Aside from being aesthetically equated to Elizabeth Taylor, Cleopatra has not fared well in history. In her riveting biography Cleopatra: A Life (Back Bay Books, 2011), which is now out in paperback, Stacy Schiff establishes that this was primarily because Cleopatra’s story was penned by a crowd of Roman historians for whom “citing her sexual prowess was evidently less discomfiting than acknowledging her intellectual gifts.”
Schiff exhibits no such discomfort and, in brilliant contrast, seems to revel in her subject’s lively intelligence. She establishes from the out-set that, above all, Cleopatra was a consummate politician—a visionary who shaped her own persona and her people’s perception through both exceptional leadership and canny political stagecraft.
One of the most significant contributions of Cleopatra: A Life is that it provides us with the least tainted view of the Egyptian queen to date. Schiff assiduously teases out the motivations of Cleopatra’s chroniclers, and the result is a compelling rendering wherein the myths surrounding the last Egyptian queen are not only deconstructed but their origins are also explained. With the veils of myth removed, the Cleopatra that emerges in Schiff’s sensitive and probing portrait is a smarter, wiser woman, and one of the strongest, most influential rulers of the ancient world.