For the several thousands of years before they became firefighters and physicians, women were sirens, enchantresses, snares. At times it seems as if female powerlessness is male self-preservation in disguise. And for millennia, this has made for a zero-sum game: A woman's intelligence was a man's deception.
Life-writing calls for any number of dubious gifts: A touch of O.C.D., a lack of imagination, a large desk, neutrality of Swiss proportions, tactlessness, a high tolerance for archival dust. Most of all it calls for an act of displacement. 'To find your subject, you must in some sense lose yourself along the way,' is Richard Holmes's version.
We're talking about, essentially, the Roman historians, who wrote Cleopatra into the story mostly so that they could talk about the rise of Rome. And that is one of the problems, of course, in recounting her life. She's only ever apparent to us when there is a Roman in the room, or when her story intersects with the rise of Rome.