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Cleopatra: The Myth

Casa Buonarroti, Florence/Bridgeman Art Library
Cleopatra; drawing by Michelangelo, sixteenth century

So is the description an exaggeration? Speculation? Or sheer fantasy? We do not know. Part of the problem in trying to assess the myth of Alexandria against the likely historical truth is that most of the Ptolemaic city now lies beneath the sea, inundated by the fourth century AD, after a series of earthquakes and tidal waves. In Rome, determined excavation in the ground can give us a clue to the character of the ancient city, and to how it changed from the rabbit warrens of the first century BC to the much more impressive (or aggressive) imperial capital of the first century AD. In Alexandria we must rely on heroic archaeology under water. This produces dramatic photographs of barnacle-infested sculpture emerging from the sea, but does little to give a clear chronology of the ancient city—still less to give a picture of what it would have looked liked, and quite how lavish it really was.

Ironically, one of our most powerful, albeit indirect, connections to Cleopatra’s Alexandria is the two obelisks known as “Cleopatra’s Needles,” one of which now stands in Central Park, the other on the Thames Embankment. Originally pharaonic obelisks made about 1450 BC, they were later transferred, perhaps by Augustus, to form the entrance to the shrine of Julius Caesar in Alexandria, which had almost certainly been planned and inaugurated by Cleopatra before her death. They ended up in New York and London at the end of the nineteenth century, thanks to the usual combination of generosity, antiquarianism, and imperial exploitation.

The life of Cleopatra VII, the last monarch of the Ptolemaic dynasty, is even more “mythical” than the story of Alexandria, and the real queen is even harder to excavate than the remains of her capital. This is, in part, thanks to the inventive traditions of modern drama, from William Shakespeare to Elizabeth Taylor, which have indelibly fixed a languorous and decadent queen bathing in ass’s milk in the popular imagination. But these modern versions draw on an ancient mythology that goes back ultimately to the propaganda campaigns of the emperor Augustus, whose own reign was founded on the defeat of the “Egyptian” Cleopatra (in truth she was, almost certainly, ethnically Greek) and Mark Antony. It was irresistible for Augustus to demonize Cleopatra as a dangerously seductive Oriental despot, living a life of extravagance entirely at odds with the down-to-earth traditions of Rome and Italy, which he himself claimed to represent. Several of the most renowned poets of his reign chimed in enthusiastically with the official Augustan line on this “demented queen…with her polluted mob of retainers” (as Horace put it in a famous poem on her defeat.

In fact, we now take this image so much for granted that it comes as a shock to discover different versions of the “Cleopatra myth,” from different sides. Egyptian historians, for example, have long conscripted her into their own national story, as a heroine and public benefactress. Al-Mas’udi in his tenth-century history, Prairies of Gold, records a brilliant subversion of the canonical Roman account. His Cleopatra not only goes to enormous trouble to acquire the snake with which to kill herself, but she also manages cleverly to conceal it in some aromatic plants, so that it bites Octavian as well when he comes to discover her body. Instead of going on to reign over Rome for more than forty years, in al-Mas’udi’s history, Octavian died in Alexandria from the venom—though it took a full day to work, during which time he wrote a poem about what had happened both to himself and to Cleopatra.

To be sure, there are one or two pieces of vivid historical testimony, occasionally more or less firsthand, buried within these stories. My own favorite is the tale told by Plutarch, writing at the turn of the first and second centuries AD, about the procedures in the kitchens of Cleopatra’s palace when she was entertaining Antony sometime in the 30s BC. Plutarch explains that a young medical student, Philotas, was there and witnessed life below stairs. Noticing eight boars being cooked, he assumed that a very large party was being catered. But no, there were only about twelve guests; as the kitchens did not know exactly when the party would want to eat they had different boars put on the spit, to be ready at different times. So how did Plutarch know this? Was it just a cliché of royal extravagance? In part maybe, but it was not just that. For Plutarch claims to have heard the story, embellished or not, from his grandfather Lamprias, who had been a friend of Philotas himself. We have here, in other words, a direct connection right back to an eyewitness in Cleopatra’s kitchens, more than two thousand years ago.

For the most part, however, we have no knowledge of many of the most basic facts of Cleopatra’s life. Her famous end is perhaps well enough served, with some further eyewitness testimony (however biased or unreliable it may be, and all from her enemy’s side). Of the beginning of her life we know almost nothing. She was the daughter of Ptolemy XII “Auletes” (“flute player,” the nickname said to refer to his chubby cheeks), but the identity of her mother is a mystery, as is the date of her birth. Schiff follows many other modern writers in placing it in 69 BC, relying entirely on Plutarch, who writes in his biography of Mark Antony that she was thirty-nine when she died in 30 BC. But this means overlooking the fact that almost the very next thing Plutarch goes on to claim (that she had “ruled together with Antony for more than fourteen years”) is without doubt numerically wrong. It is almost certain that she did not even meet Antony until 41 BC, which would give a period of nine years at most, even on the most generous interpretation of “ruling together.” Whatever accounts for the error in Plutarch’s text (maybe a medieval copyist simply miscopied the figure, or maybe Plutarch himself got it wrong), the standard scholarly confidence that Cleopatra was born in 69 is just one of the many examples where modern biographers cherry-pick the parts of an ancient text that suit them and turn a blind eye to those that do not.

Schiff’s approach to the story of Cleopatra is, in part, skeptical and businesslike. She has a refreshing, outsider’s perspective on this period of Mediterranean history, and plenty of pithy phrases to match. Occasionally these bons mots come rather too thick and fast for my taste. But her summary of the atmosphere in Rome after the assassination of Julius Caesar (“a lively market opened for defamation and self-justification. There was a run on self-congratulation”) captures the politics of the period more aptly than the many pages written by specialist historians; and she gets Roman ambivalences toward extravagance exactly right when she observes that “luxury is more easily denounced than denied.”

The fairly traditional picture she paints of Cleopatra—as a powerful, independent queen, strategizing to serve her own best interests, and manipulating a succession of Roman grandees with her sexual and intellectual wiles—is not necessarily wrong. But it is worth observing that the English historian Adrian Goldsworthy in his recent double biography Antony and Cleopatra reached precisely the opposite conclusion—that she was an unimportant sideshow in Roman power struggles that she could hardly influence, the last in the line of a once glorious but now very faded dynasty—on exactly the same evidence. Frankly, we shall never know.

But what of the myth? When she reflects on how to handle the fictions that have grown up around Cleopatra and how to write a historical biographical account, Schiff writes about “peel[ing] away the encrusted myth” and “restor[ing] context.” Here she is at her weakest. This is partly because, despite some sharp flashes of insight, her grip on the history, culture, and law of the Greco-Roman world is not always as firm as it might be. Where on earth did she get the idea, for example, that Roman women in the first century BC had “the same legal rights as…chickens”?

Schiff’s problem lies more in the nature of the project that she has set herself: namely to write the biography of an ancient character as if it were possible to tell a reasonably reliable story from cradle to grave (on the model of her earlier excellent studies of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov). To be fair, she is not alone in this. There have been at least five biographies of Cleopatra in English in the last five years, and the appetite on the part of readers and publishers for life stories of ancient characters seems insatiable. Even when these are reasonably well documented by ancient standards, there are always huge gaps in the evidence. As Schiff herself admits, “childhood was not a big seller in the ancient world,” by which she means that for almost every biographical subject there is a total void to be filled before the age of twenty or thirty. For Cleopatra there are also periods of several years later in her career when we know next to nothing of her life or whereabouts. It is here that “context” tends to substitute, misleadingly, for biography.

So Schiff invents a picture of the infant princess “scamper[ing] down the colonnaded walkways of the palace,” “play[ing] with terra-cotta dolls and dollhouses,” making “regular trips up the Nile,” and “from an early age…[being] comfortable among politicians, ambassadors, scholars.” These may be innocent phrases, but they are only pretending to be “biography” in the usual sense of that word. Typical too is the “contextual” approach we find later when Schiff comes to the birth of Cleopatra’s son by Julius Caesar, Caesarion. “We know as little of the actual birth as we do of the intimacy that preceded it,” she writes. That is certainly true; in fact, we do not even know in which year the child was born (or if he was really Caesar’s son). But her honest profession of ignorance is the prologue to several paragraphs on what birthing procedures and infant care would have been like at the time (including cutting the umbilical cord with an obsidian knife and the qualities of midwives)—and then on whether Cleopatra would have had access to reliable contraception had she so chosen.

This information is drawn from any ancient source that can conveniently be brought into the picture, all jumbled together: the second-century-AD doctor Soranus, who provides most of the information we have about ancient obstetrics (including the detail of the obsidian), a papyrus letter from five centuries earlier (on what to look for in a midwife), and a considerable variety of writers on the principles and practice of contraception, from the Hippocratic corpus to the Roman satirist Juvenal. It is a useful assemblage of references to women’s medicine in antiquity, but has nothing at all to do with Cleopatra.

The truth is that “peel[ing] away the encrusted myth” of Cleopatra reveals that there is very little underneath the ancient fictional surface, and certainly nothing that can be the stuff of a plausible life story—unless it is padded out with half-relevant background that is, in a sense, fiction of a different kind. In this case the rich evidence on papyrus that survives from Greco-Roman Egypt hardly helps. For Cleopatra, there is nothing as vivid as those few lines of Germanicus’ speech uttered as he stepped off the boat. In her case the best we have is a possible “signature” on a document authorizing tax concessions and the report that in her final days she muttered again and again, “I shall not be led in triumph” (whether the surviving fragments of writing on cosmetics, dandruff, and weights and measure, attributed to a “Cleopatra” are by her or not is now anyone’s guess). As for the fragmentary, difficult, and disputed archaeology of Alexandria, it continues to produce new theories on the possible site of her palace or her tomb, each one as implausible (and newsworthy) as the last. In the end, we should probably resist the allure of biography and stick with the Augustan myth and Horace’s “demented queen.”

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