In Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff gives an unprecedented portrait of a queen who survived more by her wits (and wealth) than her beauty.

Although so many historians recorded the lives of Caesar and Antony, there is a real dearth of information about Cleopatra.

Two things didn't occur to me until I was a long way into [the biography]. I think with every book you realize you are partway through and there is something really elementary that you should have researched. In this book it was suddenly realizing I needed to know who each of these later chroniclers was. I needed to know where they were coming from, whom they were speaking to, and what their agenda was.

How much do you think your rejection of ancient male historians' view of her as the evil seductress has been shaped by the fact that you are a woman?

I don't think there is ever objective biography. Our vision of our subject is always shaped by who we are. So I do of course think the biographer's view is always something to keep in mind. And certainly I am writing as a 21st-century woman, so I am much more inclined to view her as a three-dimensional woman. I think we keep coming up with this stubborn problem of a woman being judged by her appearance rather than her accomplishments. We are much more inclined to ask: was Cleopatra beautiful? how did she seduce these men? did she fall in love with Mark Antony? than we are to say: how did she run a country? how did she raise an army? how did she get to Rome?

How would you sum up your final judgment on Cleopatra—as a ruler, as a woman, as politician?

Do I find her immensely impressive and almost frightening? Yes. She was up against incredible odds, and her story is basically over before it starts—I mean the die is cast although obviously it doesn't look like that from her perspective. You are looking at a woman who is handed a losing hand yet plays that out with enormous dexterity using wit and nerve for the next 22 years, which is extraordinary in a family in which members constantly poisoned and dismembered each other.

Also, you've emphasized the role of politics in her relationship with both Caesar and Antony rather than romance.

I wouldn't go so far as to speculate on her falling in love. But both of those relationships are just too convenient. I said this repeatedly in the book: to the Romans—the idea that she is the wealthiest person in the world would have made an impression. And the two of these men had never met a woman who could do what she could do—or who could have the power to do it, or who had the freedom to do it or the opportunity to do it.