Cleopatra: 'A Life' Misunderstood

You may know something about Cleopatra. The last queen of Egypt was a lover of Julius Caesar and Marc Antony — and a brilliant ruler in her own right. But what we think we know about her is not the whole truth. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff attempts to paint a more complete picture in her new book, Cleopatra: A Life. She speaks with host Michele Norris.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

Chances are, you already know something about Cleopatra. Maybe you absorbed her story through formal education, or maybe you picture a fetching Elizabeth Taylor playing the Egyptian queen as she seduces Caesar.

(Soundbite of film, "Cleopatra")

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. ELIZABETH TAYLOR (Actor): (As Cleopatra) My breasts filled with love and life. My hips are rounded and far apart. Such women, they say, have sons.

NORRIS: Hollywood excess aside, Cleopatra's story is actually filled with drama, sex, incredible power and inexhaustible wealth.

She was the last queen of Egypt before Egypt became part of the Roman Empire more than 2,000 years ago; a lover of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony; and a brilliant ruler in her own right.

Even so, Cleopatra is a bit of a cliche. What we think of her is some distance from the whole truth.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff attempts to paint a more complete picture in her new book, called "Cleopatra: A Life." Schiff told me she had to go back to primary sources.

Ms. STACY SCHIFF (Author, "Cleopatra: A Life"): We're talking about, essentially, the Roman historians, who wrote Cleopatra into the story mostly so that they could talk about the rise of Rome. And that is one of the problems, of course, in recounting her life. She's only ever apparent to us when there is a Roman in the room, or when her story intersects with the rise of Rome.

NORRIS: Why did you think this was the right time for a Cleopatra biography?

Ms. SCHIFF: I must admit it was something that had been on my mind for a long time, and I really just couldn't see a way to do it. But in terms of combination of celebrity, sex, politics - there is no better story.

I mean, you've got Caesar, Mark Antony and Cleopatra, this amazing and - I think -very modern cast. And then you have the women-in-power issue, which so plays into what our modern obsessions are - with the idea of restraint and luxury, tremendous success and devastating failure.

And how does a woman in authority convey that authority? Is it possible for a woman to rule without sounding shrill? Is it possible for a woman to manage without manipulating? All of these things seem to me to be very much at the fore today, and were no less the case 2,000 years ago.

NORRIS: When you were doing research into this story, knowing that you were writing about Cleopatra, was there a moment where you hit that note where you realized, I understand her now?

Ms. SCHIFF: There was a point early on where, in looking at a story of Mark Antony and Cleopatra out fishing, I realized that although we are 2,000 years in the future, you can hear her voice, that we have 2,000-year-old dialogue, and that in that dialogue, Cleopatra is essentially making fun of Mark Antony for being unable to catch a fish in the famously fertile waters of Egypt.

And she essentially says to him: Clearly, your job is not meant to be fishing. It's meant to be off conquering kingdoms - which, of course, is in her best interest.

And when she delivers that line in front of a whole horde of attendants, making fun of, you know, this great military commander, you begin to see her sauciness. You begin to see her freshness. You begin to see the wit. And it was very much conjuring with that scene that I thought, you know, you can actually begin to grasp a personality here.

NORRIS: And someone who also understands how to go right up to a line - but not cross it.

Ms. SCHIFF: There's a very, very good sense of knowing how to play people. From every ancient source, we have testimony to Cleopatra's irresistible charm, as Plutarch has it, to her ability to speak many languages including, as he puts it, the language of flattery and essentially, to be able to turn people to her will - really a great political genius, in that respect.

NORRIS: Beyond being a seductress, how did she use her gender?

Ms. SCHIFF: I'm not sure she's a great seductress, although I'd like to believe she is. She certainly seduces the two most important men of her world. But she does something which is interesting. She gets an enormous amount of mileage out of having children.

With Caesar, she has a child who, fortunately for her, turns out to be a son, the only son whom Caesar will have. And later, after Caesar's death, with Mark Antony, she'll have three more children. And in a very political sense, these alliances both help her, in terms of foreign policy, and elevate her in terms of her own kingdom - and gives her this kind of extra dimension to her authority.

NORRIS: Could you do us a favor? For people who perhaps in their mind connect Cleopatra with a specific cinematic performance, that of Elizabeth Taylor - with all of that makeup and that whisper-soft voice - help us understand exactly what perhaps was correct, or what certainly was incorrect about that specific portrayal.

Ms. SCHIFF: What we know about Cleopatra's looks is based purely on her coin portraits. Engraving was imperfect, and that when you are a ruler and you ask for a coin to be engraved with your likeness on it, you are probably trying to project a certain air of authority.

So in those portraits, she comes across as a very - almost frightening-looking, serious-minded woman. But we can be certain of several things, which is that she has a very strong chin, hooked nose very much like her father's, sunken eyes - no great beauty, by no means an Elizabeth Taylor look-alike. And the idea that in fact, it was not her beauty but her charisma that was the dominant quality is very much supported by the ancient texts, all of whom point to her as having been just sinuous and velvety in her personal interactions but really, no great beauty.

NORRIS: Are you concerned that if a new film is made - and we understand that one is in the works, and a big-name director is attached to this and an even bigger-named star - are you worried, as someone who's been sort of a conservator of her history now, that she will be further cliched?

Ms. SCHIFF: You know, she's been turned into so many things. I don't know if you've ever seen the Cleopatra Jones movies. But I think what interests...

NORRIS: I sure have.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SCHIFF: I think...

NORRIS: I like that version of Cleopatra...

Ms. SCHIFF: I do, too. But what's funny is you can take away Egypt, you can take away the snake, and what you end up with is this tough, independent-minded, very capable woman. And I think what's fascinating is how, over history, you know, the image has evolved, what we've taken away from her and given back.

So I guess I feel as if there are Cleopatras for all of us. There isn't just one Cleopatra for all time.

NORRIS: I'm wondering if at the end of this, you actually like her?

Ms. SCHIFF: I find her terrifying in the extreme. I guess that may come from, you know, murdering siblings, and some of the things which are less part of our cultural drinking water today than they would have been for her. But absolutely inspiring - and fascinating in her single-mindedness and in her vision.

I mean, she clearly knows precisely what she needs. There is an enormous amount of strategic thinking going on, and she's a very subtle thinker. And those things I found vastly appealing, as I did the wit and the humor and the ability to sort of blend herself in with any circumstances. I mean, she's involved with two very, very different men, Caesar and Mark Antony - one of them something of an intellectual; one of them somewhat more of a football player, I guess you might say. And with both of these men, you know, she changes her personality. She's just a quicksilver study in what to do to charm people, and to accommodate people. And that's rather extraordinary.

NORRIS: Stacy Schiff, it has been a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you so much.

Ms. SCHIFF: Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: The author is Stacy Schiff, and the title of her book is "Cleopatra: A Life."

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