Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile, died 2000 years ago, but in popular imagination she looms large. Her modern image as a wily seductress who wielded extraordinary power has been largely created by stage and screen, but Pulitzer prize winning writer Stacy Schiff sought to separate the facts from the many fictions of her life. In a new biography she details Cleopatra’s political shrewdness, her staggering wealth and influence, and the outsize role of her enemies in shaping her legacy. Stacy Schiff joins us in the studio to talk about one of the most interesting but maligned women in history.


  • Stacy Schiff Author of "Vera," winner of the Pulitzer Prize; "Saint-Exupery," a Pulitzer Prize finalist and "A great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America," winner of the George Washington Book Prize.


  • 11:06:55

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. In popular lore, Cleopatra, the last queen of the Nile is both seductive and somewhat sinister, but as Stacy Schiff details in her new biography, it was her detractors who wrote her history. The real Cleopatra was an ingenious negotiator and one of the most influential women of her age. Her new book is titled "Cleopatra: A Life." Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Stacy Schiff joins me to talk about the real Cleopatra and why she's gone down in history for all the wrong reasons. We do of course invite you to join us 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to Feel free to join us on Facebook or Twitter. Stacy, it's good to see you.

  • 11:08:09

    MS. STACY SCHIFFIt's good to see you, Diane.

  • 11:08:09

    REHMI must say, I think everybody probably of a certain age or even younger thinks Cleopatra, thinks Elizabeth Taylor and thinks not much beyond that. How much reality came out of that movie?

  • 11:08:30

    SCHIFFWell, I speak at a slight disadvantage because while I was working on this book, I did not allow myself to watch Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton for that very reason. I have allowed myself at various junctures to watch the trailer for that movie which leaves me in stitches every time. But historically speaking, given the fact that as you know Cleopatra is a woman of Greek descent oddly...

  • 11:08:54

    REHMNot Egyptian at all.

  • 11:08:55

    SCHIFF...not Egyptian descent and who would have dressed as a Greek woman as she's pictured on the front of the book. And did not have the loveliness of Elizabeth Taylor, had neither her lilac eyes nor her beautiful whispery voice. I think already we're a little widely off the mark. You could talk about the wonderful carpet unrolling scene where Elizabeth Taylor arrives before Richard Burton and there already you have a historical inaccuracy. Cleopatra doesn't exactly wrap herself up in a carpet, you know, kind of the girl in the cake to seduce this man.

  • 11:09:29

    SCHIFFShe is really trying to reach behind enemy lines to beg for the return of her kingdom when Caesar has arrived at her palace. And she does it from a position of complete weakness and in a traveler's sack, in fact. And nor do we know if the moment of unveiling actually takes place before Caesar, although it really works well in the movie, doesn't it?

  • 11:09:51

    REHMYou say that her history is really written by her detractors and they don't write until 100 years after she's gone.

  • 11:10:06

    SCHIFFYou have kind of a double-whammy here. I mean, it's always the case, you know, if you read a British life of Napoleon, if you read a northern life of a southern general, you're always going to have history that's written with some kind of crazy bias or some sort of inherent bias. I'm writing, I'm sure, with a bias as well. I like to think it's a lesser one. But you also have the problem of time. Cleopatra, the earliest chroniclers of Cleopatra's life are really writing 100 years after her death. Plutarch was among the more objective, among our best sources. And he's writing 100 years later. And now he is writing at various times from eyewitness accounts but he's as close as we can come to her, to the actual contemporary sources.

  • 11:10:52

    REHMNow do we know what she looked like? You have some stone configurations, but what does she look like?

  • 11:11:05

    SCHIFFThe busts are difficult because for a long time, any bust of a woman who looked vaguely noble that was carved of expensive stone and that had a diadem, you know, a royal headband around her head was said to be Cleopatra. So there are many Cleopatras as a consequence. The only really accurate depiction, the only depiction we can truly count on, are the coins which are decidedly unsexy, as coins always seem to be, except when you need them, of course.

  • 11:11:34

    SCHIFFAnd on the coins -- which Cleopatra would have approved herself, so this is the image she is likely to convey to her subjects, she is hook-nosed, sharp chinned, her eyes are sunken. She looks highly authoritative, but she does not look like the simpering beauty. She does not look like Elizabeth Taylor.

  • 11:11:54

    REHMYeah, exactly, when do we begin to know of her life? It's really more as an adult, 18 or so?

  • 11:12:05

    SCHIFFIt is as an adult and as a ruler that we begin to know. You know it's an interesting conundrum because her life comes down to us from Roman chroniclers. If there is no Roman in the room we almost do not know she exists. I mean, it's a real tree falls in the forest kind of history so where her history intersects with Rome we know the most. And when she is off running her country peacefully, successfully and cannily, we know the least, which tells you something about how the history has come down to us.

  • 11:12:35

    SCHIFFWe know a certain amount or we can deduce a certain amount about her early years only because a highborn woman of Greek descent, well educated, would have had the same education in Alexandria where she grew up as that same person, not always a woman, would have had in Antioch or in Rome or in Athens. So it's fairly easy to fill in what her education, what her childhood books would have been, what her learning would have been, how she was trained to speak, what lines of Homer she was trained to memorize, which plays she would have known, but there we are really having to work our way back from the general picture to the specifics.

  • 11:13:11

    REHMAnd of course, she is married at 18 to her brother, Ptolemy who is 10.

  • 11:13:21


  • 11:13:21

    REHMAnd this is not an unusual circumstance?

  • 11:13:26

    SCHIFFThe dynasty, Cleopatra's dynasty, the Ptolemies in the 300-ish years that they rule Egypt assumed this intermittent, this incest essentially as their way of doing business and...

  • 11:13:40

    REHMAnd keeping the...exactly.

  • 11:13:42

    SCHIFF...power consolidation within the family. You know, when you think about it it's brilliant. You eliminate the need for you know pesky in-laws, right? You keep the power in one place and there are only an x number of potential suitors in any case. It has an interesting effect, in that it basically makes the princesses, Ptolemaic women much more important. They become much more, because you're not marrying outside the family a Ptolemaic princess acquires much more power so that by the time Cleopatra comes along, when you think about it, the children of the woman are as important. Usually it's the man's children who assume the throne. In this case, it is a woman's children who become all important.

  • 11:14:20

    REHMShe did not get along very well with her young brother.

  • 11:14:25

    SCHIFFYou know, getting along very well, when you're a Ptolemaic sibling, is a whole other ball of wax, isn't it? She has three siblings, three living siblings at the time, that she ascends to the throne. One to whom you alluded to whom she's married. He conveniently dies in a civil war the two of them fight which leaves two siblings. After that civil war, Caesar puts her back on the throne with the younger of her brothers. He exiles the troublesome sister who has tried to dethrone Cleopatra to modern-day Turkey and ultimately, Cleopatra will poison that brother to whom she has been put back on the throne.

  • 11:15:03

    SCHIFFAnd Mark Antony, as a favor to Cleopatra much later, will see that the sister is murdered, so end of blood relatives, end of challenges to one's authority. One may now rule supreme and comfortably so. It's not the kind of way we tend to deal with our siblings, but as Plutarch points out, this was standard operating procedure among sovereigns at the time.

  • 11:15:23

    REHMConsidering how little of reality we know of her life and considering that all these other people wrote about her, what kinds of sources did you use? How did you go about doing this?

  • 11:15:43

    SCHIFFI started by reading what I thought she would have read. I mean, the interesting thing about the ancient world or the helpful thing is that there weren't that many books or there weren't that many great books. So we know she would have read her Herodotus on Egypt, which would have been fairly amusing to her, because it's largely mythical. We know she would have ready Thucydides. We know she would have read Euripides, Sophocles, so I started to some extent with what she would have known.

  • 11:16:08

    SCHIFFThere's been a huge amount, an outpouring in the last say 50 years, of terrific scholarship about the Hellenistic world, the world of the 1st century B.C. in particular, but the world between Alexander the Great's death and the death of Cleopatra. And a lot of that has focused on women in the Hellenistic world. And the strange blip on the radar, which was Egypt, where women had extraordinary legal and personal rights, so there's a great deal that was helpful there.

  • 11:16:39

    SCHIFFAnd then fortunately, since Alexandria no longer exists as it did in her day, there's a tremendous amount in the ancient sources and in the contemporary to Cleopatra's sources of what Alexandria looked like. So it's easier to reconstruct an ancient city when you have source after source after source and what's staggering with those ancient sources is a visitor will come. He will say, I've never seen anything like this city, its opulence is beyond, beyond description. It leaves me wordless, speechless and then he goes on for 30 more pages to talk about it. So there were tremendously vivid descriptions of the city itself.

  • 11:17:15

    SCHIFFAnd in terms of Cleopatra herself, as I say, all of the sources postdate her. They're very, among the people who knew her almost no one writes about her. The few who do, Caesar leaves us one line about Cleopatra for good reason. Nicolas of Damascus who had been the tutor to her children and after her death will change sides and go to work for Herod, who was her arch enemy, and will have less than happy things to say about her. And those come down to us.

  • 11:17:43

    SCHIFFCicero, who was my favorite during this entire project, because of course, he doesn't have a good word to say about anyone, left us a few lines, actually three or four lines out of which I somehow spun two chapters, but those were the few little bits of contemporary bits and pieces that we actually have.

  • 11:17:59

    REHMThe photograph on the front of the book shows a woman's face turned away with a white scarf around her head. That white scarf is extremely important with these gorgeous pearls in her hair and pearls around her neck and on her ears to indicate her extraordinary wealth. But because we don't really know what she looks like, she is turned away. However, it is an extraordinarily enticing photograph. We're going to take a short break here. When we come back, we'll talk about Caesar and his relationship with Cleopatra and take your calls, stay with us.

  • 11:20:03

    REHMAnd welcome back. Stacy Schiff is with me. She's written articles for The Daily Beast, The New Yorker, The New York Times. Her previous books include "A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France and the Birth of America," and the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, "Vera: Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov: A Portrait of a Marriage." And I must say, we have an e-mail here -- no, it's from Facebook and says, "The subjects for your biographies are such interesting and varied characters. You must really enjoy coming to know and love these people. Do you stumble across this personae or do you set about looking for subjects in particular fields, historical periods or circumstances?"

  • 11:21:04

    SCHIFFWhat a smart question.

  • 11:21:06

    REHMIsn't that good?

  • 11:21:07

    SCHIFFYeah, unfortunately, I have no great scientific answer to it. It tends to evolve as obsession. A smart biographer would say, I've just written about Benjamin Franklin. I think I'll do a book about Jefferson and get to recycle what she knew about the 18th century. I tend to not wanna take the same journey twice and I feel as if part of this is you pick the subject who takes you where you want to go and on an adventure you want to lead your reader on. And part of it is just you see something that's -- you feel as if no one has completely done justice to before or exploited before.

  • 11:21:40

    REHMAnd that's surely how you feel about Cleopatra.

  • 11:21:43

    SCHIFFWell, you know, in this case, I think I spent four or five years terrified of her, so I'm not sure there was a...

  • 11:21:46


  • 11:21:47

    SCHIFF...I'm not sure there was the kind of residence with my subject I had had with, say, Benjamin Franklin.

  • 11:21:52

    REHMTerrified, why?

  • 11:21:53

    SCHIFFShe's a ruthless and very strategy-minded woman. And you can see -- I mean, obviously, we're getting some of this from the Romans, but you can see a clear-eyed, cunning strategist behind so much of what she does. She's not someone you cozy up to, I guess is what I'm saying. And although there are many glimmers of sense of humor and many tributes to her charm, she's after all a royal. And you can't get as close to -- I mean, even if you're writing about a modern day royal, you can't get as close as you might have been to someone who left personal papers.

  • 11:22:26

    REHMTell me about her needing her relationship with Caesar.

  • 11:22:33

    SCHIFFWell, Caesar has arrived in Alexandria in the middle of his own civil war, which he, in fact, has just won, he's just defeated Pompey.

  • 11:22:40

    REHMHow old is she at this point?

  • 11:22:42

    SCHIFFShe is 21, he is 52.

  • 11:22:43


  • 11:22:44

    SCHIFFShe has been on the throne for several months, after which she has been exiled by her brother, with whom she is fighting her own civil war. So she is actually about to lose that civil war. Caesar has just won his, however he arrives in Alexandria without reinforcements and realizes that the Alexandrians aren't particularly happy to see him, so he holds himself up strategically in her palace. She, meanwhile, is out the Sinai, exiled, camped out with a bunch of mercenaries and somehow needs to smuggle herself back to Alexandria, which is not easy, I can tell you, having been out to that part of the Sinai, and into the palace behind her brother's troops and unobserved, which is where the soi-disant carpet or the traveler's bag comes from.

  • 11:23:27

    SCHIFFSo somehow, she gets a loyal retainer to row her. Probably she went up and down the Nile to do this, which would've been a trip of about 10 days, and under the cover of darkness, over the palace walls and into the palace to meet Caesar, which may have been prearranged, by the way. There's some sense that perhaps Caesar did know she was coming and it is from there that she says that she basically argues for her kingdom, an argument which she must have made very, very eloquently because shortly thereafter, she is pregnant with Caesar's child. And shortly after that, he puts her back on the throne.

  • 11:23:58

    REHMDoes he acknowledge that the child is his?

  • 11:24:02

    SCHIFFHe seems to acknowledge it and certainly his friends in Rome acknowledge it, but there is no question among his protégés and his henchmen that this is Caesar's child.

  • 11:24:12

    REHMAnd where is Ptolemy at this point?

  • 11:24:14

    SCHIFFPoor, dear Ptolemy, at this point, has been a victim of the civil war. He is in the last siege of the civil war...

  • 11:24:21

    REHMHe's gone.

  • 11:24:22

    SCHIFF...he's gone, very convenient. And Caesar has -- because you did need a male consort at your side to be queen of Egypt, Caesar will then promote Cleopatra's next younger brother to be her husband, co-ruler on the throne. So what's interesting is that in the course of this relationship with Caesar, she is widowed and remarried and bears Caesar's child. It's a really -- you know, it's a very feminist history, if you think about it. I mean, she's decided whom to have a child with, she's gone through multiple husbands, although they're not marriages which are consummated and she continues to name herself and her children in an extremely modern way.

  • 11:24:59

    REHMNo wonder the Romans were so frightened of her.

  • 11:25:03

    SCHIFFThis did not go over well with the Romans. You're right.

  • 11:25:06

    REHMWould you read for us from the book and set it up for us?

  • 11:25:12

    SCHIFFThis was the arrival of Cleopatra to meet Marc Antony. This is after the death of Caesar, the Roman civil wars will erupt again. Essentially, the Roman world will divide between Octavian, who's Caesar's posthumously adopted son, and Marc Antony, who had been his great deputy. And as Cleopatra has been summoned to meet Marc Antony, she clearly wants to make clear that she has the upper, not the lower hand and here's how she does it.

  • 11:25:38

    SCHIFF"The Queen of Egypt's presence was always an occasion. Cleopatra saw to it that this was a special one. In a semi-literate world, the imagery mattered. She floated up the bright, crystalline River" -- this is the south of Turkey, to modern day Turkey – "through the plains, in a blinding explosion of color, sound and smell. She had no need for magic art and charms given her barge with gilded stern and soaring purple sails. This was not the way Romans traveled. As they dipped in and out of the water, silver oars glinted broadly in the sun. Their slap and clatter provided a rhythm section for the orchestra flutes, pipes and lyres assembled on deck. Had Cleopatra not already cemented her genius for stage management, she did so now."

  • 11:26:20

    SCHIFFAnd I'm quoting Plutarch, "She herself reclined beneath a gold spangled canopy dressed as Venus in a painting, while beautiful young boys, like painted cupids, stood at her sides and fanned her. Her fairest maids were likewise dressed as sea nymphs and graces, some steering the rudder, some working the ropes. Wondrous odors from countless incense diffused themselves along the riverbanks. She outdid even the Homeric inspiration."

  • 11:26:46

    REHMThat really had to outrage the Romans.

  • 11:26:50

    SCHIFFYou know, she has a gift for pageantry.

  • 11:26:52


  • 11:26:53

    SCHIFFWhich, even in the modern sense, I mean, even if you look at a midterm election, for example, you can see how far that would've gone, but the opulence and the flamboyance which she represents is something that the Romans on the one hand utterly admire and totally despise.

  • 11:27:09

    REHMYou also talk about that relationship with Marc Antony by who she had three children.

  • 11:27:21

    SCHIFFCorrect. She has twins -- shortly after this particular meeting, she has twins. She always manages to have children at the most opportune times. It's astonishing. She will bear his twins and several -- two years later, she will have another son with Marc Antony, which was particularly helpful, because Marc Antony's then wife kept bearing daughter after daughter after daughter, which in Rome was not quite the way you were meant to do things.

  • 11:27:45

    REHMSo as she continues to wield power, hold onto power, are her enemies out there plotting?

  • 11:27:58

    SCHIFFAs soon as she allies herself with Antony -- I should say even before this, the relationship with Antony and Octavian, the two obvious heirs to Caesar's legacy, has already gone off the rails. It is complicated by the fact that Antony is married to Octavian's sister, even while he's cavorting with Cleopatra. So already, the dynamic is not good. There is definitely -- and there is always a suspicion of Cleopatra. She's foreign, she's a woman, she represents this incredibly decedent world. And moreover, Rome is beholding to her because it is the grain of that world that feeds Rome, so there is a definite dependence on her, which the Romans would rather rid themselves of.

  • 11:28:42

    SCHIFFOnce she and Antony have allied themselves, it becomes very easy for Octavian to say, ah, but Antony has given into this foreign influence. He has associated himself with this decedent world, which is far beneath our pious Roman dignity. And it is extremely easy for him later, when he has gathered the military strength to do so, to declare war, not on his fellow countryman, Marc Antony, because that would be another civil war of which Rome is heartily sick at this point, but on the foreign queen, whom he asserts is trying to conquer Rome itself, which I tend to think was nowhere on Cleopatra's agenda, but it certainly has come down to us over the centuries as, you know, here was a woman who was hoping to pass judgments from the capital itself, clearly a piece of Roman propaganda.

  • 11:29:27

    REHMTell me about how she died. You say that the stories we've been told have mischaracterized that death.

  • 11:29:39

    SCHIFFWell, there are two accounts of Cleopatra's death and it's the luck of every biographer that those two accounts contradict each other in almost every respect (laugh). But we have Dio and we have Plutarch and it is Plutarch who gives us the story, with which we have all lived, of Cleopatra, knowing that she is about to be essentially taken to Rome as a prisoner or killed by Octavian, knowing her time is limited, Marc Antony has killed himself.

  • 11:30:03

    REHMHow old is she at this...

  • 11:30:05

    SCHIFFShe is 39 at this point.

  • 11:30:06

    REHMAll right.

  • 11:30:06

    SCHIFFAnd it is obviously over for her. She has sent her son -- Caesarian she has sent away. She has no choice, she's cornered. And she realizes that if she doesn't do herself in, she will be done and heartily humiliated in the streets of Rome. The myth is that she then prepares herself for this beautiful death. Takes a bath, dresses in her finest robes, puts on her accessories of office and has a snake or two snakes smuggled in with a bunch of figs in a basket. Even Plutarch, from whom that story comes, didn't think that was really likely. And Strabo, who arrives in Alexandria four years after her death, also says, highly unlikely.

  • 11:30:47

    SCHIFFBut it's such a good story. And a woman and a snake? I mean, you've got Eve, you've got Medusa, you've got Electra. I mean, it's such an -- and Egypts crawl all over -- you know, snakes crawl all over the symbols of Egypt and all over the Isis statues with which Cleopatra has associated herself and then Octavian makes a great deal of the fact that, you know, a snake has killed her, so it's almost impossible to undo this impression. But if you look at it rationally, snakes in a basket and a snake that had to be relied upon to kill three women, because she had her two maid servants with her as well, in a short period of time. And if you're a woman who makes crisp meticulous decisions, would you really rely on a wild beast to spell your end? It's just there are so many pieces of the story that don't quite fit.

  • 11:31:34

    REHMSo for you what do you imagine the end would've been?

  • 11:31:39

    SCHIFFWell, I think poison for sure. I mean, no Hellenistic sovereign failed to be well versed in poisons. This was a specialty that went with the territory. And certainly, Cleopatra's uncle, who also faces the rise of Rome and is in a position to do away with himself before Rome can capture him, knew exactly what to take at the proper moment, so my sense is she would've been well versed in her poison, she would've known precisely what to take. She clearly induces a calm narcotic death as opposed to a convulsive death, which a snake -- which as asp presumably have brought on, the bite of an asp. My sense is she had something squirreled away and that's what she ultimately relied upon.

  • 11:32:16

    REHMAnd the other women with her died as well.

  • 11:32:21

    SCHIFFAnd would have presumably used whatever that potion was as well. And one of them, of course, delivers that great line about this death, you know, so deserving of a woman who has descended from so many kings, which Shakespeare will then appropriate in giving us the same scene.

  • 11:32:35

    REHMThe book is called "Cleopatra: A Life." Stacy Schiff, winner of the Pulitzer Prize is with me. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And we'll open the phones now, 800-433-8850. First to Tonya in Greensboro, N.C. Good morning, you're on the air.

  • 11:33:02

    TONYAGood morning, Diane.

  • 11:33:03

    REHMHi there.

  • 11:33:05

    TONYAYes. This is very interesting. I have a question regarding the Egyptian side. Is there any history that's coming from the Egyptians? And also, I'm interested in knowing about the cultural influence the Egyptians would have had on Cleopatra's life and the life of the Ptolemy.

  • 11:33:25

    SCHIFFIt's such a great question. There must have been court historians in Cleopatra's court who kept records and obviously, she would have known her Egyptian history, her Pharionic history. We have no record of any of this. It's unbelievably frustrating. We have only the Roman record. We have none of that. And moreover we don't know to what extent the Ptolemies incorporated the Egyptian culture and atmosphere. For example, we don't know if Ptolemaic kings and queens were cremated or mummified. We don't know how much the Egyptian influence would have penetrated their world. So it's a very hard call.

  • 11:34:04

    SCHIFFJust given the weight of history at the time, my sense is that she surely would have known her Egyptian history. And to her people she clearly comported herself as a Pharaoh. The carvings of Cleopatra as Pharaoh are very clear to us. For the rest, pretty much all bets are off.

  • 11:34:22

    REHMHere's an e-mail from Lisa in D.C. She says, "I'm well aware Cleopatra was descended from the Macedonian Greeks who conquered under the leadership of Alexander the Great. This has been used to say she was white. However, did those Greeks import Greek women to marry, thus making her 100 percent Greek or is it possible she had some north African ancestors as well from the matrilineal line? Obviously there's been a lot of controversy about her race over the years. And at her time, race as a concept was extremely different or nonexistent in the way we think of it."

  • 11:35:17

    SCHIFFThe one useful thing about incest is that it keeps the gene pool (laugh) fairly constant. Cleopatra's great grandfather, for example, was her great grandfather three times over. I mean, we're talking about, not a family tree but a family shrub, there are so few relatives. It is possible that a Persian princess slips in there somewhere.

  • 11:35:39

    SCHIFFIt is most unlikely that anyone of Egyptian heritage slipped in there. If only for social reasons there was a very set--the Macedonian Greeks were the elite and if they took lovers, if they were courtiers they were surely of the same social level. I would highly doubt -- again this is not entirely documented but I would highly doubt that anyone other than that occasional Persian princess had made her way into the family history.

  • 11:36:06

    REHMHere is a question from Laura in Bethesda. She says, "Could the author comment on the treatment of Cleopatra in the HBO series called 'Rome?' Is she familiar with it? If so, did she find it plausible?"

  • 11:36:24

    SCHIFFThe author is extremely embarrassed to say she has never seen the HBO series (laugh), for the same reason she has never seen the Elizabeth Taylor movie. I swore off of all fictions while working on this book. And as soon as I finish this book tour, I hope to watch every single one of them in quick succession.

  • 11:36:40


  • 11:36:41

    SCHIFFWell, I do. I can't...

  • 11:36:41

    REHMYou really want to see them.

  • 11:36:43

    SCHIFFWell, the HBO series is supposed to be terrific, but my sense, from what people have told me, is that Cleopatra is painted as a vixen in that series. That all of the cool command, all of her sense of competence, all of the -- the idea that she actually rules a country for two decades and, you know, determines monetary policy and makes maritime decisions and regulates sewing schedules, all of that is completely thrown out the window and she becomes yet again the seductress of legend.

  • 11:37:10

    REHMBut what an extraordinary role model she must have been for other women and girls of that era.

  • 11:37:20

    SCHIFFWell, this came as an astonishment to me. There is enormous freedom for women in 1st Century Egypt and they tend to make their own marriages, divorce their husbands, own papyrus marshes.

  • 11:37:32

    REHMStacy Schiff, she's the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for her earlier biography "Vera." This book titled "Cleopatra: A Life."

  • 11:40:03

    REHMAnd we're back. Let's go to Thomas who's in Greece, N.Y. Good morning to you, sir...

  • 11:40:11


  • 11:40:11're on the air.

  • 11:40:13

    THOMASYeah, hello.

  • 11:40:13


  • 11:40:14

    THOMASThank you having me on the air. Yes, several years ago, I believe it was Public Television -- it was on one of the Cablevision history shows. There was this woman who had a academic background and she -- her -- it was her view, she was presenting the view that Cleopatra did not die by either an asp -- or by the bite of an asp or poison, but she was actually -- well, in a different -- she was actually stabbed to death or murdered by the soldiers of Octavian and actually, she was in a different building.

  • 11:40:56

    THOMASI mean, the woman presented very minute, very detailed evidence about how this could've happened and that she was being maybe kept prisoner in a different building over several feet away from the building where Octavian was and then they came over -- he ordered his troops to go over and stab her to death or hack her to death or something like that.

  • 11:41:22

    REHMWhoa, all kinds of theories, yeah.

  • 11:41:24

    SCHIFF(laugh) All those Romans. I love it. It's perfectly possible that Octavian murders her and covers it up or it's more likely that he essentially says he's going to murder her and then she commits suicide, which is murder of a kind as well. As for specific details of stabbing or visiting or even what building she's in, you'd have to invent those, unfortunately. As I say, we have Plutarch we have Dio, both of them give us the suicide. There is no other account. And even there, it's somewhat unclear where she is at this moment. She seems to be in the Mausoleum that she has built in which she intends to die and where she has piled high with treasure, but from which Octavian has now removed the treasure. She's probably not in the palace. Again, we don't even have a sense of the geography of where the death takes place.

  • 11:42:10

    REHMAnd do we have any idea where she was buried? Was she cremated? What happened?

  • 11:42:17

    SCHIFFThere is search going on today for -- at a place 30 miles west of Alexandria. Wonderful, wonderful extraordinary location from which many Cleopatra coins have been extracted, which is possibly a burial place. If you take Plutarch at his word, she'd buried with Marc Antony. We know she was probably buried in an Isis temple because she had associated herself with the goddess of Isis, but there was something like 27 Isis temples in Alexandria and that's not counting the one which is currently being excavated outside of Alexandria. So no, we don't know that yet. When we do and if we do find her, will that solve the mystery of how she died? I don't think we're gonna find an asp coiled around her neck or anything...

  • 11:42:59

    REHMNo, hardly.

  • 11:43:00

    SCHIFF...but it would be lovely to know.

  • 11:43:01

    REHMHere's an e-mail from Brenda. She says, "I'm a classic's graduate student, so my question is about your source work. Did you conduct primary source research in the original language? If now, how did you account for the fact you were reading someone else's interpretation through translation?"

  • 11:43:26

    SCHIFFWell, what I did, instead of reading someone else's interpretation in translation was to have read everyone else's interpretation and translation. I essentially took every translation we have of Plutarch, of Apian and of Dio, read them side by side and then I sat down with a fabulously talented classicist who was able to help me because of course the translations don’t necessarily mirror each other and all sorts of nuances fell out of the various translations, which I think even if you read in the original, you wouldn't necessarily see.

  • 11:43:58

    SCHIFFFor example, when Cleopatra makes that spectacular entrance into Tarsus to meet Marc Antony, it is unclear from that one line of Plutarch, does she decide to do this --- does she decide to dress herself as Harrah herself or is this at the suggestion of one of Antony's henchmen who has essentially summoned her? It's a very misleading line. But again, what I had to do was to sit down with all of these various translations and, you know, see what each one stressed and what each one failed to stress and I really went from there.

  • 11:44:28

    REHMTo Dayton, Ohio, good morning, Peter.

  • 11:44:32

    PETERGood morning. I love the show and I love this topic in particular.

  • 11:44:36


  • 11:44:36

    PETERI had a question. I've read a lot about kinda this period of history and it's always seemed to me, like, in the Battle of Actium, Cleopatra's characterized as sort of abandoning Marc Antony at a critical moment and disrupting like the line -- the battle lines and kinda causing the defeat. Is -- did you find anything in your research that contradicts that or clarifies that?

  • 11:44:58

    SCHIFFYou know, the -- that's such a great question because the Battle of Actium is one of those tremendous mysteries. No one really knows is the short answer to your question. No one knows what happened at Actium. It does seem abundantly clear to us today that the escape, as it were, the Cleopatra's leaving the scene -- the site of the battle was premeditated. There's no other reason she would've had sails on her ships, her treasure was on the ship. She was clearly not meant to fight.

  • 11:45:21

    SCHIFFWhether Antony was meant to follow her as he did is uncertain. Whether there was actually even a serious battle is in some dispute because of course, that battle is later turned into -- is made into a turning point in history. It is made into this extraordinary triumph of Octavian's. It seems to have been at the time a more confused and a more sort of equally weighted skirmish than it was really a major battle. So there are a lot of unknowns there that Cleopatra did something either cowardly or treacherous, it's pretty certainly false.

  • 11:45:58


  • 11:45:59


  • 11:45:59


  • 11:46:00

    REHMAll right.

  • 11:46:00

    PETERThank you very much.

  • 11:46:01

    REHMThanks for calling, Peter. To Boca Raton, Fla. Hi, Karen, you're on the air.

  • 11:46:07

    KARENHello. I read in The New York Times recently that they suggested that your book will be the basis for a movie by James Cameron and Angela Jolie. Now, is that true?

  • 11:46:20

    SCHIFFAre you gonna hold that against me? I can assure you that James Cameron is making another "Avatar," so that part would be untrue. It does seem that Angelina Jolie has expressed great interest in playing Cleopatra, which when you think about it, if you're looking for a woman who conveys authority, beauty and power, who else is on your list? And it's an awfully tempting proposition, but alas, I don't know a lot more than you do on that subject. But yes, it is a possibility.

  • 11:46:48

    REHMAnd let's go to Janie in Acton, Mass. Good morning to you.

  • 11:46:57

    JANIEHello. This is Jane.

  • 11:46:59


  • 11:47:00

    JANIEOh, okay. Two things. First of all, I'm enjoying your show.

  • 11:47:04


  • 11:47:04

    JANIEBut if you're going to look at any movies about Cleopatra, I firmly recommend the one made in the '30s with Claudette Colbert because there is that wonderful scene of her going along the Nile and trying to seduce Marc Antony. But I -- the thing is, I wondered what ever happened to all her children? Does anybody know?

  • 11:47:27

    SCHIFFI'm so glad you asked. I just did a piece on this because I think no one ever thinks about her children and what's astonishing with her children is again, in a very modern sense, how much mileage this woman gets out of her children. Partly because she associates herself with a fertility goddess, so it is, you know, in her best interest to produce children, partly because she represents a dynasty, so you like to have an heir and a successor and partly because these are her ways of cementing her alliances, of course, with these two great generals.

  • 11:47:53

    SCHIFFThe answer -- the shorter answer to your question is Caesarian is killed because he represents a threat to Octavian. In other words, Octavian is Caesar's adopted -- posthumously adopted son. He can't have another Caesar in the picture, so, so much for Caesarian. He's killed by Octavian's men. The other three children, interestingly, are taken to Rome and they are brought up by Octavian's sister, who happened to have been...

  • 11:48:18


  • 11:48:18

    SCHIFF...I know, it's an astonishing...

  • 11:48:19


  • 11:48:19

    SCHIFF...that turn of events, Cleopatra could never have anticipated. Who has a great household with many other children from various marriages. Remember this is Marc Antony's ex-wife. And she raises the other three children, one of whom goes on to marry an African king and she becomes the Queen of Mauritania, this is Cleopatra's daughter. And she sets up a court which very much mirrors her mother's.

  • 11:48:42

    SCHIFFIt's very cultured, there's a lot of statuary. She sets up a library, she uses the Isis association. She apparently has a -- fills a lake with sacred crocodiles. She recreates, in a way, her mother's court and that is basically where the trail ends. The brothers, we lose track of at this point and her child, Cleopatra's grandson, the issue of that African marriage, will later be killed in Rome by Caligula. So yet again, Rome plays its heavy hand in his history.

  • 11:49:15

    REHMBut you know, I'm curious as to what happened to female power after the life and death of Cleopatra, who had gained so much.

  • 11:49:31

    SCHIFFIt's a -- it's a stunning thing, isn't it? Interestingly, a bit of it will wear off on the first women of the Roman Empire. In other words, the wife of Octavian and some of the women who follow will adopt some of Cleopatra's -- certainly they will have the -- enjoy the same kind of wealth that she had and they will adopt some of her influence. They will travel with huge retinues, they will have some hand in foreign policy, they will actually own land, which is a whole new development. What fascinates me is that you could have had this moment in history where the woman -- where women were so independent and then have lost it for 2,000 years and it does make you wonder, is it possible we could all go backward at some point again? You know, you've got a time where women can divorce, where women can, you know, pretty much do whatever they want. Have rights to alimony, raise their own children, run their businesses and then, you know...

  • 11:50:24


  • 11:50:24

    SCHIFFAfter Cleopatra's death, exactly, it's gone.

  • 11:50:27

    REHMInteresting. All right. And Varom (sp?) in Kalamazoo, Mich. Good morning, you're on the air.

  • 11:50:36

    VAROMGood morning. I just wanted to ask you about two things. One is the previous history of where Cleopatra came from. I'm not sure if I heard this completely or incorrectly, but the author mentioned something about a Greek descent as far as where she came from and that kind of surprised me, unless I misunderstood it, nor do I know if Ptolemaic Dynasty all together was Greek and I didn't know that. And I also wanted to remind her of another movie that has been made of the many of Cleopatra, which is a rendition of George Bernard Shaw's play "Caesar and Cleopatra." I think the person made it was Gabriel Pascal and very old movie with Claude Rains and Vivien Leigh. It's a beautiful movie. I recommend highly not as a historical movie, but as a very beautiful entertainment.

  • 11:51:30

    SCHIFFI have to thank everyone for all these movie suggestions...

  • 11:51:32

    REHMYes. Isn't that wonderful?

  • 11:51:33

    SCHIFF...I'm never writing another book. Yes, you heard correctly. The Ptolemaic Dynasty descends from one of the generals of Alexander the Great and he has helped in the conquest of -- has participated the conquest of Egypt, he's realized that Egypt is the jewel in the crown. He essentially claims it as his own and he establishes a dynasty there and it is from him that Cleopatra descends 300-ish years later. So yes, she's completely of Greek descend and the culture of the day, the high culture of the day as French was in the 19th century, so was Greek in her time. And basically, if you went to a Welbourne in any part of the Mediterranean world, the language was Greek, the culture was Greek, the books were Greek, the questions -- the dinner conversation was in Greek. So yes, she's very much a part of that entire culture.

  • 11:52:21

    REHMStacy, tell me about winning the Pulitzer Prize.

  • 11:52:25

    SCHIFFWell, it's never a bad thing. Doesn't get you a table...

  • 11:52:27

    REHM(laugh) Hardly.

  • 11:52:29

    SCHIFFDoesn't get you a table at a restaurant any more easily, but it was thrilling. It was for a book -- it was for the book about Mrs. Nabokov, which in many ways was analogist to this in the sense that I was piecing -- women's lives are very difficult to write about and there I had a very domestic existence as opposed to a political existence, but it's piecing together a life from the tiniest of Mosaic tiles and attempting somehow -- I mean, biography is always puzzle making to some extent, but this was just of the tiniest little pieces. And in that way, it was really backward from the source as much as "Cleopatra" is where you've -- you're left with very tendentious sources, with very scant sources. You're reading in the margins, basically, and you're having to somehow read the silences, really, is what it comes down to.

  • 11:53:13

    REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." I think we have time, let's go to Shahon (sp?) in Oklahoma City. Good morning, you're on the air.

  • 11:53:27

    SHAHONGood morning, thank you. Miss Schiff, my husband knows that your book is on my Christmas list. I'm looking forward to reading it. I'm originally from Alexandria. An ancestor of mine was a governor of Alexandria in the 19th century and he actually came from Kavala in modern day Greece. I was wondering about where you said she was buried, Taposiris Magna. I've heard reports in the news that they're looking, but they're not sure they've found it yet. What exactly happened after she died? Octavian allowed her to have a funeral with all the pomp and circumstance and the risk that she might be worshiped as a goddess afterwards? I'm just curious what happened after her death.

  • 11:54:11

    SCHIFFWe don't exactly know. We know Octavian was very smart about co-opting authority and in this case, it would have been in his best interest to let her be buried -- you know, whenever he's conquering a country which is not well-disposed toward him, it would have been in his best interest to let her be buried in regal style and with respect. And the same with Marc Antony, of course, all the more so because Marc Antony, being buried in Egypt, would have somehow undermined Marc Antony's authority as a good Roman. So it makes sense that he would have allowed for a certainly respectful burial along traditional lines.

  • 11:54:41

    SCHIFFWhy she's in Taposiris Magna, I'm not entirely sure. I'm not entirely convinced by that hypothesis. Clearly, she's buried somewhere, whether we can find that spot, whether it's underneath the water, this is unclear to me but no -- none of the ancient sources tells us anything other than the fact that she is buried in great style. And her people continued to worship her, we do know that. We know there are statues that are still guilded after her death, we know there's a cult of Cleopatra for a good time certainly after she's gone and Octavian is a canyon of politician to have allowed that to happen.

  • 11:55:14

    SCHIFFI mean, she's dead, there's no downside. But he becomes, remember, the -- a pharaoh of Egypt after her death, so it's perfectly possible to let the people respect this other person. It doesn't undermine your own authority in any way. And I dearly hope that your husband pays attention to your Christmas list.

  • 11:55:30

    REHMAh, he will, I'm sure. Your research has just been extraordinary. Are you all ready to embark on a new project?

  • 11:55:42

    SCHIFFI'm always ready to embark on a new project. I think I can pretty much guarantee that his one will have ample documentation, well filed letters, type written letters would be good. What everything that this project didn't have. I mean, I want a voice, I was diaries, I want all of the documentation of which I've been deprived for the last five years.

  • 11:56:04

    REHMBecause this was so extraordinarily difficult.

  • 11:56:07

    SCHIFFThis was -- yes, I felt I was always, you know, walking on egg shells. You're always piecing together things, trying not to jump to a conclusion in any way and, you know, you're reading people like Cicero, who you know are by definition biased. You know, Cicero writing about a foreign woman who's rich and has a better library than he has is not going to give you a particularly objective view of the person in question, so.

  • 11:56:30

    REHMAnd you're also perhaps going up against a huge bank of scholars who are ready to pounce on you and say, you're wrong.

  • 11:56:37

    SCHIFFWell, you're also going up against Elizabeth Taylor, which I would say is an even greater obstacle.

  • 11:56:44

    REHMAnd of course the book, "Cleopatra: A Life" by Stacy Schiff. Congratulations, Stacy.

  • 11:56:50

    SCHIFFThank you so much, Diane.

  • 11:56:52

    REHMSo good to see you.

  • 11:56:54

    SCHIFFThis was a pleasure, thank you.

  • 11:56:55

    REHMThank you. And thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.

  • 11:56:57

    ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture and Monique Nazareth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for information. Our e-mail address is and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.

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