Cleopatra was queen of a large, rich, highly sophisticated country for more than 20 years, yet almost everything we know about her comes from a legend created by her most deadly enemy, the Roman emperor Augustus.

As author Stacy Schiff points out, it’s as if our only information about Napoleon came from 19th-century British historians: “She effectively ceases to exist without a Roman in the room.” Schiff, the much praised biographer of Vera Nabokov and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, adeptly evens the score in Cleopatra: A Life by exploring the queen’s Egyptian context and reading the Roman sources with a keen eye for Augustan propaganda.

Schiff’s Cleopatra is not the sexually voracious, treacherous poisoner who seduced Julius Caesar and destroyed Mark Antony. Rather, she is an intelligent, able ruler who did nothing that male kings didn’t do routinely. She tried to protect her own and her country’s interests in the face of Roman aggression. If Antony had been more clever than Augustus, her children with Caesar and Antony would have ruled the East.

Did she seduce Caesar and Antony? Both men were hardened lifelong womanizers. Was Antony too besotted with her to make sound decisions? It seems unlikely; he wrote a letter to Augustus at the height of his alliance with Cleopatra referring to her with ugly vulgarisms. His mistakes were his own.

Schiff persuades us that the queen’s liaisons with both men were mutually beneficial. She got expanded territory, protected by Roman legions, while her lovers got her money. And for Caesar, Antony and Augustus, it was all about Egypt’s wealth, not the color of Cleopatra’s eyes.

Certainly, even a Cleopatra seen with fairness was no George Washington, and Schiff doesn’t ignore her ruthlessness. Cleopatra lived up to her family tradition by having her siblings killed. She also executed her political opponents—and so did Antony and Augustus.

Schiff brings alive not only the personalities but the ambience of the gilded Hellenistic Middle East and still-crude Rome. Her writing beautifully evokes Cleopatra’s stupendous capital Alexandria, “a city of cool raspberry dawns and pearly late afternoons.” Male Roman writers may have hated Cleopatra because she wasn’t the virtuous Roman matron of their own myths, but she was consistently popular with the cultured Alexandrians.

As Schiff concludes, Cleopatra did many things right, but got the main thing wrong: She backed the less talented Roman politician. In the end, Augustus used her captured treasure to make Rome more like Alexandria.
 

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