The Luncheon Society/Pulitzer Prize winning biographer Stacy Schiff on “Cleopatra, A Life”/San Francisco—Credo September 12, 2011

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There’s a great movie line that says, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” However, when looking at Cleopatra, her life outpaces any legend.

In contemporary terms, Cleopatra is seen through the refracted lens of Elizabeth Taylor’s Hollywood portrayal.  Bits and pieces were added into the stew throughout the centuries, with generous helpings from Plutarch and William Shakespeare. She wasn’t the classic beauty as seen through modern eyes, but she had the guile and smarts to outmaneuver her enemies and build an empire.  It kept her in power for a generation and launched the persona that remains until this very day.  

Unlike many leaders of antiquity, there are no source documents for Cleopatra’s reign or even her life. Only one word from Cleopatra has survived the centuries, “Genesthoi,” which means, “Let it be done.”   The ensuing stories were written by Cleopatra’s enemies during and after her fall written by Romans and were largely fiction. They portrayed her as the libidinous tramp who used her wiles to entrap and weaken the two main leaders of her generation, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony.  


Cleopatra, A Life,” written by Pulitzer Prize Winning author Stacy Schiff, takes us into her world by compiling the source documents of that era to give us the best understanding of her times. Wedged into history three centuries after Alexander the Great but only a generation before the birth of Christ, Schiff constructs an ancient world and examines her life—right up to her death. When the facts present two alternatives, she explores them all in great detail. Did Cleopatra die of an asp bite to the breast or by drinking a cocktail of poison? Is either just another piece of fiction that embellishes the legend but hides the fact?

However, Cleopatra’s story is far more compelling that any Shakespearian play or any of Plutarch’s histories.  From the age of 18 when Cleopatra VII Philopator assumed the throne as a co-pharaoh of Egypt with her brother (who also served double duty as her husband), the drama began.  Within a generation, she lost her empire, won it back, became the richest woman in the world, only to lose it all to the Romans. Her father, Ptolemy XII Auletes, played a dangerous game and ransomed Egypt’s independence at an exorbitant price.  By appeasing Rome’s wishes and becoming the breadbasket for that emerging empire, her father was able to maneuver himself into the rare position as a “Friend of Rome.” It was a launching pad Cleopatra fully exploited throughout her life and she was not shy to pit one faction against another.

Unlike Europe’s royal families, intermarriage in Cleopatra’s family was taken to an extreme.  By all accounts, Cleopatra only had one set of grandparents, which suggests a high amount of incestuous behavior among the ruling classes.   However, the brutal nature of the family business became the norm. After the death of Cleopatra’s father, brother and sister were installed as nominal co-leaders only to collapse under the weight of the disagreement between their two camps.  Expecting to be finished off by her 11 year old brother, Cleopatra made her case to Julius Caesar. After being secreted into his villa, wrapped in a carpet to evade what would have been certain death by his Centurions, the deal was done. Ptolemy XIII was cut out of the leadership and soon dead, conveniently drowned in the Nile.

Cleopatra cemented the deal with Julius Caesar and she bore him a son, Ptolemy XV Philopator Philometor Caesar or Caesarion. She believed that the family tie would protect Egypt’s independence. Julius Caesar might think twice about killing his own bloodline and Cleopatra set her sights on someday installing him as the undisputed pharaoh ofEgypt.  When Caesar was killed by Brutus and his allies in March 44 BC, Cleopatra was in Rome, but quickly left for Alexandria.  When Mark Antony, Octavian (who later became Caesar Augustus) and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus emerged as the ruling triumvirate, Cleopatra shifted her alliances to Antony and had three more children, including a pair of twins.   

Greek is the Word. Schiff says that Hellenistic Egypt was the center of the learned world. Unlike the lands conquered by the Romans, it was surprisingly ahead of its time and even ahead of contemporary Muslim Egypt. Women had substantial rights, could divorce, and own businesses. What made Cleopatra successful was that she understood the power of native symbolism long before her peers. While Greek in manner, she went native. She patterned herself after the Egyptian Goddess Isis, printed coinage with her profile and beliefs to prop up her regime, and she actually spoke local language (she could speak 9 languages in total) something shunned by other members the Royal Family. In modern times, she really “worked the room,” knowing full-well that parroting native customs might extend her reign and keep the peace.

However, The Romans and the Egyptians looked at each other with the same amount of rough disdain. From the perceptive of Cleopatra’s Alexandria, the Romans were a bunch of slobs, whose lack of knowledge spoke volumes.  From Rome, the Egyptians were the Californians of antiquity, a place of chaos and disorder, where even a woman could emerge as the undisputed leader. As Rome transitioned from a Republic into an Empire, Cleopatra’s Egypt became more irresistible for conquest.

The end comes quickly.  By 33 BC, the ruling triumvirate of Rome fell to pieces and soon Antony and Octavian were at each other’s throat; Lepidus chose retirement in eventual obscurity. By now, Cleopatra had three children with Antony and by 31 BC, Octavian (now rebranded as Caesar Augustus) had emerged as Rome’s leader. At Actium, the Romans crushed Antony.  Now cornered prey, neither Cleopatra nor Antony wanted to return to Rome as a war prize. Both killed themselves in one of the world’s best known death scenes, but nobody is sure what really happened.

Was it poison or the bite of an asp? Strabo, who was alive at the time, suggested that either of Cleopatra’s death scenarios might have happened. However, suicide by an asp bite to the breast was more dramatic.

Picking your friends, picking your enemies. By picking and keeping Antony as her patron, she painted herself into a corner.  Octavian was eager for conquest at a discount because he could remove two rivals for the price of one. After her death, the fate of Cleopatra’s children began to mirror that of her siblings. The son she had with Julius Caesar, Caesarian, was probably strangled to death, betrayed by a contemporary who we think lured back to Alexandria. However, the three children she had with Antony fared better. They were raised by Mark Antony’s wife in Rome, making them the original blended family.  One daughter, Selene, became the wife of King Juba who served as a Roman puppet in North Africa. Neither of the boys parented by Antony and Cleopatra’s survived into adulthood and with that, the Ptolemaic line vanished into legend.

What if? With that, Egypt slid into 2 millennia of political despair and instability, which remains to this very day.  Tourists who visit peer back into antiquity because the present is bleak and the future, bleaker still.  What if Cleopatra had outmaneuvered Octavian and emerged triumphant? Might the great libraries of Alexandria continue to serve as the modern center of knowledge?   Might the center of banking and commerce be Alexandria and not Manhattan?

Had she succeeded, Cleopatra would remain at the margins of Egyptian history, a long forgotten monarch who ruled at a pivotal period. It was the dramatic nature of her downfall and death which gave birth to the legend, one that continues to eclipse Caesar, Octavian, and Antony and render them as characters subservient to the larger story of Cleopatra VII, Pharaoh of Egypt. 

The Luncheon Society™ is a series of private luncheons and dinners that take place in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Manhattan, and now Boston.  We essentially split the costs of gathering and we meet in groups of 20-25 people. Discussions center on politics, art, science, film, culture, and whatever else is on our mind. Think of us as “Adult Drop in Daycare.” We’ve been around since 1997 and we’re purposely understated. These gatherings takes place around a large table, where you interact with the main guest and conversation becomes end result.  There are no rules, very little structure, and the gatherings happen when they happen. Join us when you can.

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