The best historical fiction entertains and enlightens readers. These are stories created by writers who are vigilant about their fiction and exceptionally dedicated to the record. Michelle Moran is precisely that kind of writer, one who writes history carefully and only tells great stories.
CLEOPATRA'S DAUGHTER is the lesser-known story of Cleopatra Selene II, who of course is the daughter of Cleopatra and Marc Antony. The life of Cleopatra is not so much the subject of the book as what will happen after, yet we witness the tragedy of the legend through the eyes of her daughter. The book begins with the aftermath of the great Battle of Actium, in the moment where Marc Antony has lost the war to General Marcus Agrippa, and so all of Egypt and its treasures are at the mercy of Caesar Octavian.
Once Cleopatra hears that they have lost the battle and the war, she sends a soldier to tell Antony that they've been killed, hoping he'll flee and survive. Instead, Antony chooses death, and his soldiers lift him through a window into the vault where Cleopatra and the children are waiting. Antony's wound is self-inflicted, and he's only barely alive when Cleopatra first sees him. Anguished, she clutches his body within the tomb, and the children witness the death of their father. In a last compassionate appeal for her Egyptians, Cleopatra bids the remaining soldiers to flee. But her own dignity compels her to stay --- she intends to face her conqueror.
Cleopatra confronts Octavian with the countenance of a reigning queen rather than a defeated ruler. She's an imposing figure even in captivity, and her dignity and bravery in those final moments leave an impression upon her children, who watch it all. When she asks Caesar if she is still queen, Octavian answers "For now." When Caesar tells her that he has killed her two older sons who were heirs to the throne (Caesarion and Antyllus), she reminds Octavian that he has killed his own brother, the child of Julius Caesar. Sadly, it's only then that the great Cleopatra realizes she has just witnessed both the death of her loved ones and the end of the reign of Egypt by the Pharaohs. But even in her anguish, she is able to fight back despair and keep her dignity. Octavian asks her then "Shall your children come?", a loaded question. After mere seconds, Cleopatra answers "Yes." With the infamous asp, she ends her life, and her three living children see her in death before they're taken. For Selene, in a state of puzzlement and shock, the question of "why?" resonates through all that she has witnessed.
This happens quickly and is the end of Egypt for Selene and the beginning of her story in Rome. Selene and her two remaining brothers, Ptolemy and Alexander, board a ship to Italy as prisoners. Accompanying them are General Agrippa, who defeated their father, and Juba, a past captive of Caesar who now fights for him and proclaims himself Caesar's spy. Selene dotes over little Ptolemy on the voyage and tries to soften the reality of the situation. For all her hopes, it seems that Ptolemy isn't strong enough to endure what's happened, and during the voyage, a feverish illness takes him. So he's spared a life of captivity. Selene and Alexander are now all who remain of the great Ptolemies.
Once in Rome, Octavian treats Selene and Alexander as permanent captives. They are forced to live close to the man who took the lives of their entire family, and he demands a certain decorum of them and treats them with indifference. Octavian's sister Octavia has been ordered to take them in; ironically, she was once the wife of Marc Antony before he left her for Cleopatra. Their living situation is a source of concern in the beginning, but Octavia treats them with sincerity and kindness. Selene and Alexander also live among Octavia's son (Marcellus) and her two young daughters, and with Octavian's daughter (Julia), all of whom readily accept the two into their home. Even so, Egyptians and Romans essentially have little in common, and while a few Romans may find it easy to accept two children, they find it infinitely harder to accept the stranger qualities of their culture.
In the eyes of Rome, Selene and Alexander are little more than slaves, and they are warned of that reality early on. They must attempt to become useful to Caesar before coming of age or risk execution. Upon his return from Egypt, Octavian reminds them of their captive status, parading them through the streets of Rome in golden shackles. No one misunderstands the message --- two imprisoned children have become Caesar's symbols of his triumph over Egypt, for the glory of Rome. In Octavian's Rome, people are crucified whenever they say a wrong word or do anything contrary to Caesar's designs. Compassion or clemency seem nonexistent to Roman citizens. Slaves are treated abhorrently and are completely at the mercy of their masters. One-third of Rome's population is, in fact, slaves. Torture of slaves or prisoners is a common occurrence. This is the age of the arena, the gladiators all prisoners who face a painful, gruesome death merely for the pleasure of the horde, in the self-same city where unwanted children and infants die just as surely from starvation and exposure. And over it all is the senate, a corrupt ruling body that decides the fate of everyone in the city, with Octavian at the top.
Selene's story is one that I had never heard of before reading this book, and it is every bit as remarkable and affecting as the legend of Cleopatra. But readers will find more than just history in CLEOPATRA'S DAUGHTER. It is a mesmerizing story that will leave you caring deeply for many people in it. Clearly Moran genuinely cares for the characters she writes --- and for their authenticity, as personas are far from black and white. The typical dichotomy of good and evil common in so many books doesn't seem to exist here, and both heroes and villains will surprise you. Though you may have read other accounts of Rome or seen them on the big screen in movies like Gladiator, this is very unlikely to be a story you've ever heard; above all else, it's one of love and hope.
Reviewed by Melanie Smith on July 13, 2010