Stacy Schiff: Who’s Buried in Cleopatra’s Tomb?





[Stacy Schiff, the author of “A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France and the Birth of America,” is working on a book about Cleopatra.]

WHAT becomes a legend most? If you’re a woman, the formula is straightforward. Your best bets are the three D’s: delusion (Joan of Arc), disability (Helen Keller), death (Sylvia Plath). You get extra points for the savage, sudden or surprising demise, as Evita, Amelia or Diana attests. At the head of the list of untimely self-destructors comes of course Cleopatra VII, for whose tomb a search begins shortly, on an Egyptian hilltop west of Alexandria.

Cleopatra died 2,039 years ago, at the age of 39. Before she was a slot machine, a video game, a cigarette, a condom, a caricature, a cliché or a synonym for Elizabeth Taylor, before she was reincarnated by Shakespeare, Dryden or Shaw, she was a nonfictional Egyptian queen. She ruled for 21 years, mostly alone, which is to say that she was essentially a female king, an incongruity that elicits the kind of double take once reserved for men in drag.

From her point of view there was nothing irregular about the arrangement. Cleopatra arguably had more powerful female role models than any other woman in history. They were not so much paragons of virtue as shrewd political operators. Her antecedents were the rancorous, meddlesome Macedonian queens who routinely poisoned brothers and sent armies against sons. Cleopatra’s great-grandmother waged one civil war against her parents, another against her children. These women were raised to rule.

Cleopatra had a child with Julius Caesar. After his death, she had three more — two sons and a daughter — with his protégé, Marc Antony. Motherhood confirmed her hold on the throne. She was a little bit the reverse of Henry VIII; she too needed a male heir, though she was rather more successful in securing one. Almost certainly Marc Antony and Julius Caesar represent the extent of Cleopatra’s sexual history. She was self-reliant, ingenious and plucky, and for her time and place remarkably well behaved. Having inherited a country in decline, she capably steered it through drought, famine, plague and war.

What good can be said of a woman who sleeps with two of the most powerful men of her age, however? The fathers of Cleopatra’s children were men of voracious and celebrated sexual appetites. Cleopatra has gone down in history as a wanton seductress. She is the original bad girl, the Monica Lewinsky of the ancient world. And all because she turns up at one of the most dangerous intersections in history, that of women and power....


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