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Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra: skilled political operator, not sex goddess

Biographer Stacy Schiff can tell you Cleopatra wasn't black, did not die by the bite of an asp and may or may not have loved Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. She was, however, a highly educated and intelligent ruler who definitely needed friends in Rome. "Cleopatra was on a political mission to save her country and her power, but what we remember about her are these two famed seductions, which are a matter of politics not a matter of love," said Schiff, the author of Cleopatra: A Life, during a recent visit to Toronto.

Her new biography of the Egyptian queen dispels a few myths, confirms a few others and generally enlarges our limited picture of the kohl-eyed seductress of the Nile. It paints a picture of a skilled political operator rather than a wanton temptress. Still, Schiff's Cleopatra remains a powerful and exotic enough creature to keep Hollywood interested: Producer Scott Rudin and Sony bought movie rights to the book when Schiff first signed her publishing contract, and are developing the role for Angelina Jolie.

Jolie will have her work cut out for her, displacing Elizabeth Taylor's violet eyes from the popular imagination, just as the Pulitzer Prize-winning Schiff signed up for a tricky job when she chose Cleopatra as her next subject. There is very little reliable evidence on which to base any portrait; the Roman historian Plutarch, Schiff's principal source, was writing 100 years after Cleopatra's death.

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But that was part of what attracted the American biographer to the Egyptian queen. She has previously profiled Mrs. Vladimir (Vera) Nabokov and Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and spent years buried under 18th-century documents writing her last book, A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America, about Benjamin Franklin. She was looking for a change.

"Having spent five years in an archive from which it didn't look like I would ever emerge, a subject with limited documentation was appealing," she said. She thinks the gaps in Cleopatra's biography are also part of her enduring appeal. "We are eternally attracted to the story with missing pieces. ... Everyone recognizes her name but nobody knows anything about her. Wouldn't it be wonderful to remedy that situation!"

Besides, despite the great volume of documents Franklin left behind, Schiff says we still don't know the mother of his son or his true feelings about the French: Historical biography always has its limitations, best to acknowledge them and get to work.

"It was piecing together a mosaic of tiny pieces," Schiff said. "We don't know how Cleopatra spent her days, but we do know how other Hellenistic monarchs spent their days. ... There has been a great amount of scholarship in the last 30 years about education in the Hellenistic world and women in the Hellenistic world. ... We now know how an upper-class woman was educated in her day."

Schiff can conclude Cleopatra would have been well versed in poetry, astronomy, geometry, geography and especially rhetoric. Her first language was Greek - the Ptolemy family was Macedonian, and she was described as honey-skinned - but she was reputedly the first member to learn Egyptian, and spoke as many as seven other languages. At the end of the Hellenistic age, just before the rise of imperial Rome, her Egypt was largely Rome's client state, although Rome also depended heavily on Egyptian grain. (Schiff compares the situation to a more powerful United States resentfully dependent on Canadian oil.) Cleopatra could not maintain power without courting the right Romans, hence her liaisons with Caesar and later Antony.

Of course, it all ended tragically - she probably took poison rather than clutching an asp to her breast - when her consort Antony lost to his rival Octavian, but one thing Schiff will not speculate about is whether she actually loved the two Romans history has accused her of seducing. She believes the sexualized Cleopatra largely reflects historians' fear of her power.

"Women in power make for such an uncomfortable equation," Schiff said. "She has become a stand-in for potent female sexuality.... That starts with the Romans. They built her up into every man's worst nightmare, the grasping, ambitious, unmanning female: Octavian had to make her so to justify a war against her, because otherwise she is a female opponent, no big deal."

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Schiff wrote much of the book about as far away from the Nile as you can get: She divides her time between New York and Edmonton, where her husband, Marc de la Bruyère, is managing director of the real-estate and investment business Maclab Enterprises, and she usually retreats to Alberta when she is facing a deadline. The couple began married life living together in Montreal but "he went back to run a family business in Edmonton and I went back to publishing in New York and for reasons of personal stubbornness we remain this way," she said. "I get most of my writing done there.... When I have a deadline, I get sent to Edmonton, and Marc comes to New York [to stay with the couple's three children, who live there] There is something about the big sky that does it for me."

If de la Bruyère had to get used to sharing his long-distance marriage with Ben Franklin, Cleopatra is a less present figure in her biographer's life: "The documentation isn't there, so you can't really feel the soul. The texture isn't there. ... So there wasn't the same sense that I could go to the movies with her, as I had gone to the movies with previous subjects."

On the other hand, Cleopatra is also a hard figure to shut the book on.

"She is kind of spellbinding in many ways," Schiff said, declining to discuss what new subjects she might be considering. "My only prediction is that the next one will be someone with a massive amount of documentation."

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About the Author

Kate Taylor is lead film critic at the Globe and Mail and a columnist in the arts section. More

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