In search of Cleopatra


Forbes Magazine is out with its list of the world's most powerful women. Lady Gaga made the list. So did First Lady Michelle Obama, and Melinda Gates. But none of them - Rita Braver now tells us - holds a candle to that force of nature we call Cleopatra:

She has been celebrated in film, immortalized in paintings and sculpture. And more than 2,000 years after she lived, Queen Cleopatra VII, who ruled the sprawling kingdom of Egypt for 22 years, is still a mesmerizing force.

"I just think it's hard to name another woman in history who is this commanding, and for that matter this enduring," said author Stacy Schiff.

So enduring that Pulitzer Prize-winning author Schiff's recent biography of Cleopatra became a bestseller.

Seems we can't get enough of a Queen who had liaisons and children with two Roman legends - Julius Caesar and his loyal general Mark Antony - and was the wealthiest person of her time.

Shiff said her riches equaled that of all the hedge fund managers of yesteryear, rolled into one.

You might be surprised to learn that Cleopatra didn't come from a long line of Egyptians. She was descended from the Greek General Ptolemy, who served under Alexander the Great.

It was a dynasty in which sisters wed brothers - royal incest.

"Cleopatra's parents were probably siblings," Schiff said. "She has one set of grandparents. In Cleopatra's case, the younger brother was ten. It's very doubtful that the marriage was consummated. And he is eliminated in the civil war that the two of them go on to fight."

She was actually losing that war against her brother when - as the 1963 movie starring Elizabeth Taylor shows - she had herself smuggled in to meet the great Roman leader Julius Caesar, who had come to Egypt to settle the conflict.

"Was Caesar smitten immediately, do you think?" Braver asked.

"We don't know if he's smitten," Schiff said. "We know that within a couple of weeks she is pregnant with his child. And we know that within a couple of months he has reinstalled her on the throne of her own country."

"She has been for years painted as a kind of wanton seductress. Is that fair?" asked Braver.

"You could also say a very clever political strategist," Schiff replied.

And though Cleopatra has been portrayed by great beauties - from Taylor to Vivien Leigh to Claudette Colbert - the REAL queen did not get by on looks:

"We have that from Plutarch, who says outright, 'There were many who could compare with her in terms of her physical attributes, but it was her personality, it was the charm of her presence that was irresistible,'" Schiff said.

Most of the few documented representations of Cleopatra are found on coins.

Franck Goddio pointed out her likeness: "You see the nose, a very strong nose and hard profile."

"She looks a little like George Washington," mused Braver.

Goddio is an underwater archeologist who in 1996 discovered remains of Cleopatra's Alexandria, the magnificent city that was the capital of Egypt in her time:

"We started to dive, we started to excavate...and it was fabulous, fabulous - everything was there and waiting for us," he said.

While much of ancient Alexandria was simply built over in the course of 2,000 years, natural disaster - earthquakes and tidal waves - toppled part of the city into the sea (ironically, preserving important artifacts underwater).