Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Review: Cleopatra's Daughter by Michelle Moran

Cleopatra's Daughter: A NovelI absolutely loved viewing the ancient world and the rich and famous of the late Republic through the eyes of a child, in this case Cleopatra Selene, one of Cleopatra's twins by Marc Antony.  I would especially recommend this book for young adults as Moran uses the fact that Selene was not familiar with many structures and rituals of the late Roman Republic as teaching opportunities by having Selene's Roman friend, Julia (Octavian's daughter), explain them to her.

Young people and those unfamiliar with Roman history of this period would have had the added surprise of discovering who would turn out to be selected for Selene's husband when she reaches the age of 15.  I already knew who she would end up with but found the information Moran provided about him and his special gifts quite interesting.

I also liked the way Moran wove real incidents that occurred during Octavian's rise to power into the narrative including the visit to the greedy merchant Pollio's villa where Octavian saved a hapless slave from being fed to a pool of eels and the trial in which a lecherous patrician attempted to claim a Centurion's daughter, who would not give him the time of day, was actually one of his own escaped slaves.  Although her fate is recorded in the ancient sources I don't want to take away some of the suspense from readers unfamiliar with the tale.

Unlike a rather critical reviewer from the Historical Novel Society, I appreciated the added drama of the hunt for the "Red Eagle", a secretive individual who opposed Roman slavery and engaged in subversive activities to free slaves and disrupt the daily activities of the aristocratic elite.  I also found Moran's portrayal of Octavian as cold, calculating and almost entirely without sensitivity to the needs of others to be quite as I had always envisioned him and her shrewish personification of Livia in concert with the view expressed by Robert Graves in "I, Claudius".  (Colleen McCullough was a little more forgiving in "Antony and Cleopatra")

I couldn't help but feel bittersweet about the relationship between Marcellus and Julia, knowing what would befall them in a few short years and think Moran's version of the fate of Selene's twin, Alexander, is certainly plausible, although the ancient sources are silent on that topic. Alexander and his younger brother Ptolemy simply disappear from the historical record.

The HNS reviewer also criticized Moran for giving Selene a talent for sketching and architecture but I think these gifts would have been well within the realm of a child of Cleopatra who had been educated in the Museion.  Selene probably had received a fairly high level of intelligence from her mother as well and I have read about gifted children who display uncanny talent as young as 10 or 12.

This was my first exposure to Michelle Moran's work and I found it quite interesting and enjoyable.  I also have her "Nefertiti" and "The Heretic Queen" in my library so I am definitely looking forward to spending many more hours with her characters. 

Nefertiti: A Novel   The Heretic Queen: A Novel   The World of Juba II and Kleopatra Selene: Royal Scholarship on Rome's African Frontier (Routledge Classical Monographs)
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