Take Time to Know Her

I finished reading  Cleopatra’s Shadows last night. Over all, I enjoyed it, but with all due respect to Emily Holleman, I didn’t love it. I already knew the story of Cleopatra’s sisters, Berenice and Arsinoe, so I wasn’t expecting to learn anything new from it, so that wasn’t the issue I had. I thought it was interesting that the book focused on the brief period of time when Berenice deposed her father and took the Egyptian throne. Usually, fiction about Cleopatra generally begins with Julius Caesar’s arrival in Alexandria and her being snuck into his presence rolled up inside of a rug; which, admittedly, is quite a romantic beginning and you can’t really go wrong starting there. The first book I ever read about Cleopatra–a bio for kids called Cleopatra of Egypt, written by Leonora Hornblow and illustrated by W. T. Mars–began with her fleeing from Alexandria out of fear her brother/husband Ptolemy XIII was going to kill her; and she rose an army and started a civil war. This war interrupted grain shipments to Rome–which was in the midst of its own civil war, between Pompey and Caesar. Caesar had just defeated Pompey, who fled to the court of the Ptolemies; Caesar pursued him there and also aimed to settle the Egyptian civil war. Ptolemy famously beheaded Pompey, thinking he would please Caesar by doing so; instead, he pissed him off, which made Caesar more inclined to be sympathetic to Cleopatra, who was actually Cleopatra VII. But one of the most interesting things to me about Hornblow’s book–which was for kids, mind you–was that she talked about Berenice’s rebellion and usurpation, as well as that of Cleopatra’s younger sister, Arsinoe–and how Cleopatra was present in Rome for the Roman Triumph in which Arsinoe was marched, in chains, behind a chariot…and that was the motivation behind her own suicide when she lost to Rome; she refused to be subjected to the same humiliations in front of the Roman mob that her sister endured.

cleopatra of egypt

I found a copy of it on ebay a few years back, and bought it again. I kind of always wanted to write about both sisters, honestly.

So, obviously, I was very excited to read Cleopatra’s Shadows.

It isn’t that the book wasn’t well-written; it was, and I am sure, as Holleman is a historical scholar, it was undoubtedly incredibly well-researched. What was disappointing to me was that Holleman didn’t give either sister agency. The Ptolemy dynasty,  Macedonian Greeks descended from Ptolemy, one of Alexander the Great’s generals who was rewarded with Egypt after Alexander’s death and the break-up of his empire, was known for it’s intelligent, highly educated and ruthless women. Like the Egyptian pharaohs of old, the Ptolemies married their sisters to keep the dynasty pure, and while there aren’t a lot of records–the burning of the Great Library at Alexandria to blame for this–there is enough evidence that the sister-wives were actually, in many instances, co-rulers and just as ruthless as the males. Each male pharaoh took the name Ptolemy; their sister/wives/queens were named either Cleopatra, Berenice, Arsinoe or Selene–or a combination of two of those names. Again, there is also evidence that Ptolemaic queens disappeared–probably murdered by their husbands, and the ‘pure bloodline’ wasn’t quite so pure, as the unions were sometimes sterile and other women, concubines, were brought in to bear children for the pharaoh. The plotting and machinations of the Ptolemaic court, the struggles for power, are endlessly fascinating to me; even in the children’s book which was my first introduction to the most famous (notorious) Cleopatra this was very clear.

So, the characters of Berenice and Arsinoe as Helleman chose to depict them were disappointing to me. Berenice was, per this novel, the only true child of a royal brother/sister pair; and her father, Ptolemy XII Auletes, the Piper, was not a popular ruler. The premise of this story is that Ptolemy tired of his sister/wife Tryphaena and her inability to bear him a healthy son, so he banished her from court and replaced her with a beautiful concubine, who bore him four children–Cleopatra, Arsinoe, and two young males both named Ptolemy. Berenice’s revolution and overthrow of her father was apparently more based in the bitterness of mother and daughter in being supplanted by the concubine (never named) and her children more than anything else. And while it is all too frequently true that kingdoms and history were shaped by family disputes, rivalries, and romances/loves/jealousies, but I always kind of admired Berenice. The strong woman I always imagined she must have been, strong enough to raise a rebellion against an unpopular king, and to be successful, was not the character Helleman wrote about, who was vacillating, weak, and insecure.

Likewise, the younger sister, whose point of view the story is also told from, Arsinoe, is completely obsessed with her older sister Cleopatra, and barely a page in her point of view passes without so mention of how much she misses her sister. She never thinks about either her father or her mother, and given she is a child, that’s a bit more understandable. But Arsinoe eventually leads her own rebellion against Cleopatra’s rule, so clearly she too is an ambitious young woman as well as intelligent one, one foolhardy enough to rise the Egyptian people up against the Roman legions who have come to Alexandria to back up her sister, and I get no sense of that strong woman in this child. Things just happen to Arsinoe, and while there are slight hints of the politician in her being trained and brought to the fore in the lessons she is learning at the court of a sister who despises both her and her mother, for the most part she is just someone things  happen to–and she never grasps the idea that she should stop being passive and maybe make things happen. The Ptolemies were notoriously ruthless in killing people and relatives who might pose a threat; a pragmatism that may seem horrific to our modern-day sensibilities of family ties but something that was absolutely necessary for them to keep their thrones and their power secure. In fact, Berenice’s advisors want her to kill Arsinoe, but she refuses, and never gives any reason for doing so, which weakens her character still further.

It’s a good read, and it’s well-written and interesting, but I was disappointed with the characters, frankly. I can recommend it to anyone who enjoys historical fiction, and is interested in the period.

And it did revive my interest in the Ptolemies.

And now, back to the spice mines.

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