What do you think of when you hear Cleopatra? Do you image a dark haired beauty, queen of sin, an enchantress? Cleopatra was born in 69 BC and what we know of her was written by several historians – mostly Roman and some with a grudge against her. From the few accounts that exist, movies and books have been born, adding speculation and fiction to the picture.
Did you know that Cleopatra was not Egyptian, but rather Greek? That she was not the first queen to be named Cleopatra? In fact she was Cleopatra VII. That she may not have been beautiful in the way we imagine her? There are few images of her to be found – mostly of coins with her portrait. Take a look at the coin above – does she meet your definition of beauty? Is she as beautiful as Angelina Jolie who will play Cleopatra in an upcoming movie?
Last fall, a new biography of Cleopatra was released written by Stacy Schiff. The book is a fascinating reconstruction of what we know about Cleopatra using the original sources of the day and those written after Cleopatra’s death. What makes this account different is that Schiff doesn’t take the sources at face value. She digs deeper. Typically if Cicero or Plutarch is quoted by biographers or college professors – there is a tone of reverence and absolute acceptance. Schiff dares question these sources. She quotes Cicero as “hating” the queen. Schiff notes that Cicero, a Roman contemporary of Cleopatra’s, had taken a dislike to her – perhaps because she had promised him a book from her famous library in Alexandria and forgot to bring it to him, on one of her trips to Rome. How might have the story of Cleopatra been different had she written the account and not a Roman who disliked her?
In Schiff’s book Cleopatra, we see a portrait of Cleopatra VII as a powerful queen, a master strategist, a cool pragmatist, a towering intellect, mother of four children, loyal lover of two famous Romans, woman of enormous confidence and daring,a commander of armies. Schiff describes the dichotomy of West and East – the Roman culture – male, war-like, judgemental, and based on fear and the Egyptian society – often ruled by women, rich, sensuous, imbued with the learning and history of the world as collected in the greatest library of its time in Alexandria. Schiff says “We still fight the battle of East and West, still lurch as uneasily as did Cicero between indulgence and restraint. Sex and power continue to combust in spectacular ways. Female ambition, achievement, authority, trouble us as they did the Romans, for whom Cleopatra was more a monster than a marvel, but undeniably a little of both. Read more…