Marc Anthony needed her to finance his war against the Armenians and the Parthia-ns and later dressed himself up as Dionysus to her Isis in a grand display in Alexandria; Marcus Cicero hated her for upstaging him when she was Caesar's guest in Rome; she crashed Roman society and started a craze for all things Egyptian in fashion among Romans of both sexes. King Herod (the Great) wanted to assassinate her when she passed through Jerusalem after seeing Marc Anthony off on one of his eastern conquests, and, finally, the ruthless and back-stabbing Octavian wanted to take her captive back to Rome to celebrate his victory at Actium in 31 BCE and later invasion of her kingdom. (She had other plans, although not death by the bite of an asp you get in Shakespeare's play.)
She ruled over a kingdom of eight million people, and was the richest person in the ancient world by far. She was a hands-on monarch, meeting with delegations of her people and serving justice to those who had been wronged by her vast bureaucratic layer of inspectors and officials. She had a bit of a sibling rivalry with her younger sister, Arsinoe IV, which got resolved when she had her agents drag the younger daughter of her beloved father outside a temple of refuge in Greece and put to death. (She could be nasty, yes, but this was not unusual in those days when brothers and sisters competed to rule kingdoms.)
And nineteen centuries later, the Hollywood director Cecil B. DeMille enticed a star actress, Claudette Colbert, with the offer of playing the Egyptian queen in his epic movie by asking her, "How would you like to be the wickedest woman in history?"
Much of Stacy Schiff's memorable and for me fascinating book recalls a lot of these well-known situations this great Queen faced. (She was the last of the Ptolemaic monarchs in Egypt, a dynasty that lasted nearly three centuries.) Her main theme is to show that Cleopatra was an amazing woman in her own right, who mastered several languages and was as witty and able a rhetorician than any leader in Rome or elsewhere. A great deal of her biographies from ancient times have been written by Roman historians like Plutarch, Dio Cassius and the Romanized Jewish general Josephus. They tended to portray her as a temptress and a practitioner of magic, taking over men like Marc Anthony and making them slaves to oriental decadence.
The truth, as always, is much more nuanced. Yes, she needed Roman assistance at times but her rule of Egypt and popularity as a living embodiment of Isis made her more of an ally than a lover. And her Nile-fed land was rich in grain for hungry Italians, and precious metals for all who had the disposable income to covet them.
She was no "martyr to love" as Chaucer called her, or a "silly little girl" as Bernard Shaw described her. Rather she was in Schiff's judgement closer to the 7th Century Coptic bishop who termed her "The most illustrious and wise of women, greater than the kings that preceded her."
I highly recommend this book. Below, Ms. Schiff reads from the book on "The PBS News Hour". Her description of ancient Alexandria in Cleopatra VII's time shows why it was THE great metropolis of the age.