According to Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff, the legendary Queen of the Nile spent most of her reign bullied by cantankerous old men and has enjoyed an entombed afterlife as a misunderstood icon of female sexuality and power.
Schiff paints a decadent portrait of Cleopatra, her men, her style, and her Alexandria, "a scholarly paradise with a quick business pulse and a languorous resort culture." Her gossipy accounts of Cleopatra's interactions with the big boys of her day will provide entertainment to many a beached reader with an interest in ancient history this summer.
Cleopatra was seen as a sort of Ptolemaic Pamela Harriman by her contemporaries and the historians who wrote about her reign, an opinion that, according to Schiff, has not been adequately questioned or explored, thus inspiring Shakespeare, Bernard Shaw, and even a blockbuster film starring the late Elizabeth Taylor to portray her as a vacuous vixen.
"Can anything good be said of a woman who slept with the two most powerful men of her time?" she asks early on.
Schiff doesn't dispute that Cleopatra had a penchant for power dating, but her iconic bewitching of Caesar and Marc Antony, among other gods in history, was both her trump card and her Achilles heel. Take Herod, for example. According to Schiff, the King of Judea "had as much as anyone to observe that Cleopatra was a tough negotiator. And if you are being taken advantage of by a woman, it is convenient to turn that woman into a sexual predator, capable of unspeakable depravity."
As for Cleopatra, Schiff writes that Herod was indulging in wishful thinking. "Cleopatra was of course far too smart to seduce-or attempt to seduce- a small time sovereign. She had nothing to gain by trapping Herod in such a way."
Cleopatra's other victim was the father of acid tongues, Cicero. According to Schiff, Cleopatra was the perfect enemy for Cicero, who was most discriminate in his choice of rivals, and like Herod, had a "well vexed history with women."
"No celebrity was going to escape his caustic clutches, especially one with an intellectual bent, a glamorous, international reputation."
His animosity starting boiling when Cleo failed to keep her word about loaning him a book or manuscript from her collection, but, his jealousy of her was perhaps insurmountable, because, after all, "intelligent women who had better libraries than he did offended him."
Apparently Cleopatra liked big libraries and big baubles. Like the glamorous Liz Taylor who would one day portray her, she was known for her lavish taste in jewelry. Schiff claims that Cleopatra owned two of the biggest pearls in history, and also entertained and set hair trends on an equally large scale. "Fashion paused to acknowledge her presence. Cleopatra set off a brief vogue for an elaborate hairstyle, in which rows of braids were knotted cornrow-style and caught in a bun behind the head."
Perhaps her incorrigible hair twisting produced some bad results, because Schiff writes that Cleopatra had her own cure for baldness: "equal parts burnt mice, burnt rag, burnt horses teeth, bear's grease, deer marrow, and reed bark mixed with honey."
The book provides a well-researched recounting of Cleopatra's historic suicide, dispelling the myth that she was killed by an asp bite. Schiff argues it was more likely that she died by eating a poisonous fig, after learning of her beloved Marc Antony's demise.
But her death, like her life, continues to be shrouded in mystery and folklore, owing to a lack of historical records and prejudiced historians, but mainly because we prefer the tabloid version. "Sometimes high drama prevails for a reason," Schiff writes.