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Stacy Schiff, Pulitzer Prize Winner Looks at Life of Cleopatra

David Byrd

November 8, 2011

A new biography by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff tackles the life, death and legacy of Cleopatra. Schiff's work challenges some of the assumptions long held about Egypt's last queen.

It has been said that history is written by the victors. Nowhere is that sentiment more clearly illustrated than when exploring the reign of Cleopatra. Most of what we know of her was written by her enemies - the Roman historians Plutarch, Dio and Appian. Cicero didn't even mention her name when he said I despise the queen. But now Schiff is attempting to separate fact from propaganda in her new book Cleopatra: A Life.

Schiff said the popular image of Cleopatra is far from the truth. In fact, the last queen of Egypt was a highly-educated, multilingual, shrewd ruler who was the equal of any monarch of her time.

"She would have had precisely the education that someone like Caesar or Cicero had," said Schiff. "Homer was the Bible of the day. She certainly would have been able to recite large parts of the Iliad. She would have known her Aeschylus, her Euripides, and her Sophocles. She would have done child grammar lessons using Aesop's fables. And it's a very consistent curriculum across the Greek world at that point. And she and the well-born men with whom she allies herself later would have all hailed from the same background."

Schiff makes the point that Cleopatra is often not mentioned unless there's a Roman in the room. Her book, however, portrays the monarch as everything from Egypt's richest citizen, to its leading general, to its high priestess. But Cleopatra found herself in a careful balancing act with Rome and its dictator Julius Caesar, whom she eventually married and bore one son. Schiff said the relationship between Caesar and Cleopatra was not necessarily a romantic one - it was politically necessary.

"Rome needs Egypt's wealth, it needs Egypt's grain," said Schiff. "Cleopatra cannot continue without a benefactor in Rome. The two of them very quickly have a child together and Cleopatra will follow Caesar to Rome for reasons which may have been romantic, but my guess were probably have been more political. Whether all of this cloaks some kind of romance I really leave to the reader to decide. We're talking about two very shrewd, very straight-thinking strategic people."

Schiff's biography follows Cleopatra through Caesar's assassination, her relationship with Mark Antony, their fateful battle at Actium with Octavian - known later as Caesar Augustus - and their suicides.

The book concludes with the argument that Cleopatra used poison to commit suicide, rather than a snake bite as is commonly believed. The author has exhaustively researched her subject, and makes strong arguments for reconsidering the history.

The author said that Cleopatra's life and legacy have several lessons for modern readers - including as a model for independent women.

"Obviously she is born to rule or to be one of several prospective rulers at a time when women are taken seriously and women have really extraordinary legal rights," said Schiff. "And she doesn't really seem to look around and notice 'I'm the only woman in the room.' And I just think that's a lesson that we would be very well off incorporating today, as is her sense of confidence and clear sightedness."

Schiff's biography of Cleopatra is available at her website and at booksellers worldwide.

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