Will the Real Cleopatra Please Stand Up

Dec 6th 2011

Perhaps she didn’t really take her bath in asses’ milk. Maybe she didn’t dissolve a pearl in her wine cup to impress Julius Caesar with the abundant richness of her country. And she did not meet him by emerging from a rolled-up rug at his feet. (It was actually a hemp bag, carried by a servant, in a daring ruse to bypass palace guards who were out to kill her.) The real persona was much more fascinating than the legend. 

Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, waged a brutal civil war, assassinated two siblings to keep her throne secure, and had sex with two of the most prominent Romans of the day. Her royal barge included a gym, library, shrine, baths, and an aquarium; her palace glittered with onyx, garnet and gold. Her country’s agricultural output was the breadbasket of the ancient world. She was a living goddess to her own people, and ruling queen of the most fabulously wealthy nation in the Mediterranean.

Stacy Schiff’s new biography “Cleopatra - a Life” is a fascinating read. Her well documented book brought familiar historical figures enchantingly to life for me. The deeper I got into the story, the more I felt I really knew these people. Julius Caesar, who longed to be worshipped as a god, the lady herself in all her intelligence, guile, flexibility and bling, explosive, hard-drinking, womanizing Marc Antony, pouty, persnickety Cicero, all became, through their shenanigans, political maneuvering and personal quirks, living human beings to me.

She was Greek. Cleopatra was a granddaughter of Ptolemy, a Macedonian general in Alexander the Great’s army. He was given Egypt to rule as one of the spoils of war.

Elizabeth Taylor she was not. No actual portrait of her exists, but a coin of the times with her image, ostensibly okayed by her, shows a woman with a sharp nose and high cheekbones. Her charm, according to those who met her, was in her intelligence, shrewdness, and arts of persuasion.

Her time and place is superbly recreated in the book. The city of Alexandria and its unfettered intellectual, political and artistic flavor can almost be sniffed and tasted. The descriptions of the countryside and people put me there. 

I have in travelled in Egypt, sailed down the Nile, and felt the spell it gradually weaves on its visitors. If the lady herself, or Egypt in general, interests you, this book is too good to miss. It’s a tale of a real woman who doesn’t need exaggerated stories to emphasize her fabulousness. Her real self is enough.