Cleopatra: The woman behind the myth

Cleopatra-200.jpgFirst aired on Q (12/06/10)

It has been said that Cleopatra had one of the busiest afterlives in history. Interpretations of the fabled siren have been written by Shakespeare, painted by Michelangelo and embodied by Elizabeth Taylor.

It's easy to overlook the fact that somewhere underneath all this creative interpretation is a real person. Born in 69 BCE, Cleopatra ruled for 22 years as Egypt's last queen. At the time, Alexandria was the intellectual capital of the world — the lavishly beautiful site of the renowned library.

Acclaimed biographer Stacy Schiff takes us back to the world of Cleopatra in all its onyx and marble splendour in her new book, Cleopatra: A Life. The Pulitzer Prize-winning writer was initially drawn to her subject by the contemporary myth of an Elizabeth Taylor-esque Cleopatra. But the project was really kicked into gear by the classic writings of Plutarch.

"Plutarch is writing 100 years after Cleopatra's death, and you can still hear her voice on the page," Schiff said in a recent interview on Q. "You can still get this kinda impish sense of humour. This imperiousness, but also a very impish, girlish sense of humour."

The fact that so much writing about Cleopatra remains at all is remarkable. After all, in the grand scheme of history, Cleopatra is a loser, and the historical record tends to focus on winners.

Cleopatra, however, was exceptional. A resourceful and clever leader, not to mention the richest person in the world at the time, she managed to hold onto power for two decades, even with a losing hand. And she was a woman. According to the Romans, this shouldn't have been possible. As a woman, she wasn't a worthwhile enemy and should have been easily defeated by Octavian, later the Emperor Augustus.

"He had to turn her into some kind of greedy, caricatured, monstrous, scheming woman," Schiff said. "So he had to build her up to make her a worthwhile opponent, and in doing so, he pretty much puts her on the map."

Cleopatra: A Life has been widely lauded since its release in November. Most recently, it was named to the New York Times list of the 100 most notable books of 2010. Schiff has won particular praise for her vivid, and yet grounded, depiction of the queen's real life, stripped free of its mythic trappings. The biography also dispels a longstanding myth about the ancient queen's death.

Cleopatra, it seems, did not kill herself with an asp.

"A Hellenistic sovereign, if she knew anything, knew her poisons," said Schiff. "She would have been very, very well versed in that area."

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