The Once and Future Queen

by Caryn James
Photograph: Photo: Peter Ardito

Here’s a shocker: Cleopatra wasn’t beautiful. Her nose was too long, her chin too strong. But she was one smart first century bc cookie, who spoke eight languages and managed Egypt’s government and economy for two decades. Stacy Schiff’s dazzling, meticulous biography, Cleopatra (Little, Brown), reclaims the queen from myth and gives her back her brain.

Yes, she hosted lavish dinners and romanced Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, but Cleopatra was no slut, contrary to what history and Hollywood would have us believe. She exploited her sexuality—her liaisons saved Egypt from Rome’s domination—but also made other shrewd political maneuvers, such as strategically lending out her fleets and revaluing the country’s currency to stabilize the economy. Schiff wryly notes that the queen also had her royal siblings killed, a standard gambit showing that Cleopatra “faithfully upheld the family tradition but was, for her time and place, remarkably well behaved.” When she ran out of power plays and Rome conquered Egypt, she swallowed poison. The tale of her suicide by asp is mere fable, evoking a malicious link between snakes and sneaky women that goes back to Eve. Who needs legends anyway when the real Cleopatra was a fearless, bejeweled Wonder Woman come to life?

Originally published in the November 2010 isssue of More.

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