Cleopatra: the true story

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

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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.

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?

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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.

I had to put context around things, say to the reader, "Here’s what we have, but remember this was written 200 years after Cleopatra’s death." A lot of it is reminding the reader of a source’s bias. In cases where sources were contradictory, her death for example, I present both accounts.

What did you find most surprising as you researched?

For me, the greatest discovery – something about which I knew nothing – was the extent of women’s rights in Egypt in Cleopatra’s day, and before her, for that matter. I had not realized that women could inherit land, initiate lawsuits, and enter into marriages on their own. The idea that Egypt was a paradoxical place was familiar to me, but the idea that women had these kinds of rights that they wouldn’t have again for 2,000 years was pretty singular.

Why do you think Alexandria was so progressive?

No one really has been able to account for it. The goddess Isis, who was one of the most popular gods at the time, may have had something to do with it. The strength of the Ptolemy women may have had something to do with it.

And yet, murder in the city was commonplace.

Murder-wise it’s pretty consistent with every ancient dynasty. Herod, for example, murdered his own children. For many, many years if you were a sovereign’s blood relative you were a political liability.

Cleopatra was married to her brother. Was incest the norm in other cities?

No! And again, it’s unclear if the Ptolemies thought this was an Egyptian custom, or if they just invented it themselves. It’s really odd. Of 15 marriages that predate Cleopatra, 10 of them are full brother-sister marriages. And yet there don’t seem to be any obvious deformities, at least that we’ve heard of.

Cleopatra had romances with none other than Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Was it love or political prowess?

I don’t know. To me, it’s a little convenient that she ends up associated and aligned with the two most powerful military commanders of the day. Was there a rapport there? Clearly, on both accounts. There are hints. She goes to Rome presumably to be with Caesar with their child. But I think when you’re a sovereign, you’re in the political alliance business more than you are in the love affair business.

Will readers be disappointed by the real, humanized Cleopatra in your book, or even more dazzled?

I hope they would be dazzled. I’m dazzled by her. Think about her at the end of her life, for example: She’s backed into the corner in Alexandria. Octavian’s found his way in and it’s clear that all is lost. Poor Mark Antony has gone to pieces, he’s depressed and disillusioned. And what is Cleopatra doing? She’s spinning idea after idea, coming up with crazy schemes to get away. I think that’s astonishing – her enormous amount of resilience and resourcefulness.

Nora Dunne is a Monitor contributor.

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