Among the fondest of my childhood memories is the Scholastic Book Fair. A vivid image is fixed in my mind of the school gymnasium, packed with folding tables, covered in stacks of books and flanked by folding cardboard bookshelves filled with books, and beneath the tables, behind the shelves, were boxes – all filled with books. The most beautiful sight in the world. I’d save my pocket money for the entire year, and bring an extra book-bag to school that day so that I could haul my prizes home in one go. The evening after the Scholastic Book Fair – in fact, the few days that followed it – I’d be unreachable. My mom describes banging pots and pans, calling my name in the next room and me not responding; nose buried in a book and surrounded by towers of them. I read books like most people eat popcorn; one after another until they were all gone.
A key feature for young girls in the 90’s at the Scholastic Book Fair was the Dear America/ My Name is America/ My America and Royal Diaries series – fictionalized first-hand accounts of various periods in American and world history through the eyes of young girls, both entirely fictional and factual. The Royal Diaries focused on real-life princesses from history, and although the diaries themselves are entirely fictional, they contain gems of fact about the personal lives of these historical girls as well as a great deal of context about their places in history. It was a brilliant trap – baiting us with fiction and an easy format, secretly feeding us knowledge and passions and girl power. I had almost all of them, but have slowly over time given away most of them and kept my favorites – one of which is the fake diary of Queen Cleopatra VII, Daughter of the Nile.
Cleopatra VII Philopator was the last ruler of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, and lived from from 69 to 30 BC, ruling as queen for 21 years before Egypt became a part of the new Roman Empire. When her father died, she married her 10 year old brother, as they were jointly willed ruler, but it didn’t take long for her to demonstrate his lack of participation in leadership and she dropped his name from official documents before she herself was forced into exile and he adopted full leadership. In exile, Cleopatra would be notoriously smuggled in to meet Julius Caesar, and eventually become his mistress and have his son Caesarion. Though their child was snubbed for the inheritance of Caesar’s empire, Caesar himself was murdered on the Ides of March and Cleopatra fled back to Egypt, where her younger brother quickly died, and Cleopatra re-ascended to the throne, naming her son co-regent. When she was 28, she would meet Marc Antony, one of the triumvirs to rule Rome following the death of Julius Caesar, and he would be so charmed that he’d stay with her in Alexandria for the better part of a year, returning again and again to eventually father three children with her and together wage a swath of warfare and conquering that would reshape history, until Octavian conquered Egypt when Cleopatra was 39, and she committed what history is pretty certain was suicide. None of that, however, is in this book.
This book takes place during Cleopatra’s childhood, 57 B.C. Her father, fresh from two assassination attempts, is in hiding, and her sister, Tryphaena, has taken over his rooms and staff. The two don’t get along, and though she’s only a child, Cleopatra fears poisoning or attack at night. Her pet leopard, Arrow, guards her in the palace, but she’s forced to eat and drink with her sister, whom she doesn’t trust. She prays to Isis for safety, but doesn’t know if she’s heard. She secretly visits the tomb of Alexander the Great, which she will later in true life loot and sell off to fund a war to defend her rule, and beholds the 300-year-dead mummified Alexander behind glass; the founder of their city of Alexandria. When traders come in, they come in from Gilead and Arabia, riding camels and carrying goods to trade for Egyptian grain. The young princess Cleopatra gets to inspect the goods first with her sisters Berenice and Tryphaena, but when she excitedly clasps a pearl necklace on, Tryphaena holds a knife to her throat until she surrenders it. A poisonous snake stalks the palace in her father’s absence as well, leaving a moist trail but staying hidden. Things seem grim for Cleopatra until her father sends a note to the palace that he is still king in his absence, and that if Tryphaena doesn’t stop pretending to be queen, “he will have her executed.”
Fear alleviated, the young princess and her maid dress like common Greek girls and walk among fishermen. She also is able to speak the language of the common people as well as her own. In the rocky tidepools the young princess confides to her maid that if her father is murdered, she should be queen. She has learned 5 languages, and is the only one of her father’s six children to be able to speak with the peasants of their own country, and others, and feels herself most qualified, though she is third-oldest. She re-commits herself to her studies, knowing that her selfish and fearful sisters and baby brothers are not up to the task of ruling.
The sea-loving princess curses the barbarian Julius Caesar, determined never to let his armies have her beautiful Egypt. She listens to her maid read “The Odyssey” to her and gazes out at the lighthouse, thinking about her father.
Though much of the bulk of the book is characterization scenes – imagined rivalries and boredoms and grudges with real and fictional characters, what it does manage to do is slip in fascinating and leading vocabulary about ancient Egypt. This book is a gateway to reading about Egyptian mythology, language, and architecture by virtue of referencing the characters vividly interacting with the world as it existed in 57 B.C. Another odd thing that this book does is unflinchingly report on casual cruelties committed by the Egyptian royal family as they would have been perceived by a young princess raised on atrocities as the norm. Cleopatra casually wakes the slaves that have fallen asleep on the perpetual fire beneath her sister’s bathtub. She briefly laments the death by fever, three days later, of a child kidnapped from the Dinka tribe to be her younger sister Arsinoe’s playmate.
One incredible thing about this book is that some of it is set inside the Library of Alexandria. 12-year-old Cleopatra’s friend Olympus, a book-worm type, is the son of a philosopher hired to enrich the minds of the rich, and, as it’s explained to us, keep those lofty ideas contained from the commoners to prevent revolt. Olympus warns Cleopatra of “bad news” – assassins looking for her father, and a plot to overthrow him as king. Olympus explains to Cleopatra that her father has stripped the silver coins of two thirds of their actual silver, and over-taxed the commoners while mismanaging the government’s money. To prevent the uprising, the Pharaoh wants to hire the Romans to come to Alexandria and punish the angry villagers so that he can reclaim the throne. To Cleopatra, it’s clear that the Romans will never leave Egypt if they are invited in, and that the debt of 16,000 ‘talents’ to the Romans is insurmountable for the taxpayers. She laments, and then immediately, she writes that she wants a new jeweled collar for her leopard, and signs off for the night. Several weeks follow and the young princess receives a number of cryptic death threats, and resolves to leave the city by sea, aboard her father’s ship to the Romans. As they depart, Olympus delivers the news that Tryphaena has declared herself Pharaoh and that if Cleopatra and her father return to Egypt, they will be killed. Her father, characterized as a ridiculous drunk, is not pleased by the news.
After a long journey oversea, the princess and her father arrive in the port at Ostia, sixteen miles by land from the city of Rome. As an adult, reading the word “Ostia” throws me off on a tangent – “The Thieves of Ostia” is a fictionalized YA novel that I read as a young Latin student, for school. A goofy, teen mystery tale set in the ancient Roman port city of Ostia, the book itself is enough, but reading it along with my friends while we all struggled to learn Latin is one of my funnier memories. In fact, I had a hard copy of “The Thieves of Ostia” until very recently, and stumbling upon those same docks referenced in this book, which I would have read a few years before I was able to take Latin, makes me think that I was possibly driven towards classical languages by Cleopatra’s passion for them, and my own naive admiration of her, spurred on by this book.
When the story takes us to Rome, it also gives us a taste of Roman architecture, fashion, history, and language which captivates the young Cleopatra as it did the young me. Though Cleopatra spent several years in Rome, I only got to visit for a few days, when I was fifteen. However, I set my feet where Cleopatra does in this story, and where she undoubtedly did in true history as an adult, and that’s a treasure. Reviewing this book and those memories, I feel special for having seen the bones of history. The book has Cleopatra, the 12-year-old princess, defending her drunken father from General Pompey in fluent Latin, and turning the tide of an otherwise humiliating banquet.
News arrives for the Pharoah and princess in exile, that Tryphaena has been killed, and Berenice ascended the throne. The Pharoah and his Roman consorts prepare to sail on Egypt and reclaim power. But young Cleopatra reiterates fears that the Romans could kill the two of them, squash Berenice, and take Egypt in one swoop. Young Cleopatra meets marc Antony then, as he agrees to lead his men across the sea to Egypt and retake the Pharoah’s throne and the city of Alexandria for him. She endears herself to him with a witty quip, but he, who would famously become her lover in truth and father her heir, calls her a child and laughs at her. I’m one thousand percent certain this did not occur in real life, but it’s a sweet way to introduce a real life love interest to a twelve year old character, and a young adult reader, without betraying the bloody truth of the character’s true love story. After meeting Pompey and marc Antony, Cleopatra spends a day at the Roman theater with Julia, the daughter of Julius Caesar. Here as readers we get a lot of wonderful historical context about Roman theater, which as a young student of Latin I got to whip out in class, excitedly remembering what I learned from Cleopatra’s diary. Julia and Cleopatra see Aristophanes’ “The Clouds”, which theater students still learn about today, and which was hundreds of years old when it was performed in Rome. On the way home they eat what I now know to be a Roman staple; fried dormouse, and this is the last straw for her. She moves to a villa in Naples owned by her host, to sit by the sea like she can in Alexandria, traveling there along the Appian way, lined with the crucified and skeletonized slaves whose crosses marked the miles.
Here the book speeds us up, having the records of the winter in Rome destroyed in a storm, and we’re taken ahead to February of 56 BC, and young Cleopatra is having frequent conversations with the orator Cicero, who in reality will later deliver speeches against her and how her influence provokes the Triumvirate. She also meets the very young Octavian, grand-nephew and future heir of Julius Caesar. She flirts with Marc Antony, and protects a secret love affair between two of her slaves from the eye of her drunken deposed father.
In 55 BC, after Saturnalia, the fleet returns to Egypt and retakes the city of Alexandria. Berenice is beheaded and her head presented to Cleopatra on a plate by her father. And Marc Antony is there, flirting. In fact, the book takes a turn towards flirting; having the fifteen year old Cleopatra send letters to Cicero, Caesar, and Antony proposing friendship now that she was the heir to the throne. She also proposes and begins to plan her legendary trip up the Nile to learn about her country. That’s where the story leaves off, hinting at professional interest in Caesar and passion for Antony, fear of her father, and a trip up the Nile.
The epilogue, a dense portion of the gilded-page book, is a brief summary of the true future of Cleopatra. Her historic appeal to Caesar. Her romance and conquest with Antony. Her tragic death by asp bite. And though these books are written to show the power of strong women, on this reread, what I saw was weakness of character injected into a historically strong figure. Her ambiguous hot-and-cold attitude about Antony, meant to tease at the truth of their partnership, was immature, and history tells us that Cleopatra was always unusually mature and educated, even with regard to her love for Antony.
This diary sparked in me a love of classic mythology and language. It led me to the book “Heroes, Gods, and Monsters of the Greek Myths,” which in turn led me to take Latin, and travel to Rome and Greece to see the same structures that Cleopatra visited on her trip to Rome, at the age that Cleopatra was when she left Rome for her home in Egypt in this story. And like Cleopatra, the Roman Empire’s legacy is more lasting than it is positive, but for what it is, she is a perfect representation of the quotation “well behaved women rarely make history.” The last surviving daughter of her dynasty, she led armies and impressed the power of a woman upon a very early world. But what made me uncomfortable in this book is also what makes me uncomfortable about that legacy – slavery, war, brutality, betrayal, and a blase attitude towards the welfare of the peasant class doesn’t dot her history, it is what her power is built upon and what she fought so famously to defend.
Honesty, that’s something I face when I examine many of my female heroes from history. Their legacies are stained by the same crimes that we as humans strive to grow away from every day. Though in literal and figurative senses we still have slavery, imperialism, a de facto caste system, and political conniving, societies are slowly leaving behind the outward brutality of the past. And though some of our faves are problematic, we can be less problematic. Cleopatra demonstrates, though she’s royal, the impact a woman can have in the world, and one takeaway from her mixed past is that we have a wide variety of powers as women, and those powers give us the ability to defend our homes and values until the very last.