Cleopatra

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“Mostly,” Schiff says of “Cleopatra: A Life,” “I have restored context.” The claim stops sounding humble when you begin to understand what it entails. Although it’s not Schiff’s purpose to present the reader with a feminist revision of a life plucked from antiquity, in order to “restore” Cleopatra — to see her at all — one must strip away an “encrusted myth” created by those for whom “citing her sexual prowess was evidently less discomfiting than acknowledging her intellectual gifts.” The poets, historians and biographers who initially depicted Cleopatra were mostly Roman and all male, writing, for the most part, a century or more after her death with the intent to portray her reign as little more than a sustained striptease. Papyri crumble away. What remains of her home is 20 feet underwater. She died before Jesus was born. Her first biographers never met her, and she deliberately hid her real self behind vulgar display. As Schiff observes, Cleopatra may boast “one of the busiest afterlives in history,” including incarnations as “an asteroid, a video game, a cliché, a cigarette, a slot machine, a strip club, a synonym for Elizabeth Taylor,” but the single piece of documentary evidence that might be traced to her own hand is “perhaps and at most, one written word” (translated as “Let it be done,” with which she or her scribe signed off on a decree). The woman left no primary sources. Born in 69 B.C., Cleopatra ascended the throne of Egypt at 18. As childhood was not a subject of great interest to the ancients, their recorded lives beginning when they first influenced history. To distract the present-day reader from the absence of her subject’s early years, Schiff neatly draws our attention to a different, albeit geographic, femme fatale — Alexandria. Balanced on the sparkling Mediterranean coast, with a parade-ready walkway running the length of the city and mechanical marvels like hydraulic lifts, coin-operated machines and statues with flickering...
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