Morning Joe | December 22, 2010
>>> more than just a pretty face , cleopatra was a true power broker and a military strategist and we recently sat down with stacy schiff author of the biography " cleopatra , the life" to learn more about the female legend. so, a merciless leader to say the least?
>> i would say a pretty shrewd, a pretty brutal, clear-sighted woman who had major political strategy and didn't mind knocking off a sibling or two and it worked.
>> it didn't matter either if it was in the family.
>> especially in the family, those are the dangerous ones.
>> oh, good lord.
>> when you were a monarch, you cleared the field of blood relatives, standard operating procedures .
>> what are the misperceptions we have, how is cleopatra not like elizabeth taylor ?
>> first of all, how many times was elizabeth taylor married or whatever. i don't think cleopatra ever married. smartly allies herself with the two most powerful men in the world at the time, caesar and anthony. and has two children, and she's greek macedonian, she's not egyptian, all the great egyptian halloween costumes .
>> she's not egyptian? disappointing.
>> probably fair skinned, certainly her first language is greek. she speaks nine languages, the culture, the language, you know, the books she knew, the world she's steeped this is greek.
>> if you take out the murdering of the siblings --
>> yeah, how can you take that out, though, that's the best part?
>> she seems like someone who on potentially exist to the degree that she's a celebrity, there's sex involved, there's politics, she could be a modern-day celebrity.
>> yeah, and there's a couple things she's really good at, kroing the narrative, the thing that we see could work today, the pageanty, devaluing the currency, when she comes to the throne, devalue the currency, help the economy, obliterating your rivals, always a good idea. a lot of modern. and post-gender. she doesn't pay too much attention to the fact that she's a woman, you know, she just forges ahead.
>> what is it about her, just taking a step back, that so fascinates people that still all thiessenturies later everybody will want to grab the book and read more?
>> say it again. i think it's two things, i think it's the fact that you've got a woman in a really unusual position of power. name a woman who is that rich. she's the richest woman of the world at the time bar none . katherine the great, there aren't many rivals of people that control that much territory and that great of a fortune. so, no distinction there, and i think the holes in the story. you know, we don't know is so intriguing that we keep going back to try to fill them in, and we project ourselves, project our ideas of power and gender onto her.
>> so, what did shakespeare get wrong when talking about anthony and cleopatra ?
>> he got the language right, don't you think? he made a great love story . it's coincidental with me that she would fall in love with the two most powerful men in the world one right after another.
>> did she fall in love with each other? or did you think it was cold, ruthless, calculating?
>> what do you think?
>> cold and calculating.
>> it doesn't make as good a play. it's interesting that the she cozied up to the two people that can give her the support and territories that she really needs.
>> she's played by beautiful actresses and yet you said earlier she wasn't. what did she look like?
>> well, if you take the coin portraits at face value which i think you have to because this is how she presents herself to her subjects, a pretty hook-nosed. she looked like her father. hook nosed, sunken eye, prominent sharp chin, very semitic looking. we imagine elizabeth taylor .
>> very much not an elizabeth taylor look-alike, but on the other hand when you're that rich and you comport yourself as a goddess and you are a personal of great authority, the looks are not as essential.
>> what are the challenges of writing a book, there's one thing to write a book about benjamin franklin , you have documents to follow.
>> so many documents you want to shoot yourself.
>> you can sort through them all, but with cleopatra , it's like sara mclaughlin, it's building a mystery. how difficult is it for you?
>> it's like walking between the raindrops, you're walking around the holes in the story. you focus on the things where you've really got material and you hope no one notices that you're skirting the big question. but you know what you've got is pretty amazing, you have the saucy voice and a woman who is clearly hell-bent on where she's going and you do know a certain amount about her relationship with the roman world and how she rules her subjects.
>> by the way, you tip off cleopatra 's looks with the cover when you show the back of the head. that's a sure sign.
>> it's brilliant. it's a gorgeous book.
>> she was, as you said, the richest and most powerful woman in the world. what happens? what was her undoing?
>> it's interesting she's the richest and most powerful woman of the richest country , not the most powerful country. she comes to the throne as rome is rising to power. what she essentially inherits is a kingdom in decline, which is the last great kin dom that rome has not really conquered and she's trying desperately to hold on and militarily there isn't a chance in the world she'll be able to do so. what we look at is what she is a reprieve, it's over really before she comes to the throne but she holds on for two decades until rome essentially wipes her out.
>> great story.
>> stacy schiff , thank you very much. the book is " cleopatra , a life" a beautiful, beautiful book. thank you very much for coming in.
>> thank you.