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Under Cleopatra’s Spell

October 25, 2010

Stacy Schiff in WSJ Books:

How is it possible that Cleopatra continues to enchant, 2,000 years after her sensational death? It helps that, with her suicide in 30 B.C., she brought down two worlds; with her went both the 400-year-old Roman Republic and the Hellenistic age. Egypt would not recover its autonomy until the 20th century.

Shakespeare and G.B. Shaw lent a hand in her immortality, of course, as did Cleopatra’s eloquent Roman critics. She endures for reasons beyond the fame and talent of her chroniclers, however; the issues that she raised continue to fluster and fascinate. Nothing enthralls us so much as excessive good fortune and devastating catastrophe. As ever, we lurch uneasily between indulgence and restraint. Sex and power still combust in spectacular ways.

And we remain unnerved by female ambition, accomplishment and authority. The wise woman mutes her voice in order to maintain her political or corporate constituency. She is often cast all the same as a scheming harridan or a threatening seductress. Her clothing budget attracts uncommon scrutiny, by definition either too large or too small. If she is not overly sexual, she is suspiciously sexless.

For reasons that remain murky, Julius Caesar invited Cleopatra to Rome in 46 B.C. Though her fortune had dwindled from that of her forebears—she was the last of the Ptolemies, the Greek dynasty that ruled in Egypt after the death of Alexander the Great—she remained the richest person in the Mediterranean world. [More]

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