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Cleopatra: The Woman Behind the Myth

41JixniLMIL._SL160_Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff searches for the real woman behind the centuries old myths in the new biography Cleopatra: A Life (Little, Brown and Company, 384pgs). Historical propaganda has often painted the Egyptian queen as a scheming beauty who seduced powerful men like Julius Caesar and Marc Antony for political gain. But Schiff’s research revealed a much more intelligent and nuanced personality. “It’s astonishing how tenacious a myth is. I mean, Plutarch is the first to say that her beauty was by no means as remarkable as was her charm and her intellect. And here we are 2,000 years later and we’re still stressing the beauty,” says Schiff in an interview with SFGate. “Here you have an incredibly ambitious, accomplished woman who comes up against some of the same problems that women in power come up against today. Cleopatra plays an oddly pivotal role in world history as well; in her lifetime, Alexandria is the center of the universe, Rome is still a backwater.”

Though Cleopatra is one of the most famous women in history, facts about her life remain murky, which presents special challenges to a biographer. “For example, for Cleopatra’s final meeting with Octavian, who defeats her, we have two accounts, separated by about 100 years. One is Dio’s, the other Plutarch’s. They contradict each other in almost every detail. So, you have this sense of where do you go with this, how do you use this material? And I ended up essentially giving the reader both, but gently weighing in on which I thought was the more likely,” explains the author.

And as for the queen’s tragic death by snake bite, Schiff dispels that myth, too. “As a Hellenistic sovereign, if she knew anything, Cleopatra knew her poisons; why would you rely on a wild beast at a moment when you needed quickly to do yourself in, and when in fact that death was among your more painful options? I’d vote for poison, but not in the form of a hissing asp.”

Though Schiff reveals Cleopatra to be a more complex individual than history and Hollywood have characterized her, the author presents a figure that is no less a fascinating. “Cleopatra led an epic life, and Schiff captures its sweep and scope in a vigorous narrative aimed at the general reader yet firmly anchored in modern scholarship…Taking Cleopatra’s political goals seriously, Schiff reanimates her as a living, breathing woman: utterly extraordinary, to be sure, but recognizably human,” praises a review in The Los Angles Times.

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