Saturday, December 19, 2015

Comments on Cleopatra's Daughter by Michelle Moran

Cleopatra had four children known to history. The eldest, Cesarion, was the son of Julius Caesar. He disappeared around the time that Augustus conquered Egypt, and historians presume that Augustus ordered his death because he had a more legitimate claim to be Caesar's heir than did Augustus himself.  The other three were children of Marc Antony, whom, Shakespeare omits to mention, was actually married to Cleopatra.  The two elder were twins, Selene and Alexander.  Selene is the heroine of this book. No likenesses of her endure; the bust above is of her mother. They had a younger brother named Ptolemy. Augustus took them to Rome as young teenagers after his victory over their parents and paraded them in his triumphal march.  He then gave them to his sister Octavia to raise.  He later marred off Selene to a Juba II, whom he appointed king of Mauretania (roughly today's Morocco).  Juba II had been educated in Rome and was a distinguished geographer and writer.  Alexander and Ptolemy mainly drop from history after the triumph.  Today's historians generally assume that Augustus had them killed because they could be nuclei of a conspiracy against him by Marc Anthony's clan, but there is a suggestion by a historian writing about 200 years later that they accompanied Selene to Africa with Juba II.

 I usually write about the plot, characterization, and prose of a novel. But for a historical novel something else is necessary. I'll call it setting. Setting has various parts -: physical setting; the customs, ceremonies, infrastructure, clothing of the time; and psychological setting, the social structure and self-image in which people shaped themselves.

The prose of this novel is not prone to errors, but it is flat and uninteresting.  It is prose that is successful by not taking chances. The force of words and images never makes you say to yourself, ah, that is what that means.

Material and customary setting is meticulously painted. I'm no more than a knowledgeable layman about ancient Rome, but I know enough to see that the author has done her homework and displays it very effectively. The heroine travels early in the book from Alexandria where she has reached the age of 13 to Rome where she gets a tourist-like chance to check everything out including an excursion to Capri. She arrives during the period when Augustus was converting Rome from the city of brick to the city of marble, as he self congratulatorily boasted, and the author does a fine job of showing the physical process. She's also up on what Romans wore, the various festivals, the formal relations of social classes.

The frame plot is a historical question: What will Augustus do with these young people?  There are two sub plots: one is the sort of romantic intrigue typical of young adult novels, and the other is a highly visible slave rebellion in which several patrician characters a take a compassionate interest. They are reliably exciting sub-plots for young adult novel, but not Roman plots. In the end it turns out Selene at first hated Juba II due to misinformation, and then had a crush on him.  We have lots of good documentation of the love life of upper class Romans of this period, from Catullus through Petronius and many others. Lots of people fell in love, but not with the people they had been married off to.

Slave rebellions were chronic during the Republic and early Empire.  Spartacus', which preceded the time of this book, is only the best known. They were not something the patricians as a class felt sympathy for. The heroine and some of her friends feel weepy about the slaves and all poor people. Of course individual Romans may have felt the same way, but this is not characteristic of the society.

Augustus rightfully feared conspiracies against his life and power, but they came from the patricians, the senatorial class, not from the populace, as portrayed in this book.  That's why he had Cesarion and Alexander killed, so they could not be the nuclei of patrician conspiracies.

Selene's thoughts and feelings center on the suffering caused her by Augustus killing her parents, sympathy for the oppressed, her love interests, and self-realization. She is a graphic artist and budding architect. These are the interests of privileged American teen-aged girls. As I understand classical Roman culture, a typical girl like that would be interested in fulfilling her duty to her clan by marrying and running a household and in maintaining her reputation. I cannot stress enough the importance of reputation to self-image. I remember reading Shadi Bartsch's The Mirror of the Self: Sexuality, Self-Knowledge, and the Gaze in the Early Roman Empire, where she discusses what Socrates meant by the Greek words that we translate as, “Know thyself." Our current popular culture gives them a kind of Freudian dig; they mean something like we should have a deep understanding of our inner nature. As I understand it, what Socrates meant and Roman people meant was:  be able to see yourself as others see you. In a way the opposite.

So, from the viewpoint of portraying the self-image and consequent interests of Roman or Hellenistic characters, this book is bogus. But what does that matter? Is the job of a historical novel to produce characters that are true to the culture of their time rather than ours? Especially considering that empathizing with the self-image of an ancient civilization so different from ours is hard both for the author and the reader. The book, instead, gives the intended reader an attractive perspective to survey externals.

But I think it does matter in this sense -: the more deeply we feel what personhood meant in a genuinely different society, the more we are broad and deep human beings. This book lets us look as through a window at history and does a good job of that, but we do not step through the glass.

1 comment:

  1. I too think it matters. And yes, I think it "Is the job of a historical novel to produce characters that are true to the culture of their time rather than ours"— of mine, anyway. Otherwise, what's the point of time travel?