I recently finished reading the book Cleopatra—A Life by Stacy Schiff.
I learned that Cleopatra probably spoke nine languages, including Hebrew and Troglodyte, an Ethiopian tongue that Herodotus said was “unlike that of any other people; it sounds like the screeching of bats.”
I learned that she was well educated and that she benefited from living near the library of Alexandria, the greatest intellectual center of its time. Schiff writes, “She knew of the existences of the equator, the value of pi, the latitude of Marseilles, the behavior of linear perspective, the utility of a lightning conductor. She knew that one could sail from Spain to India, a voyage that was not to be made for another 1,500 years.”
I also learned that Cleopatra wasn’t as beautiful as Elizabeth Taylor. Plutarch, Schiff explains, commented that her beauty “was not in itself so remarkable that none could be compared with her, or that no one could see her without being stuck by it.”
Schiff concludes: “It has always been preferable to attribute a woman’s success to her beauty rather than her brains, to reduce her to the sum of her sex life….Cleopatra unsettles more as sage than as seductress; it is less threatening to believe her fatally attractive than fatally intelligent.”