Which would you like, the personal Cleopatra or the political Cleopatra? I knew the personal one as a giggling teenager in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra and in the movie by that name (Vivian Leigh, before she was Scarlett). I knew a mature, poetic Cleopatra from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. Great fun, great drama, but certainly not one woman. “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety,” as the Bard said.
In Stacy Schiff’s biography of the Egyptian queen, Cleopatra, I detect a political Cleopatra. A descendant of Ptolemy and the Macedonian Greeks who apportioned out his empire after the death of Alexander the Great, Cleopatra was the successful ruler of an independent Egypt for 20 years. The conniving and scheming of which she has stood convicted these many centuries were the maneuvers of a ruler trying to hold onto her own. She succeeded for a substantial period in this time of civil wars interspersed with wars of conquest which were a smash and grab for power and treasure. In the end she lost not just her life, but the independence of Egypt and any possible future for her children in the Ptolemaic dynasty.
This book gives us Rome as seen from the other side of the Mediterranean, a nation determined to build an empire which would not be a federation of kingdoms and cultures like Alexander’s, but a set of dependencies, controlled by Rome. Last year when I read the Aeneid, I was appalled by the glorification of Rome. Telling the story of Aeneas’ escape from Troy to found the future Rome, the first part is modeled on the Odyssey (a man returning home) and the second part on the Iliad (battle and conquest). Whereas the Greeks fought for personal glory and for treasure, the proto-Romans under Aeneas fought to establish an empire which was still supposedly centuries in the future. All the mayhem was justified because Rome would bring peace and prosperity to all.
Cleopatra’s story and Cleopatra’s fate tell us something else. Schiff says,
If you were looking for a date for the beginning of the modern world, her [Cleopatra's] death would be the best to fix upon. With her she took both the four-hundred-year-old Roman Republic and the Hellenistic Age. Octavian would go on to effect one of the greatest bait and switches in history; he restored the Republic in all its glory and — as would be apparent within a decade or so — as a monarchy.