She used sex as diplomacy and forged a legend


Here’s a woman’s story that would make a great plotline.

A woman has inherited her primacy in a major family corporation. The corporation is threatened by a rival corporation, one short on cash but long on political influence, that has experienced a power struggle among its directors. The apparent victor in that struggle approaches the woman’s company, and the woman forges an alliance—and an eventual sexual relationship—with the interloper. Partly out of affection, but chiefly out of a desire to remain in control of her cash-heavy corporation. That cash is something sorely needed by the rival. The alliance ends, suddenly, when the rival corporation deposes her favorite. Eventually, and again to save her position and her company, she enters into an alliance with his successor—which also results in a sexual alliance—until a devious member of the other corporation’s board turns against them both, taking control of the woman’s business. The woman, and the man whom she allied herself with, commit suicide. End of story.

No less a writer than William Shakespeare took this plotline and made the story famous. But the story wasn’t about a corporation. It was about the Queen of Egypt, a woman named Cleopatra, and three leaders of the Roman Empire—Julius Caesar , Mark Antony, and Octavian (later known as Caesar Augustus). The ultimate victor was Octavian. The rest is history – and the stuff of legend.

The story that author Stacy Schiff tells in Cleopatra: A Life (Little, Brown, & Co, 2010) is the story of the struggle that eventually saw the end of Egyptian rule by the Ptolemies, the death of a Queen, and the victory of one ideology (autocracy) over another (republicanism). The power struggles among Romans were marked by fundamental ideological differences that brought about radical changes in the Roman Empire–and the rest of the known world as well.

In a time when our college-aged students are by and large ignorant about the history of our own country, it is almost too much to ask that knowledge of the ancient world would inspire. Yet, Schiff gives us a glimpse of a woman who ruled with intelligence, strength, and vigor and who stood her ground against the greatest Empire in history. And lost.

Ms. Schiff has written biographies of Vera Nabokov, Benjamin Franklin, and Antoine Saint-Exupery (author of “The Little Prince”).

What amazes me is how so many seem to feel that women have always played second fiddle to men when, in fact, history is replete with women who could best men politically, sexually, financially, and morally. I recently reviewed a biography of Russia’s Catherine the Great that exemplifies the superiority of a woman who was admired the world over.  Such a woman was Cleopatra.

Cleopatra was about as Egyptian as Elizabeth Taylor, the woman who played her in the landmark 1963 motion picture. She was, in fact, descended from Ptolemy, a Greek who was given Egypt to rule by Alexander the Great after Alexander conquered the country. Her family was famous for many murders committed by family members one upon the other in order to maintain power. Cleopatra was as quick to sanction bloody murder as any of her male predecessors.

The country she ruled was ancient by the time she took the throne; the Sphinx was buried in the sand, a ruin almost 2,000 years old. And Egypt was threatened by a barbaric (by comparison) people from the north, the Romans. One thing Schiff makes clear is that her life did not consist solely of hot and heavy love affairs–although there were those–but that her day was heavily scheduled with affairs of another kind: the affairs of state. She ruled Egypt with the astuteness of any Fortune 500 CEO, managing the problems of a starving population when the Nile failed to rise to required heights, ensuring access to grain stored in the good times, levying taxes (always a tricky proposition for any leader), keeping the priests in the various temples happy, managing relations with neighboring and often rival kingdoms, and–of course–keeping the Roman wolves at bay. The story of her love affairs with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony may have been marked by true passion, but one has to wonder whether she set out to seduce them in order to keep Rome at bay: she was neither the first, nor would she be the last, politician to use sex in diplomacy. If so, it worked–until Octavian (who would later be known as Caesar Augustus) appeared and made it plain that he was not taken in by her. You can’t win them all.

Schiff’s book focuses on the major events in the story of Cleopatra, familiar from the writings of Plutarch (which incidentally informed the script of the 1963 motion picture). In the process, however, she provides smart analysis of the political realities of the time, and intricate analysis of the characters in the drama. These include Cleopatra herself, a highly intelligent woman who used every asset she had in order to preserve her position and her empire (for her sex was as much about diplomacy as it was love); Julius Caesar, the man whose ideology (which Schiff says may have been colored by the autocracy he experienced in Egypt) would lead Rome to dictatorship;  and Mark Antony, a soldier with chisled good looks (Richard Burton was a great choice to play him), an affable nature, a strength that inspired his troops, and a weakness for women. Antony was putty in Cleopatra’s hands, and the two would die fighting Octavian, an oily, slippery, and astute pol who managed to broker his “adoption” by Julius Caesar into world domination in spite of his humble origins.

Read this book if you care about the ancient predecessors in our history. It is not a fast-moving story, but it is well written and well documented and fascinating for its details about life in an ancient and beautiful place. Piecing a credible narrative out of original sources chiefly written by Cleopatra’s detractors (remember, history is often written by the winners) is no small feat of scholarship. Creating a narrative that is readable–and at times humorous–out of this material is an even tougher job.

Rating (3/5)

Copyright Isaac Morris 2012

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