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Cleopatra: the true story

"Cleopatra" biographer Stacy Schiff talks about the real face of one of the most powerful women ever to live.

By Nora Dunne / December 7, 2010


The picture of Cleopatra to which we have become accustomed has been painted over the course of decades by both historians and Hollywood directors – all of them with agendas of their own. Some of the stories are true: Cleopatra had two siblings murdered, consummated two high-profile love affairs, and lived in exceptional opulence. But much of the real story about her is different than we thought: The Egyptian ruler was actually Greek and she wasn’t necessarily the stunning seductress history depicts. She was, however, a remarkable ruler, the last pharaoh, and perhaps the most powerful woman the world will ever know.

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Master biographer Stacy Schiff sifts through the facts in “Cleopatra: A Life” (Little, Brown and Co., 384 pp., $29.99). I talked with Schiff about the brilliant queen, some of the longstanding misconceptions about her, and the paradoxical ancient city she ruled.

You’ve done biographies on Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov (wife of “Lolita” author), Benjamin Franklin, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (of “The Little Prince”), and now Cleopatra. How do you pick your subjects?

It’s more accurate to say that they pick me. This was an idea I had a long time ago, in 1999. The idea kept reappearing on my list of potential subjects. This one was irresistible because of its all-star cast. You really can’t do better than Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and Cleopatra.

And I’m always fascinated by a world in transition. Here you have a very textured, very restive moment in which everything is about to change. It’s 30 years before the birth of Christ when Cleopatra dies. It’s the end of a dynasty, the end of Egyptian autonomy, the end of the Roman Republic, the end of the Hellenistic age. It’s a real turning point.

It’s also a look at a very powerful woman, of which there are not that many. Also the misconceptions really thrilled me. Say the name Cleopatra and we all think of Elizabeth Taylor. There was so much to clear away in terms of myth.

Much of what we know about Cleopatra comes from incomplete records and “tendentious historians” who never even met her. How was it possible then, to create a comprehensive and accurate book about the famed ruler?

In some cases you do have multiple sources who say the same thing. And there are things you can take with a degree of certainty, or with all certainty. For example, everyone is clear about the fact that Cleopatra was no great beauty, but irresistible in her charm.

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