In the Seventeenth Year of My Mother's Reign
In My Seventh Year (34 BCE)
PART I: EGYPT
What caused the gods to fall upon my family like starved lions in a Roman arena?
I suspect it began in my seventh year, on a day that I once considered one of the happiest of my life. It was a dazzling, sun-drenched summer morning in Alexandria-by-the-Sea. Outside the Royal Quarter, with the Mediterranean sparkling behind us and rows of date palms swaying before us, my mother and brothers and I sat alongside one another on individual thrones. We waited for my father, the great Roman general Marcus Antonius, to finish parading through the city and join us atop our grand ceremonial dais. The ceremony today would celebrate his victory over Armenia, his eastern enemy. And we --- his family and all of Alexandria --- would rejoice with him.
Even in the shade of our royal canopy, sweat trickled down my neck and back. The ostrich-feather fans the servants waved over us provided little relief. Strong breezes occasionally gusted from the Royal Harbor, cooling us with the salty bite of the sea. Despite the discomfort and the glare from the beaten silver platform at our feet, I forced myself to keep still as Mother had instructed, my eyes trained just above the horizon. Zosima, who had carefully painted my face, had forbidden me from squinting in the bright light. I was not to ruin the heavy black kohl around my eyes and eyebrows, and under no circumstances to cause the green malachite painted on my lids to flake off. I was not even to turn my head. I would follow all the rules perfectly, I swore to myself. I would make Mother proud.
But excitement and curiosity burbled in my blood as I fought to stay still, stealing side-glances whenever I could. I especially treasured my glimpses of Mother, Queen Cleopatra VII. She sat on a golden throne, looking as resplendent as one of the giant marble statues guarding the tombs of the Old Ones. Diamonds twinkled in a jungle of black braids on her ceremonial wig. She wore a diadem with three rearing snakes and a golden broad collar, shining with lapis lazuli, carnelian, and emeralds, over her golden, form-fitting pleated gown. In one hand, she held a golden ankh of life, while the other clasped the striped crook and flail of her divine rulership. Her stillness radiated power, like a lioness pausing before the pounce. It left me breathless with awe.
I sat up straighter, trying to emulate her, puffing up with pride at the realization that only Mother and I were dressed as true rulers of Egypt --- she as the Goddess Isis and I as the moon goddess, Nephthys. After all, was I not named for the moon? My brother may have been called Alexandros Helios, for the sun, but I was Cleopatra Selene, the moon. I wore a flowing dress that reminded me of the liquid metal that the scientists at our Great Library described as "living silver." A silver diadem of the moon sat atop my own thickly braided ceremonial wig. Even my sandals flashed silver.
I had never seen my beloved city so packed. By the tens of thousands, Alexandrians and Egyptians flooded the wide avenues and byways, desperate to catch a glimpse of us or of Father on his parade route. The richest of the noble Greek families sat on tiered benches in the square before us, while tradesmen, merchants, and the poor spilled into the streets, squirming and jostling for position. Some even shimmied up trees, climbed onto the shoulders of the statues of my ancestors, and scrabbled to the tops of pediments and roofs to get a better view of us. The roar of the crowd as my father approached in his chariot sounded like waves crashing against the rocks on Pharos Island, home of our Great Lighthouse. When Tata climbed onto the dais to join us --- his golden armor gleaming, his face soaked with sweat but shining with joy --- he looked like a god. The God of War!
In his deep bass, Father began: "I stand before you as Imperatorto the greatest of all civilizations, made even greater by the loyalty and fealty of its allies. Today, we remind the world that it is far, far wiser to be Rome's Friend rather than her Enemy."
Our people roared in agreement.
"The foolish King Aatavartes of Medea thought to test Rome's strength," he continued, the crowd groaning at the king's stupidity. "He sought to ally with Rome and Egypt's enemy in a greedy bid for power and riches. He thought to claim our weapons and weaken us. But he could not, for Rome and Egypt are blessed by the gods, our victory proof of the favor with which the Immortal Ones hold us . . ." I lost track of Tata's speech then and started counting the golden beads on the fan slave's broad collar. I had gotten up to forty-seven (after having to start over several times) when Father's voice cut through my reverie.
"It is time," he announced, "to make my Dispositions of War, to reward Egypt for her unceasing loyalty."
The crowd whooped and stomped. I perked up. Tata was about to bestow his gifts to us, his family. To me! My mind raced with the possibilities. Was I to receive a new crown from his plunderings? A golden chariot? Or perhaps an exotic beast, maybe even one that breathed fire? Tata turned toward my two-year-old brother, Ptolemy Philadelphos, who sat beside me. Ptolly looked just like our tata, with a head of shining dark curls, mischievous brown eyes, and the barrel-chested body of a bull. The crowds had swooned with adoration at the first sight of him swaggering in his tiny military cloak and boots.
"To my youngest son, Ptolemy XVI Philadelphos," Father bellowed as the crowd hushed in anticipation, "I grant the lands of Phoenicia, Syria, and Cilicia."
The people roared. I drew a breath, stunned. Father was giving us kingdoms? I forgot to keep my head facing forward and turned to Ptolly. He scowled furiously, waggling his chubby legs in his toddler-sized throne as the noise reverberated around us. Worried that he might begin to cry or have a tantrum, I took his pudgy hand in mine and bent toward his ear.
"Look at Tata," I instructed. "He is talking to you!"
Ptolly locked eyes with Father. When Tata grinned at him, Ptolly grinned back, showing all his little milk teeth. Then he toddled toward Tata, to the crowd's cooing delight. One of the guards intercepted him and escorted the little general off the dais.
"To my daughter, Princess Cleopatra VIII Selene," Father called, and I felt the attention of thousands land on me like a physical force --- an energy that made me sit up straighter and raise my chin, despite my racing heart. "I confer Cyrenaica and Crete, where she will rule as queen. May she rule with as much wisdom as her namesake."
I was queen! Queen of Cyrenaica and Crete! As the people thundered their approval, Tata caught my eye and winked. Forgetting protocol again, I grinned and inclined my head. This sent the crowds roaring even louder, and I heard my name chanted over and over again. I marveled at the power pulsating all around us --- power freely laid at our feet, ours for the taking.
I wanted to jump up, to hug my tata, to do anything but continue sitting like a block of marble. But, of course, I would not disappoint Mother. I held my breath, pretending to be as solemn and immobile as the giant statues of the Great Ones.
Tata turned his attention to my twin, Alexandros.
"To my son, Alexandros Helios, I bestow the kingdom of Armenia, where he will rule with his betrothed, Princess Iotape of Medea."
The crowds whooped in honor of Father's decisive victory in the region, but I refused to steal even a side-glance in my twin's direction.
The Interloper sat between us.
The black-eyed, silken-haired little princess was nothing more than a royal hostage --- a guarantee that her father the king would stay loyal to Tata. But I could find no warmth in my heart for her. The way Alexandros acted around Iotape, it was as if Hermes himself had come down from Mount Olympus and hand delivered her to him. Until she showed up, he and I had lived as if we still shared a womb --- playing, sleeping, eating, and laughing together. But now it was Iotape my twin sought out at first light and played with until dusk, when Ra's sunboat descended into the Dark Lands. I would not forgive her for taking him from me.
Still, our people continued to cheer at the announcement, celebrating the return of a strong and vital Egypt. Armenia and Cyrenaica had been under our dominion when our Macedonian-Greek ancestor Alexander the Great and our dynasty's founder, his brother Ptolemy theFirst, took Egypt nearly three hundred years ago. We Greeks had ruled ever since. And now, thanks to Tata, we were stronger than we had been in centuries.
"In addition," Tata bellowed, "I bequeath to Alexandros Helios and his betrothed rule over all the lands of Parthia!"
I barely noticed the undercurrent of bewilderment that rippled through the crowds, the whispers of, "How could the General give away lands he has not yet conquered?" After all, my tata was the best general in the world. Of course he would conquer Parthia!
Tata then turned his attention to my older half brother, Caesarion, the only son of Mother's first husband, Julius Caesar. At thirteen, Caesarion was slim and tall, and I thought he looked magnificent in the kilt and pectoral of a pharaoh, combined with his father's bloodred Roman cloak.
"Ptolemy XV Philopator Philometor Caesar," Tata called, "I name you the true heir and only son of Gaius Julius Caesar. And I name you the king of Egypt!"
From the corner of my eye I spied Caesarion lifting his chin, and my heart swelled with love and pride. My brother, the king! The king of Egypt!
But again, murmurs of unease snaked through the crowds, accompanied by whispers of a name I did not then know:Octavianus. I blinked, confused. Why should a Roman name be on our people's lips when Caesarion was rightly being named their king? I tried to make sense of the murmurs: "Isn't Octavianus Caesar's heir?" "Is Antonius challenging him?" Some in the crowd even made the sign of protection against evil. I stole a glance at Mother. She let out a breath that sounded like a hiss. And although her face kept its expression of queenly impassivity, I saw a flicker of concern settle on the tiny space between her brows. But it may have only been a trick of the fierce Egyptian light, for when I looked again, Mother's face appeared as majestic and untroubled as it always had.
Tata glanced at Mother, and his eyes crinkled before he turned back to the crowds. "To my wife, Cleopatra VII Philopator, Queen of Egypt and overlord of all the kingdoms bestowed today . . ." A rumble of cheers, shouts, and joyous exultations interrupted him, almost as if our people were thrilled to move on to what they knew and loved. The cheers swelled until I felt them vibrating in my chest bones. Mother did not move as the entire city chanted, "Isis! Isis! Hail Isis! Isis our queen!" When the wave of noise crested, Tata began again. "Today," he boomed, "I name my wife Queen of Kings, Ruler of the Two Lands, Overlord of our Children's Territories, and Partner in managing Rome's interests in the East. I have a vision of the future --- a vision of cooperation, not destruction. Borne up by the loyalty of client kings and queens, Rome cannot be stopped."
He swept his arm toward the Lighthouse. "And like Pharos that shines into the night, Egypt serves as a beacon to Rome's future. A future of partnership. A future of immeasurable wealth. A future that no man or king can rend asunder!"
The whoops of joy became deafening. Tata grinned and held both arms up in exultation. He bid Mother stand next to him. The bright Egyptian light seemed somehow concentrated on them --- I had never seen them look more godlike.
As the priests and priestesses chanted the final prayers, I wanted to jump and cheer and laugh. It was my family's proudest moment! I drank it all in --- the masses cheering; the white-robed Priests of Serapis chanting over bowls of smoky incense; the long-haired Priestesses of Isis extending their thin arms to the sky; the sweet fragrance of flowers as countless petals swirled around us, floating through the air like tiny perfumed birds. It was all so beautiful, almost magical. The Triumph of the Ptolemies! The greatest moment of our lives. But the gods would not stand for us to have such happiness for long. And so began the slow, excruciating process of our undoing.
Excerpted from CLEOPATRA'S MOON © Copyright 2011 by Vicky Alvear Shecter. Reprinted with permission by Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic. All rights reserved.