Digging in the Sands of History: Biographers Unearth Cleopatra’s Story

Stacy Schiff said it was a challenge to write about a world where children poisoned their parents and parents dismembered their children.

Stacy Schiff said it was a challenge to write about a world where children poisoned their parents and parents dismembered their children.

This may be the year of Cleopatra. Readers are being treated to not one but two well-regarded biographies of this first-century queen.

In April Oxford University Press published Cleopatra: A Biography, by Duane W. Roller, a historian, archaeologist, and classical scholar and the author of 10 previous books. “Roller tells his tale smoothly and accessibly,” the New York Times said. “The resulting portrait is that of a complex, many-sided figure, a potent Hellenistic ruler who could move the tillers of power as skillfully as any man, and one far and nobly removed from the ‘constructed icon’ of popular imagination.”

This past month, Yale University Press brought out Antony and Cleopatra, by Adrian Goldsworthy, published in the UK by Weidenfield and Nicolson. And, next month, Little, Brown & Company will publish Cleopatra: A Life, by Pulitzer Prize-winner Stacy Schiff. Already Schiff’s work is winning praise. “[An] excellent, myth-busting biography,” writes a Publishers Weekly reviewer. “Schiff enters so completely into the time and place, especially the beauty and luxury of the ‘great metropolis’ of Alexandria, Cleopatra’s capital, describing it in almost cinematic detail. And though we all know the outcome, Schiff’s account of Cleopatra’s and Antony’s desperate efforts to manipulate their triumphant enemy, Octavian, make for tragic, page-turning reading. No one will think of Cleopatra in quite the same way after reading this vivid, provocative book.”

Furthermore, Schiff’s Cleopatra biography was optioned for a film, to be developed with Angelina Jolie in the lead role. At this rate it might become the decade of Cleopatra.

But to biographers there is a mystery here. Not why Cleopatra remains popular, but rather how one writes a biography about figure of whom there is not even a drawing. “I wasn’t entirely sure it was possible,” Schiff told an overflowing crowd at the recent National Book Festival, in Washington, D.C. “I had Cleopatra as a subject in my mind for a long time, but I didn’t see a way to write a traditional chronicle of her life. I was used to knowing what my subject had had for dinner and what he or she fretted about before falling asleep, and in this case the record was as skewed as it was spotty.”

To do the work, Schiff read all the classical sources, beginning with those that predate Cleopatra and that she would have read. Doing this raised another set of problems.

“Only after I’d been researching for a while did I realize I needed to know as much about Plutarch, Josephus, and Suetonius as I did about Cleopatra herself. Of course there’s not much to cling to, but knowing  who wrote with the zeal of a convert, who tended to sensationalize, who had set eyes on Egypt helped. If you’re going to tell the story of a wealthy individual dissolving a pearl in wine, you should ascribe it to only one profligate or it sounds unconvincing.”

But it’s a daunting world. “You check all your preconceptions at the door,” she said. “It’s difficult to write about maternity in a family where children routinely poison their parents and parents dismember their children. This was admittedly new to me.

“Great literature is about ambiguity, and it struck me that biography could occasionally afford to be as well. You can’t demand order, even answers, of the classical world, and arguably you rarely can at all when it comes to the human heart, but you can do a lot with [the classical world], especially given the last 50 years of fine scholarship on the Hellenistic world.”

In the end there was very little suitable material that escaped Schiff’s research. But, as with all biographers, there was one black hole. “In 44 B.C. Cleopatra was in Rome, living in Caesar’s villa,” said Schiff. “He was her political benefactor; she was the mother of his three-year-old son. On the afternoon of March 15 arrived the breathless report of [Caesar’s] murder. Cleopatra’s world turned upside down in a minute. We know she fled for her life, but I want the details.”