Friday, December 09, 2011

On the Library Table - Cleopatra's Moon

One reads of the legendary Ptolemaic queen of Egypt now and again - Cleopatra VII of the raven hair, painted eyes and supposedly wanton ways.  Perhaps it's inevitable given the drama and mythic proportions of a glamorous life ended too soon (and deliberately) by the bite of an asp.  We pay scant attention to those came after her though, and across the sands of time, their stories are engaging, especially that of her young daughter Cleopatra VIII Selene.

Vicky Alvear Shecter's book begins when Cleopatra VIII Selene and her twin brother Alexander Helios were seven, and their brother Ptolemy Philadelphus a mere toddler.
The young princess's middle name meant "moon" and corresponded to her twin's middle name meaning "sun".  Their parents, Cleopatra VII and the Roman general Mark Antony, heaped privileges on their offspring, but the pampered existence of the young royals was to be cut short.  Egypt fell to invading Roman legions, their parents committed suicide, and they travelled to Rome as captives of Octavian, later to become the emperor Caesar Augustus.

After being paraded through the city in chains, the children were handed over to Octavia Minor (Octavian's older sister and Mark Antony's former wife) to raise.  Shecter has Alexander die at sea in the opening pages of the book as a plot device, but he and his little brother made it to Rome and vanished from official records shortly afterward.  The two boys were viable candidates for the throne, and there is a strong possibility that they were murdered.  Some time later, Caesar Augustus gave Cleopatra Selene, by then probably the sole living member of the Ptolemaic dynasty, to Juba II of Numidia in marriage.  Gifted with a lavish dowry by the emperor, the young couple went off to ancient Mauretania (modern day Morocco and Algeria) to rule in Rome's name and found a new royal dynasty there.  Thus the Ptolemaic bloodline survived in Africa.

Vicky Alvear Shecter has done remarkable things in writing this book.  She knows the times and the political currents which shaped them, and she brings the era to life gloriously.  As well as being a fine writer, she is a scholar, and her research was impeccable - the Alexandrian and Roman settings of the novel and the two societies depicted are wonderfully drawn. There are gods and goddesses (particularly the goddess Isis), opulently appointed nurseries and jeweled toys, banquets with exotic menus, alluring musics, roses and spices and perfumes in abundance.  The young Cleopatra Selene is fierce, charming, headstrong and determined to go home.  She is a worthy female descendant to an ancient queen who did things her own way from start to finish and set tongues wagging from one end of the ancient world to the other.

Cleopatra's Moon is being marketed as a young adult book, but it is a wonderful read for all ages. If I had young granddaughters or great granddaughters of an age to read it, I would certainly be giving them the book for Yule, but I plan to read it again myself during the holidays and am looking forward to soaking up the sounds and sights of ancient Egypt once more - the place has long been an interest of mine. And ancient Rome??? Not so much - going by the descriptions of Cleopatra Selene, ancient Rome was short on culture and something of a vast rubbish heap.


Cindy said...

Love stories about strong women! I have a recipe for Cleopatra's perfume. A lovely concoction with rose and cardamom oil.

Anonymous said...

I also love strong women in stories (as you know). How old do you think it would be appropriate for? Or rather how young.

kerrdelune said...

Lilian, the book is a lovely read and suitable for ages eleven and up.