Rehabilitating Cleopatra

Egypt’s ruler was more than the sum of the seductions that loom so large in history—and in Hollywood

The Egyptian queen, shown here in a 19th-century engraving, sneaked back from exile and surprised Julius Caesar. (Granger Collection, New York)
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It has forever been preferable to attribute a woman's success to her beauty rather than to her brains, to reduce her to the sum of her sex life. Against a powerful enchantress there is no contest. Against a woman who ensnares a man in the coils of her serpentine intelligence—in her ropes of pearls—there should, at least, be some kind of antidote. Cleopatra would unsettle more as sage than as seductress; it is less threatening to believe her fatally attractive than fatally intelligent. As one of Caesar's murderers noted, "How much more attention people pay to their fears than to their memories!"

A center of intellectual jousting and philosophical marathons, Alexandria remained a vital center of the Mediterranean for a few centuries after Cleopatra's death. Then it began to dematerialize. With it went Egypt's unusual legal autonomy for women; the days of suing your father-in-law for the return of your dowry when your husband ran off with another woman were over. After a fifth-century A.D. earthquake, Cleopatra's palace slid into the Mediterranean. Alexandria's magnificent lighthouse, library and museum are all gone. The city has sunk some 20 feet. Ptolemaic culture evaporated as well; much of what Cleopatra knew would be neglected for 1,500 years. Even the Nile has changed course. A very different kind of woman, the Virgin Mary, would subsume Isis as entirely as Elizabeth Taylor has subsumed Cleopatra. Our fascination with the last queen of Egypt has only increased as a result; she is all the more mythic for her disappearance. The holes in the story keep us coming back for more.

Adapted from Cleopatra: A Biography, by Stacy Schiff. Copyright © 2010. With permission of Little, Brown and Company. All rights reserved.

Stacy Schiff won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1999 biography, Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov): Portrait of a Marriage.


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