Femme Fatale

Kathryn Harrison in The New York Times:

Cleo Papyri crumble away. What remains of her home is 20 feet underwater. She died before Jesus was born. Her first biographers never met her, and she deliberately hid her real self behind vulgar display. A cautious writer would never consider her as a subject. Stacy Schiff, however, has risen to the bait, with deserved confidence. “Saint-Exupéry: A Biography” and “Véra (Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov)” demonstrated her mastery of the form. “The Great Improvisation,” Schiff’s analysis of Benjamin Franklin’s years in Paris, revealed a different genius: the intellectual stamina required to untangle the endlessly tricky snarls created by the intersection of human personalities and international relations. “Mostly,” Schiff says of “Cleopatra: A Life,” “I have restored context.”

The claim stops sounding humble when we understand what it entails. Although it’s not Schiff’s purpose to present us with a feminist revision of a life plucked from antiquity, in order to “restore” Cleopatra — to see her at all — one must strip away an “encrusted myth” created by those for whom “citing her sexual prowess was evidently less discomfiting than acknowledging her intellectual gifts.” Lucan, Appian, Josephus, Dio, Suetonius, Plutarch — the poets, historians and biographers who initially depicted Cleopatra were mostly Roman and all male, writing, for the most part, a century or more after her death with the intent to portray her reign as little more than a sustained striptease.

More here.