP. After more than 2,000 years, she is as present as if she were still alive. Such eminence lends itself to storytellers and moralists alike. It offers any number of pitfalls for historians and writers, too. 

There are few women that may lay a similar claim on fame: Cleopatra has been present in Western culture and history for 2,000 years without a break. Her name alone is proverbial and transmits whole ranges of meaning. Most of what we think we know about her is probably wrong; what we know is so little that her life lends itself for just about any interpretation imaginable. 

Cleopatra is so famous that any other woman who lived before or after her needs an add-on to her name to make it clear she’s not The Cleopatra. Cleopatra was a common girl’s name in Greece for centuries. What does it take to become the one and only? How many other women can you name who share the distinction that a name without title or explanation makes it clear who is meant? Livia, Diana, and maybe Sappho are the ones I am able to come up with; all others need a distinctive unusual spelling, a title, a number, a family name, or some other distinguishing addition to define them. 

Try the same thing with men: There are Alexander, Napoleon, Mohammed, Moses, and maybe Cyrus. It’s an exclusive club she belongs to. At her time, she was Bill Gates and led the Forbes Rich List by miles. She was the most powerful woman of her time. Writing a biography about her is a challenge for anybody. 

Stacy Schiff tried it in Cleopatra: A Life published by Virgin Books. I probably gave it away with that sentence. I think she failed. Her failure has many reasons, but this doesn't necessarily mean that you should not read the book. She raises many valid points, but she fails to make them stick. 

History is written by the winners; and Cleopatra lost big time. Her contemporary Roman image was defined by Cicero who hated her. Her historical image was transmitted by Plutarch who repeated Imperial Roman propaganda, anecdotes, gossip, and historical facts from texts available to him but lost to us. The fiction writers came much later: Shakespeare and Shaw. All of them combined sum up to the picture of Cleopatra we have today. Her academic prowess in speaking nine languages and writing treatises on astronomy are widely ignored. 

Stacy Schiff is nothing but radical. Cicero hates her; ignore what he has to say. Plutarch’s texts contain Imperial propaganda, ignore them. If you apply such thinking to historical sources, there is not a lot of information that remains to build a salient picture of the queen. The resulting book shows up that dilemma to perfection. Instead of constructing a balanced picture from what is available, she is left with almost nothing on which she builds her own imagery. 

The picture of Cleopatra that emerges is one defined by 1970s feminism. If you are able to read Cicero and Plutarch better than Stacy Schiff, you will be able to find a lot of useful information in this book. It is a good antidote to the common Cleopatra picture presented by Hollywood and the likes, too. It is not, however, a good biography of Cleopatra.