What fresh take can there be on a ruler who died in 30 B.C. and left behind barely a scrap of her own writing? In Cleopatra: A Life (Little, Brown; 384 pages), Stacy Schiff is as authoritative and confident as a Pulitzer Prizewinning biographer can be, but she's also bracingly honest about the challenge before her. With no new material to work with, she focused on restoring context, peeling away the "hoary propaganda" that surrounded a woman of unmatched ambition who had a habit of ruthlessly killing her own relatives. (As Schiff points out, Cleopatra's male counterparts did the same thing.)
Cleopatra spans just 18 years, from the first meeting between the 21-year-old Egyptian queen and Julius Caesar in 48 B.C. to her suicide at 39 following the death of Mark Antony, the father of three of her four children. (The fourth, a son, Schiff seems sure, was Caesar's.) In betweenand when the historical record gets vagueSchiff veers into descriptions of architecture, fashion and feasts that would make any Hollywood set designer drool about the cinematic possibilities. But her biggest struggle lies in making Cleopatra's legendary charisma come alive. It wasn't until the second half of the book that I began to marvel at Cleopatra's machinations and accomplishments on my own rather than because the biographer was telling me I should.
Schiff makes a convincing case against the traditional, male-chauvinist take on Cleopatra as a power-hungry seductress. It's a stance that puts her at odds with 2,000 years' worth of Cleopatra chronicles, and she's aware of it. Schiff teasingly dismisses her ancient Greek and Roman competition for their operatic accounts of Cleopatra's last meeting with Caesar's successor Augustus: "Plutarch is writing for Puccini, Dio for Wagner," she scoffs. Who is Schiff writing for? A little bit for her immortal subject, one hazards, but mostly for a modern audience that well understands the lasting imprint of negative publicity and the world's abiding fear of a powerful woman.
This article originally appeared in the November 15, 2010 issue of TIME.