A Queen for the Ages

From The Washington Post:

Cleo More than two millennia after it took place, the story of Cleopatra has lost none of its grip on the world's imagination. It has inspired great plays (Shakespeare, Shaw and Sardou), novels, poems, movies (Elizabeth Taylor!), works of art, musical compositions both serious (Handel and Samuel Barber) and silly (“Comin' Atcha,” by Cleopatra), and of course histories and biographies. Yet for all this rich documentation and interpretation, it remains at least as much legend and mystery as historical record, which has allowed everyone who tells it to play his or her own variations on the many themes it embraces.

The latest to take it on is Diana Preston, a British writer of popular history. On the evidence of “Cleopatra and Antony,” I'd say she's a thoroughgoing pro. Her research is careful and deep; her prose is lively and graceful; her sympathy for her central character is strong but wholly without sentimentality; her depiction of the worlds in which Cleopatra lived is detailed, textured and evocative. If there is a better book about Cleopatra for today's reader, I don't know what it is.

She calls her book “Cleopatra and Antony,” thus reversing the order as immortalized by Shakespeare. History and legend have usually given priority to the two great men in the Egyptian queen's life, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony, but Preston argues that “Cleopatra perhaps deserves first place” because “her tenacity, vision and ambition would have been remarkable in any age but in a female ruler in the ancient world they were unique.” She was “a charismatic, cultured, intelligent ruler,” yet thanks to the propaganda put about by Octavian — later the Emperor Augustus but in the fourth decade B.C. Mark Antony's rival for control of the Roman Empire — she “was transformed into a pleasure-loving houri, the very epitome of fatal beauty and monstrous depravity, bent on bringing animal gods, barbarian decadence and despotism to the sacred halls of Rome's Capitol.”

More here.