Q&A with Stacy Schiff, author of Cleopatra, A Life

  • March 10, 2011

The award-winning biographer answers questions about her latest subject: the last queen of Egypt.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer brings to life the most intriguing woman in the history of the world: Cleopatra, the last queen of Egypt.

Q) Why a Cleopatra biography now? Was it in your mind to do it for a long time?

A) It had been on my mind ― and on my list of ideal subjects ― for a very long time, well before Ben Franklin, in fact [A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, Henry Holt, 2005]. The question was how to write a straight narrative account without the usual sources, or, worse, without a single glimpse of the subject’s interior life. The overload of Franklin materials probably had something to do with the attraction to a little-documented subject in the end. So did the idea that you could pose new questions in a biography without necessarily having to answer them. So did the very fine scholarship of the last few decades, on women, education and family life in the Hellenistic world.

Q) With her wealth and status, why didn’t Cleopatra try to finance a war of resistance against Rome?

A) Rome was the military power. Egypt had neither the hunger for conquest, nor a commensurate army.

Q) Was it the passage of years (her age) that explains Cleopatra’s failure to charm Octavian, as she had charmed Caesar and Marc Anthony? Or was it Octavian’s discernment?

A) I don’t know that Cleopatra ever attempted to charm Octavian ― at least until it was too late, which is to say, after her military defeat. In any event, as the mother of Caesar’s biological child, Cleopatra really had no chance of making peace with the man who passed himself off as Caesar’s rightful heir. In order to make any kind of peace with Octavian she would have needed to eliminate her own son.

Q) Most people know Herod only because of the New Testament. Your portrait of Herod is of a man who killed his wife’s brother, mother and the wife herself, a ruthless tactician who enjoyed remarkable longevity.  He seems to have understood Octavian better than Cleopatra. Would you agree with that, and is there anything new you learned about Herod that surprised you?

A) Everything about Herod surprised me, if only because I too knew him only from Biblical accounts. He served here as a counterweight to Cleopatra; both faced the same situation vis-à-vis Rome. They dealt very differently with that predicament. And too, Herod’s chroniclers allow a glimpse of how Cleopatra would be remembered; Josephus was among the first to write Cleopatra off as a shameless seductress.

Q) Which relationship did you find more compelling, Cleopatra’s with Caesar or with Marc Antony?

A) The latter, if only because it is longer lived and we have greater material.

Q) Which writer in antiquity portrayed Cleopatra in her best light?

A) Plutarch, who goes out of his way to write Cleopatra’s story when he means to be writing a portrait of Marc Antony. He seems more taken with her than with him. Shakespeare takes the same route.

Q) Are there any identifiable relics, any letters of Cleopatra’s still in Rome today?

A) There is one edict which bears a single word, meaning “Let it be done.” Either Cleopatra or a scribe in her court wrote the word; we can’t be certain which.  And that is it. The humidity of Alexandria is mostly to blame; Cleopatra’s would have been a very document-rich, history-heavy reign.

Q) Was there any data on Cleopatra’s opinion of Hatshepsut, the other queen in Egyptian history who ruled as a pharaoh?

A) No.  We can only be certain Cleopatra knew her Egyptian history, at least those parts of it that were visible from the 1st century BC.

Q) How has your book been received by scholars of Roman and Egyptian history?

A) Well by everyone who believes it possible to write a biography of a classical figure.

Q) If you had a time machine, and could interview Cleopatra, what questions might you ask her?
A) Of course we would all like to know if she loved Caesar and/or Antony.  I’d love to know what went through her mind on 15 March 44 BC, when some breathless messenger arrived at Caesar’s villa, above Rome, to tell Cleopatra that her great benefactor, the father of her child, and her lover had just been savagely murdered by his colleagues — at a juncture when she had every reason to feel that she had succeeded in establishing herself in Rome’s good graces, thanks to that very man.

Q) Did winning a Pulitzer Prize change the way you work in any way?  Easier access, more interest in your ideas, etc.

A) Wish I had a good answer for you.  Possibly I’ve felt more comfortable forging my own way in terms of subjects — the Franklin was already under contract when the Pulitzer was announced, but of course Cleopatra came next.  But that’s about it.  Doesn’t get you a better table in a restaurant.  And allows your family plenty with which to bludgeon you:  She can win a Pulitzer, but she can’t remember to pack a lunch for the field trip, etc.

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