Lessons from Cleopatra

Posted Nov. 14, 2010, at 6:26 p.m.

What most people think they know about Cleopatra is that she was a raving beauty, looking something like Elizabeth Taylor, who used her wiles to gain power with Julius Caesar. Put all that aside, says a new book by a careful biographer and researcher. Cleopatra was a formidable expert in governance, economics, politics, and warfare. Modern-day politicians would do well to study her example.

In writing “Cleopatra: A Life,” Stacy Schiff, a biographer of Saint-Exupery, Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov, and Benjamin Franklin, stripped away the “encrusted myth” that has surrounded Cleopatra and went to earlier sources. She wrote that, for the myth makers, “citing her sexual prowess was evidently less discomfiting than acknowledging her intellectual gifts.”

There were no primary sources. Cleopatra left no written record, except for a single word meaning “Let it be done,” with which she signed a decree. Not even a picture survives, save for her likeness on coins that she herself authorized. We don’t know for sure that she was beautiful. Plutarch and other early historians wrote about her mostly a century or more after her death. And they were all males, for whom “impugning independent-minded women was a subspecialty.”

To get at the truth after 2,000 years about this mysterious Egyptian ruler, Ms. Schiff relies on limited sources viewed through the same anthropology, archaeology and psychology that Cleopatra had used to install and maintain herself in power.

She was born in 69 B.C. She became co-ruler of Egypt at the age of 18 with her 10-year-old brother, Ptolemy. Exiled at 21 after a power struggle with Ptolemy, she smuggled herself back into her palace in Alexandria, where Caesar was taking advantage of Egypt’s political turmoil. Somehow, with natural charisma and fluency in nine languages, she persuaded him to help her re-establish her power.

Together they wowed the illiterate crowds as they sailed up the Nile on the royal barge. She was pregnant by that time. When Caesar was assassinated, she installed their little son, Caesarion, as her co-ruler. As with Caesar, she later consorted with Mark Antony, bearing him three children and traded her financial support for his wars for his backing of her rule in Egypt.

What lesson might present-day political leaders learn from this account of Cleopatra? The main thing is that it was her smarts, not her looks, that made it all work for her.

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