The Queen of Denial
Thomas, Louisa, Newsweek
Byline: Louisa Thomas
Even with few facts, Schiff brings Cleopatra back to life.
What does anyone really know about Cleopatra? Her Alexandria is underwater, her appearance a mystery, her childhood a blank. Early chroniclers of her life wrote not for the sake of truth but for Rome. Later ones wrote not for the sake of truth but for tragedy. Historians have cited Shakespeare as a source--which is "a little like taking George C. Scott's word for Patton's," notes Stacy Schiff in her new biography of Egypt's final queen. Cleopatra is a name, a legend. And yet Schiff's Cleopatra: A Life, is startling. Rarely have so distant a time and obscured a place come so powerfully to life. It is a great achievement. It is also a provocative one. Faced with the perplexing question of how to write about a person when the evidence is sketchy and often misleading, Schiff has hit on an ingenious solution. She has written a biography in negative, describing the outlines of what she cannot know by brilliantly coloring around the queen.
Schiff does have a skeleton to work with, some (mostly) uncontested facts. Born in 69 B.C., Cleopatra VII was the last of the Ptolemaic rulers, kings and queens who fashioned themselves pharaohs and boasted of their descent from a general of Alexander the Great. Her lineage is impossible to untangle but certainly inbred and stunted; her ancestors had a tendency to kill each other (as Cleopatra would later kill her siblings). She was the lover--though what part love played is a matter for speculation--of Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, the world's two most powerful men, and the mother of their children. For good measure, she was a nemesis of the third, Octavian. Independent, intelligent, charismatic, and ambitious, she was a ruler first and last.
Her enemies called her a harlot. Schiff sees her as pragmatic. …