Kleopatra Selene had one of the more eventful resumes in history. She was a princess in Alexandria, a political hostage in the household of Caesar Augustus and a queen in the Roman province of Mauretania. In spite of all this, her far more notorious parents have eclipsed her fame. You know; the Cleopatra and the Marc Antony? I’ve read works about the pair of them this year, and hopefully my reviews of those books will end up on here soon. Nevertheless, I wanted Cleopatra’s Daughter to be my first real review on this blog. It has been one of the most pleasant surprises of 2011. I have a tendency to become fascinated with historical figures that are simultaneously important and on the periphery of history. After years of hoping for a novel about Kleopatra Selene, Cleopatra’s Daughter exceeded my expectations.
The titular character makes for an appealing heroine. Selene is prickly, conscientious, and preoccupied with a growing awareness of the injustices of her world. All this without, it must be said, the girl seeming as though she wandered in from the 21st century.) She must confront a dizzying amount of culture shock, forced from luxurious, intellectual Egypt, to a chaotic, post-civil war Rome. One of the absolute highlights of this book is that it’s set in the truly bizarre home of Caesar Augustus (previously known as Octavian. Through a variety of political calculations, it essentially became an orphanage and/or boarding school for a number of the future political leaders of the burgeoning Roman Empire. Between the offspring of Octavian and Livia, the offspring of Marc Antony and Octavia (oh yes, she must care for the children of her husband; AWKWARD!), and the Egyptian political prisoners, the residence is overrun with children. In the time span of this book, they are all teenagers or young children. Oh look! That snarky teenager will become the next emperor. Oh look! That unassuming young woman will be the mother of Claudius, the grandmother of Caligula, and the great-grandmother of Nero. And, of course, look! That exiled princess will become queen of a North African province! It’s one of those peculiar moments in time that even the most creative writer might balk at inventing for fear of appearing outlandish. Moran truly captures the oddity of this situation, without resorting to melodrama or unintentional silliness.
The author is equally careful about the connections between characters. Without delineating them all, I will make special mention of the relationship between Selene and Julia, the daughter of Caesar Augustus. The book leads the reader to believe they will have a catty rivalry, but instead subverts expectations by developing an affectionate, complex friendship between the two. They are the heart of the novel, and Julia is a frequent scene-stealer. In fact, the novels most glaring flaws rest in Moran’s disinterest in developing other characters. Livia’s one note bitter scheming and Octavia one note placid sweetness fall flat when placed aside the more vibrant personalities of the younger generation.
Maintaining the balance between “historical” and “fiction” is never an easy one. Moran generally sticks to the known facts, though she does make the audacious choice of inventing a slave revolt out of whole cloth. I’m not a stickler to detail, and her invented choices feel like they belong in the setting. Moran avoids the mistake of getting her characters from historical point A to historical point B while neglecting the characters’ inner lives. The history inspired me to read this book, but the story and the characters are what kept me going.
As a side note, my other main complaint about this novel is that it ends right before her marriage. I was aggravated because, from what I had once read about their time as King and Queen, their reign was a fascinating one. After reading The World of Juba II and Kleopatra Selene: Royal Scholarship on Rome’s African Frontier I better understand why an author might shy away from Selene’s later life. This book is highly informative, and contains a dazzling array of information on these monarchs.
From what is left of the relevant primary sources.
Yes, this book is as much a testament to how easily literature was lost in the Dark Ages as it is to these two rulers. Juba II was a scholar-king and Selene almost certainly had a highly literate upbringing. Yet, save for scraps here, and trading records there, nearly every about them has vanished from the record. The hints that remain are tantalizing. Juba II was a highly respected historian. Selene issued coins in her own right (a symbol of great power in her time) and the province afforded women more rights than many other regions in the empire. Mauretania placed an emphasis on scholarship and art. The details that remain give off hints of a fascinating country, but hints are all that remain.