I love reading the book review pages in newspapers and magazines. I read, in part, with the practitioner’s eye, since I occasionally review books in an academic context. But it’s more than that. I read about books I know I must or should read, about books I should at least be familiar with, and I also read about books I would love to read but for which I know I will never find the time. They are like far away places whose wonders others, luckier than I, describe. Into that category falls Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra, learnedly reviewed in the pages of The Guardian by Miranda Seymour. Seymour stresses the contrast between what we think we non-scholars know about the Ptolemys and the supposed glories of Rome. On the contrary, argues Seymour, Rome was backward, dull and drab whilst ‘Cleopatra’s Alexandria… was a city full of dazzling luxury, beauty and culture; of broad, well-shaded avenues, ravishing mosaics, scholarly colleges, an unparalleled library, bookstores (Rome had none), and a social structure that – unlike Rome – allowed women formal education, divorce rights, property ownership and, most unusual of all, the chance to exploit their business skills.’ Over a third of Ptolemaic Egypt in Cleopatra’s day, Seymour continues, ‘was under the administration of women. A girl from the patrician classes could learn several languages (Cleopatra spoke nine, including Hebrew, Greek and Troglodyte according to Plutarch). An Egyptian daughter – thrashed like a boy if she failed to progress – could study philosophy and algebra. She knew the world was round. She understood the value of pi. She could run a business.’ With the regime of President Hosni Muburak, derided by the democracy protestors as a ‘pharoah’, teetering on the edge, maybe Egyptians should also recall the many liberal aspects of their Ptolemaic past.