While a modern visitor to both cities may find this hard to comprehend, back in Cleopatra’s days Rome was a backwater to Alexandria. Unlike Rome, the Egyptian capital was lined with shaded avenues, amazing mosaics, scholarly libraries and book stores. And the Egyptian advances were not just confined to architecture. They also encompassed social development. Girls could study philosophy and algebra in school, knew the world was round, and understood the value of pi. Women belonging to the patrician class learned several languages.Cleopatra spoke nine including Hebrew and Greek.Women administered a third of Egypt and got the same education as men. Several ran businesses. At the height of her powers, says Cleopatra’s newest biographer, Stacy Schiff,“she controlled virtually the entire eastern Mediterranean coast. For a fleeting moment she held the fate of the Western world in her hands.” At the tender age of 18, Cleopatra was crowned queen of Ptolemaic Egypt in Alexandria, a city located at the confluence of the Nile and the Mediterranean Sea, a place where the life-giving waters of the river empty into the seemingly endless blue sea. She ruled Egypt from 51 BC to 30 BC. While there is little doubt that she existed, her tomb (along with Antony’s) is yet to be found. The latest research seems to indicate that it lies some 45 miles west of Alexandria inside the temple of Isis and Osiris. Her dramatic life is the subject of two plays by William Shakespeare (Antony and Cleopatra) and George Bernard Shaw (Cleopatra and Caesar) and featured in a long four-hour epic starring Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra and Richard Burton as Mark Antony in addition to Rex Harrison as Julius Caesar.\ While Stacy Schiff does not write poetry, her prose is so vivid that history comes alive. Here is what one reviewer said: “No previous image, visual or verbal, matches up to the inspiring, frightening, ruthless woman conjured by Schiff from an inspired combination of carefully parsed texts, new research, and pulse-quickening descriptive writing.” Here’s how Shakespeare describes her barge: “The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne/Burned on the water; the poop was beaten gold,/ Purple the sails, and so perfumed, that/The winds were love-sick with them.” Later in the play the Bard comments: “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale/Her infinite variety.” When she realised she had lost to the Romans, she decided to kill herself rather than be taken prisoner, and the killing was carried out in the most unconventional way possible. She asked her servants to bring her two asp snakes so that she would hold them close to her bosom and die in the embrace. Shakespeare’s description of her end is immortal: “Give me my robe, put on my crown; I have/Immortal longings in me: now no more/The juice of Egypt’s grape shall moist this lip:/Peace, peace!/Dost thou not see my baby at my breast,/That sucks the nurse asleep?” Cleopatra’s secret to staying in power was her ability to transform herself into a goddess. Schiff paints with words. We see Cleopatra and Caesar floating down the Nile through the eyes of the onlookers who had lined up along the river banks. They behold “a sort of magical apparition from another world, the earthly visitation of two living gods.” Cleopatra knew her major challenge as ruler was to save the Egyptian Empire from being laid to waste bythe Romans. She did not have the military power to take on the Roman legions. So she tried a rather unconventional approach by entering into romantic relationships with Julius Caesar and Mark Antony. Indeed, she went further than most mistresses and had children from both. While Stacy Schiff does not write poetry, her prose is so vivid that history comes alive. Here is what one reviewer said: “No previous image, visual or verbal, matches up to the inspiring, frightening, ruthless woman conjured by Schiff from an inspired combination of carefully parsed texts, new research, and pulse-quickening descriptive writing.” Another reviewer noted, “Schiff strips away the accretions of myth that have built up around the Egyptian queen and plucks off the imaginative embroiderings of Shakespeare, Shaw and Elizabeth Taylor. In doing so, she gives us a cinematic portrait of a historical figure far more complex and compelling than any fictional creation, and a wide, panning, panoramic picture of her world.” The book opens in 48BC. At 21, Cleopatra is camped out on the far side of the Nile delta, preparing herself for meeting Julius Caesar in her Alexandrian palace. And then it flashes back and forth across various episodes of her tempestuous reign. After Caesar’s assassination, she presented herself as Isis, working hard to pick up the butchered fragments of her consort Osiris (Caesar) to fashion a new heir (her little Roman son). In 42BC, to control events, she sailed into Tarsus in the guise of Venus, “on a boat manned by a bevy of attendant nymphs.”Mark Antony fell for her ploy. He stayed hooked because his dreams of eastern conquests could only be funded by Egypt’s treasure. She was not just a royal temptress. Schiff says that Cleopatra was a talented and resource leader who had the discipline and self-assuredness to manage her country’s affairs. As a sovereign, she “knew how to build a fleet, suppress an insurrection, control a currency, alleviate a famine.” The book is unmatched in its ability to transport the reader to the world as it existed in Cleopatra’s days. She paints with words what the people of that time must have seen with their eyes in Alexandria: “Gleaming marble edifices, the oversize sphinxes and falcons that lined the paths to the city’s Greek temples, the Doric tombs decorated with crocodile gods in Roman dress.” Detailed descriptions are provided of the things that existed in Cleopatra’s court such as “her elaborate retinue of tasters, scribes, lamplighters, royal harpists, masseurs, pages, doorkeepers, notaries, silver stewards, oil keepers and pearl sorters.” And we are also given a tour of what existed outside of the court: “her fleet of royal barges, equipped with gyms, libraries, shrines to Dionysus and Aphrodite, gardens, grottos, lecture halls, spiral staircases, copper baths, stables and aquariums.” Cleopatra used pageantry to seduce Caesar and Antony but guile failed to work on Caesar’s grandson, Octavian. All he had in mind was her wealth. He defeated both Antony and Cleopatra and, once they were dead, he set about acquiring the wealth of Egypt, eventually becoming the Emperor Augustus. He converted Rome into the magnificent city of multi-columned marble edifices which continue to awe visitors today. Augustus’ funeral inscription says, “I found Rome a city of brick and I left it a city of marble.” The Res Gestae makes no reference to Egypt, whose wealth he looted, or to its last queen, whose reign he ended. One empire ended and another rose from its ruins. Published in Daily Times, December 16th 2018.