Photo: Ben Goldstein/Studio D
Mention Cleopatra and you probably think of Elizabeth Taylor batting her violet eyes at Richard Burton. Or maybe Shakespeare's temptress fooling around with Julius Caesar and dying for love of Mark Antony. But it turns out we have seriously underestimated the last Egyptian queen. In her provocative new biography, Cleopatra: A Life, Pulitzer Prize winner Stacy Schiff makes the case that the richest and most powerful woman of all time was less "wanton temptress" than savvy politician.
Q: Readers will recognize characteristics of Cleopatra in everyone from Diane Sawyer to Sarah Palin to Benazir Bhutto to Hillary Clinton. Who among modern women reminds you most of Cleopatra?
SS: There are certainly glimpses of her in all of these women—for their eloquence, persistence, pluck, grace under pressure, single-minded ambition, uncommon capability. What nearly all of them have in common with Cleopatra is the freedom, or conviction, to define themselves. None has let men set the agenda or tell them who they are. All command their own stories. But analogies ultimately fall down for the simple reason that no woman today wields the kind of unconditional authority that Cleopatra did over so vast a domain.
Q: We imagine that the Egyptian culture of that time was backward and unsophisticated, and yet women had more power then than they would again for centuries.
SS: It's true: Women enjoyed rights in Egypt they would not again enjoy for more than 2,000 years. They owned ships, ran vineyards, filed lawsuits, practiced medicine. Their husbands supported them after divorce. Their power was unprecedented. It's difficult to separate cause and effect on this one. Possibly those freedoms resulted from the worship of Isis, an all-powerful distinctly female deity; possibly those attitudes had something to do with the role that strong queens played in Egypt. Cleopatra had plenty of illustrious female ancestors, though none who ruled alone, as she did.
Q: Considering how much power Cleopatra wielded, why is it that women were (and still are) often condemned as manipulators while men are praised as strategists for similar behavior?
SS: The answer is simple: For thousands of years, men have written history, so it seems to me that most of what we've read is from the male point of view. Throughout most of history (when men were writing), women were meant to be the obedient, agreeable supporting players. They were not meant to have minds of their own. When they strayed from that image, they paid a price. They were considered unnatural: A woman schemes, while a man strategizes; men command, while women manipulate. We see this every day at the office. Powerful women in history have generally been reduced to (this is from Henry James, believe it or not) "wicked queens [and] profligate mistresses." James forgot one stereotype, though: the sexual predator. From Delilah to Catherine the Great, the best way to cast aspersions on a woman in charge was to assign her a prodigious sexual appetite. A woman who asserts herself unnerves. She is the bad girl; she gets demonized for her promiscuity. When you think about it, a fair number of women who accomplish patriotic feats wind up sexualized. Delilah gets involved with Samson because she needs some military information, but that's hardly what we tend to focus on. Her sex appeal lingers, while the original mission gets lost. There doesn't yet seem to be a language, even a prototype, for the capable, cool-headed, commanding woman, though I do think we're on our way to creating one. Or at least we're closer than we've been—possibly because women have pens now, too.
Who did Cleopatra love more — Julius Caeser or Mark Antony?
We Hear You!