Cleopatra Continues to Capture Imaginations, 2,000 Years Later

November 15, 2010 at 6:33 PM EDT
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The Egyptian ruler Cleopatra died more than 2,000 years ago, but still has a powerful presence today. Jeffrey Brown has a conversation with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff about her new book, "Cleopatra: a Life."

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: a new book about a woman who may be as intriguing today as she was more than 2,000 years ago. Jeffrey Brown has that.

JEFFREY BROWN: She is the stuff of myth and legend, one of history’s great heroines, Cleopatra, queen of Egypt, lover of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, subject of Shakespeare, Shaw, and, of course, the cinema.


ACTOR: The queen has come to the people of Rome.

ACTOR: It wouldn’t occur to me to look to you for instruction.

ELIZABETH TAYLOR, actress:Which is have you have come back chained to Octavian like a slave.

ACTOR: Slave.

ELIZABETH TAYLOR: And with such an exquisite set of chains, so softly spoken, so virtuous.

JEFFREY BROWN: But it turns out the real Cleopatra was perhaps, if anything, far more interesting and certainly more complex. Her story is told in a new biography, “Cleopatra: A Life. ”

The author is Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Stacy Schiff. Welcome to you.

STACY SCHIFF, author, “Cleopatra: A Life”:Thanks, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: As you say early on, this is one of the women who has had one of the — what you say, the busiest afterlives in history. What makes her such an object of fascination?And what made you want to write about her?

STACY SCHIFF: Well, partly there are the Roman propagandists who put her on the map. I mean, this is one of those cases where your enemies make you into something even greater than you were in your lifetime, so they have — you have got this inflated idea of who this Egyptian queen was in the first place.

And then history just takes over. The idea of this powerful woman is enchanting to everyone, from the Renaissance to the Romantics to Joseph K. Man — Joseph Mankiewicz. I mean, you have got every possible incarnation of Cleopatra through the ages. And the idea was, what can you do with a woman in power, and why is she so fascinating?

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, one of the first big aha — ahas here is just what we don’t know because of the legend, right? Queen of Egypt, but not really Egyptian, right?

STACY SCHIFF: Greek, exactly.

JEFFREY BROWN: Macedonia, Greek.


JEFFREY BROWN: Whether she loved sex or not, we don’t know, but — but…

STACY SCHIFF: It makes a better story, though, doesn’t it?Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: … it makes a better story. But the education, the whole upbringing, tell us a little bit about what we don’t know.

STACY SCHIFF: Well, the biggest one is, we think she’s gorgeous, right?I mean, we think she looked like Elizabeth Taylor.

And from the coins we have seen, that — all bets are pretty much off there. We think — we know she has a hooked nose, a very Semitic profile, a strong chin, a very authoritative manner, definitely not an Elizabeth Taylor look-alike.

And the education is extraordinary. The education she would have had would have been identical to that of Caesar or any wellborn person in the Greek world.

JEFFREY BROWN: Fluent you said in how many languages?

STACY SCHIFF: Fluent in nine languages, which I doubt Caesar could have been at.

And the one question is, did she speak Latin, which we don’t know. But, yes, fluent in nine languages, able to converse with her own subjects, which no earlier king or queen of her dynasty had been able to do, and apparently just a persuasive, silken arguer and speaker, according to Plutarch.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, as you say, I mean, it’s often said history is winner by the winners. And you say her story, as we know it, is told by Romans. It’s also told by men, right, who were…


JEFFREY BROWN: … trying to figure out inevitably what to make of this woman…


JEFFREY BROWN: … intelligent, rich, and quite a resourceful ruler.

STACY SCHIFF: And three things that really don’t appeal to a Roman man.


She’s a woman, she’s coming from Egypt, and she’s immensely, incomparably richer than they are. And that really — the ostentation and then the over-the-top extravagance of her world really does unnerve them. Of course, they will adopt it later. The Roman Empire will go the same way.

But, for that moment in history, in the 1st Century B. C. , she is the one in possession of the great fortune. And Rome is looking at her pious — you know, well-mannered Rome is looking at her as the stuff of decadence, as this sort of decadent, wild queen.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that city that she rules, Alexandria, as you say, makes Rome look like a backwater at that point.

STACY SCHIFF: It’s so funny, because, from our perspective, Rome is the center of civilization. Coming from her perspective, Rome is still, yes, a very primitive place, a bunch of — a welter of squalid streets. Alexandria is the seat of learning, the center of the civilization, the place you went to if you wanted a tutor or a doctor or basically any professional of any kind. It was to Alexandria that you went.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you have a favorite moment in her life or story that somehow exemplifies what you came to know about her?

STACY SCHIFF: I guess I was most struck at the end of her life. She and Antony are defeated by Octavian very dramatically. They’re sitting in Alexandria — Alexandria waiting for Octavian to come and essentially, you know, say the game is over.

And Mark Antony goes to pieces. Mark Antony leads a very dissipated life, if our sources can be relied upon. Cleopatra becomes immensely resourceful, very shrewd, very crafty. She happens to have a king in her — who has been captured in her court. She chops off his head and sends it to a neighbor to try to get the neighbor to help her.

JEFFREY BROWN: There’s a lot of that in her life.

STACY SCHIFF: There’s a lot of chopping heads off.

JEFFREY BROWN: Siblings, fathers, mothers.

STACY SCHIFF: Especially siblings.


STACY SCHIFF: She tries to drag her boats across — over land from the Mediterranean to relaunch them, to try to escape. She thinks about setting up a kingdom in Spain.

There’s this sense of being stuck in a corner and just imagining a number of great possibilities, and just an enormous resourcefulness and ingenuity there, which I thought was striking.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you mentioned, when you said Mark Antony, if we believe the sources.

Now, how do you, as a historian — because, as you said before, a lot of these things were written after the fact, right, and written from a distance, and written with a bias. So, how do you, as a biographer looking at this, use those sources and try to fill in the picture?

STACY SCHIFF: I thought the best thing to do was simply to remind the reader repeatedly, these are our sources. They are scant. They are biased. But they’re the only sources we have, so that, for example, Plutarch, who is our closest source, is writing 100 years after the death of Cleopatra. He’s as close to her as we are to Ulysses Grant.

And I just felt that, as long as you can remind the reader occasionally what kind of material you’re working with, where these people are coming from, it was all right to trust yourself to the materials at hand.

And, in certain points, I have injected myself into the narrative and said, you know, remember, remember where — who this person is, and why — and how this would have rung true to him. Remember that this is a person who has changed sides and is now trying to tell us the story of Cleopatra from the other side.

JEFFREY BROWN: And when you put it all together, the sources and putting yourself, your own thinking into this, what is the portrait of Cleopatra that you want to take — want us to take from it?

STACY SCHIFF: I think she emerges as a shrewd and very clever and very resourceful woman who was, oddly enough, very unaware of the fact that she was a woman, who doesn’t play the gender card, except, of course, to have children with the right men at the right time…


… but who is very able to sit in an all-male military camp and comport herself like an independent sovereign.

She is a woman who really just rises above the entire gender issue and comports herself like the most important person in the world, as, in many ways, she is at that moment.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, is it true that there’s a movie going to be made out of your book starring Angelina Jolie?

STACY SCHIFF: It is true that the book has been optioned for the movies.


STACY SCHIFF: And I think it is very true that Scott Rudin, who has optioned it, would very much like for Angelina Jolie to play Cleopatra.


STACY SCHIFF: That’s about as much as I know right now.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, wouldn’t that be ironic, to continue the legend here, going again to Hollywood, again to one of the most beautiful Hollywood actresses to play Cleopatra.

STACY SCHIFF: You know, it’s funny. I was just putting together images of Cleopatra through time. It’s amazing what we have — she’s like a shape-shifter. It’s amazing what we have done with her and made of her.

And, sometimes, she gets conflated with Eve. And, sometimes, she’s Romeo and Juliet all over again. It just — she seems to fit into any number of dynamics.

JEFFREY BROWN: And this is — yours is the Cleopatra for the 21st century.

STACY SCHIFF: I’m sure mine is as biased as anyone else’s, but it’s Cleopatra — it’s Cleopatra the independent woman, exactly.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the book is “Cleopatra: A Life. ” Stacy Schiff, thanks so much.

STACY SCHIFF: Thanks, Jeff.