For centuries, Egypt's Queen Cleopatra VII has been the catalyst for heated --- and often inaccurate --- debate, fantasy, envy, and controversy. Too often she is trivialized or stereotyped as being merely the seductive earthly incarnation of the Egyptian goddess Isis, who conquered the great Julius Caesar and later, his protege, Marc Antony, with her unbelievable sexual prowess. This erroneous image, perpetuated by mass media to the endless delight of audiences around the world, does this fabulous historic figure a great injustice.
In truth, Cleopatra was a brilliant woman, a shrewd politician devoted to her country and its people. She was a born monarch, ambitious both for herself and her son by Caesar, little Caesarian. Fluent in nine languages, Cleopatra was also a more than capable mathematician. And, of course, she did indeed know how to handle powerful men. Colin Falconer's novel, WHEN WE WERE GODS: A Novel of Cleopatra, presents a fictional portrait of just how she might have done so, and what effect her actions --- and her two famous lovers --- had upon her all-too-human heart.
We first see Cleopatra at 18 years of age. She has just inherited the throne of Egypt from her father, Ptolemy Auletes, whose strength had been failing for some time in the face of the lengthening shadow of Rome and its dictator, Julius Caesar. Cleopatra was to share her throne with her brother, Ptolemy XIII; but almost immediately following her father's death, she is immersed in a whirl of intrigue, receiving her first taste of betrayal at the hands of courtiers and family members. Isolated and fearful for her safety, Cleopatra flees Alexandria, living in exile while the Roman army overruns her beloved city and her siblings bite and scratch for power.
Cleopatra turns for protection to Julius Caesar, who takes her virginity before taking her under his wing. However, the young queen soon proves herself more than his equal, both in matters of state and of love. She is determined to rule on her own someday, without the support of a Roman. After the defeat and death of her brother Ptolemy, Cleopatra at last becomes sole ruler of Egypt but finds herself pregnant with Caesar's child. Traveling to Rome, Cleopatra begins a relentless campaign to force Caesar to acknowledge their son. She wants him to become King of Rome and to unite their two countries by marriage, thereby establishing a dynastic line of princes. But when Caesar is murdered outside the Senate building, her dreams of husband, king, and empire seem to be in grave jeopardy.
She then joins her fate to that of Marc Antony, a drunken, hedonistic general who is charismatic but infamously unreliable --- in other words, he's not Julius Caesar. When Antony's hold on the Roman Empire slips, so do Cleopatra's fortunes. She plots and executes one last bold maneuver, outwitting her enemy, Octavian, and securing her immortality in the collective memory of future generations.
Falconer's prose vividly creates the contrasting worlds of Egypt and Rome --- the one with its grace, advanced learning, and civilized culture; the other a rude upstart city that is both cultural and barbaric, where beautiful temples are erected next to fetid, stinking streets, honoring men whose claims to fame are built on piles of broken bodies. Rome --- and all things Roman --- come up far short in comparison to Egypt, and one wonders why Cleopatra would choose to unite herself and her country with such a place and such a people.
One complaint --- the individual characters seem merely two-dimensional, rather than three. For the first half of the book, Cleopatra seems more acted upon than acting. Caesar is the stronger personality here, yet he too is only two-sided. Falconer rarely lets his conqueror's mask drop in order that Cleopatra --- and the reader --- might glimpse his more human side. Despite this, the novel moves along rapidly and is a greatly enjoyable, relaxing read.
WHEN WE WERE GODS is a sensual and imaginative portrait of a great queen's life and times, her fortunes played out against a backdrop of rich pageantry. Cleopatra continues to fascinate, to charm, to seduce; and by making her a more human figure, Colin Falconer gives history other possibilities to ponder in our endless efforts to better understand the wellspring of our continued fascination with the enigmatic Egyptian queen.
Reviewed by Laura Carter on March 26, 2002
When We Were Gods