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How History And Hollywood Got 'Cleopatra' Wrong

by W. Ralph Eubanks
Nov 1, 2010

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The name Cleopatra evokes an indelible image of a beautiful, wanton temptress. For those of us of a certain age, a cinematic image of a young, violet-eyed Elizabeth Taylor immediately springs to mind. In her new biography, Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff argues that the Egyptian queen of gossip and legend, as well as literature and Hollywood directors, is largely inaccurate.

While one of the most recognizable figures in history, the Cleopatra we think we know is not the real Cleopatra at all. First of all, Cleopatra was Greek, not Egyptian — the Greeks ruled Egypt in the first century B.C. — a commanding woman versed in politics, diplomacy and governance. "What unsettled those who wrote her history," Schiff writes, "was her independence of mind, the enterprising spirit."

In addition, she was well educated, the intellectual equal of the men in her circle and their superior in wealth. And while she was the consort of two of the most powerful men of her time — Julius Caesar and Mark Antony — and bore their children, Cleopatra found herself poised at the dangerous intersection of women and power, leading Roman historians to write her off as a figurehead and condemn her as a woman of reckless ambition.

Schiff's great challenge as a biographer is to create a narrative that reveals the real Cleopatra and demonstrate why history should think of her as a canny political strategist and tough negotiator and not simply define her by her beauty and the men in her life. This is a tall order, since none of Cleopatra's writings survive and the most comprehensive sources on Cleopatra never met her, including the Greek historian Plutarch, who was born 76 years after she died.

But as she did in her Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Vera Nabokov, Schiff rises to this challenge and creates an engaging biography by relentlessly stitching together the pieces of her subject's broader life and making connections between them. While she does not stumble upon a lost piece of the historical record to tell Cleopatra's story, she does find clues in existing scholarship on the ancient world, including writings from historians of Cleopatra's day.

In the course of Cleopatra: A Life, the reader comes to understand the complexities of the world Cleopatra lived in through the details Schiff includes in her narrative. Readers also come to understand the real Greek drama that was Cleopatra's life, rather than the Shakespearean and cinematic one that is pervasive in our cultural memory.

Schiff does not try to portray Cleopatra as a feminist icon or as a victim of the men in her life. Nor does she set her up as someone for powerful women of the modern world to emulate — that would be difficult since no women, or men for that matter, have at their disposal the wealth or power that Cleopatra once held. What she does do is reveal the complexities of why Cleopatra went down in history as "the snare, the delusion, the seductress." Throughout this biography, Schiff reveals through colorful details and clearly written prose why exaggerating Cleopatra's sexual prowess was less discomfiting than acknowledging her intellectual gifts.

After a fifth century earthquake, Cleopatra's palace was destroyed and slid into the Mediterranean, rendering the world Cleopatra knew largely invisible. Although she had no rubble to sift though, Schiff searched tirelessly for the Cleopatra beyond the myths created over the past 2,000 years. In the end, after reading her compelling account of Cleopatra's life and times, the old Hollywood image of the Queen of Egypt begins to crumble like a decaying piece of celluloid.

W. Ralph Eubanks is the author of Ever is a Long Time and The House at the End of the Road. He is director of publishing at the Library of Congress.

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