1. Is she a “real” figure in history? When I first started kicking around the idea of writing a historical fiction novel about Queen Cleopatra VII’s only surviving child, her daughter, Selene, most people thought I was making her up. When I explained she was a real person in history, and that her story has been largely ignored, some still didn’t believe me and ran to their computers to check my facts.
Part of the reason few know about Selene, goes back to the way that Cleopatra VII, the last pharaoh of Egypt, has been portrayed throughout history. Starting with the Romans, through Shakespeare and onto Hollywood, the last queen of Egypt has always been depicted as a dangerous, sexy “man-eater.” That’s a whole lot more interesting than the reality—that Cleopatra was actually a plain-looking but brilliant mother of four who likely only had two relationships her whole life.
She had one child—a boy named Caesarion—with Julius Caesar. Many years later, with Mark Antony, Cleopatra had three more children—twins Alexander Helios (sun) and Cleopatra Selene(moon) and another boy, Ptolemy Philadelphos. When Cleopatra and Mark Antony died—both by their own hands after being defeated by Octavian (later called Augustus)—Octavian hunted down and murdered Caesarion, who had been ruling beside his mother as King of Egypt for several years. Caesarion was only about sixteen or seventeen. The twins were almost eleven and the baby was about six at this point. Many wondered why Octavian didn’t murder the queen’s remaining children too. Most scholars figure he worried about the political unpopularity of such an act. It’s one thing to murder a young man (Caesarion would have been considered an adult). It’s quite another to execute small children –
|Octavian, the man who shipped Selene to Rome.|
Also, despite defeating Mark Antony and Cleopatra, Octavian’s rule over Rome was not necessarily secure after his victory. Many Romans had adored fun-loving, hard-partying Mark Antony, and weren’t at all sure the right man had won. Octavian was careful not to tarnish his image by hurting the man’s children So, to make himself look kind and benevolent, he had the three kids shipped to Rome and had them brought up in his own home by his sister (and former wife of Mark Antony), Octavia. Still, it didn’t stop him from marching all three children, a year later, in golden chains as prisoners of war during his victory parade called a “Triumph.” It was likely a hellish, traumatic experience for the young children of the defeated team of Cleopatra and Mark Antony. The Romanized Greek historian Plutarch mentions the children in his “Life of Antony” as he charts Antony’s journey from Caesar’s general, to Cleopatra’s husband and his eventual death. All of the children were also mentioned in Plutarch’s description of “The Donations of Alexandria”—wherein Mark Antony gave Roman provinces to all of his children, triggering the outrage that would eventually lead to the war between Antony and Octavian At about fifteen or sixteen, Cleopatra Selene was married off to the King of Mauretania, a Roman province in North Africa. There she ruled beside her husband, Juba II, and had at least one son. Some scholars speculate that she had daughters too but since ancient historians cared little about the lives of women, there are no records of them. Since Selene’s brothers—Alexander Helios and Ptolemy Philadelphos—are never mentioned again in any ancient sources, there is some question about what happened to them. Some scholars think that Selene’s brother’s were shipped off with her to North Africa but I tend to side with those who think they died while in Rome. After all, as ruthless as Octavian was, it’s hard to believe that he would’ve let the sons of Mark Antony grow up to adulthood and possibly take revenge in the name of their father. There were other general references to the twins in ancient poetry, but Plutarch’s accounts of their lives is the primary source we have on Cleopatra’s children, especially Selene.
2. Was Cleopatra Selene much like her mother?
|Bust of Cleopatra VII.|
Sadly, no one knows! This has given us fiction writers, however, a great deal of freedom in imagining what she was like. For example, in my novel, Cleopatra’s Moon ( 2011), I imagined that Selene inherited her mother’s political savvy as well as her facility with languages (Plutarch tells us that Cleopatra spoke seven languages and was the first of the Greek Ptolemies to learn the native Egyptian tongue). For Selene’s mother–Cleopatra VII–to succeed on the throne for twenty years, I figured that she was, at the very least, smart, tough and fierce. As the only daughter, I imagined, in Cleopatra’s Moon that Selene would model herself after mother and be both ambitious and politically savvy.
|Selene and Alexander as children.|
However, she also had to contend with tragedies her mother never faced–the deaths of her parents by suicide, the murder of her older brother, the destruction of her future as a ruler in Egypt, and serving as the object of hatred in hostile territory. All of this took place during the stage of life—adolescence—when most girls are separating from their mothers and crafting their own identities. How, I wondered, would Selene emerge from under her mother’s considerable shadow?
In Michelle Moran’s Cleopatra’s Daughter (2009) Selene also gets sucked into court intrigue and must find her way as an outsider. However, one anachronism in this story misrepresents ancient ideas about slavery (in Moran’s story, Selene gets involved with a group fighting slavery). Slavery was an entrenched part of the ancient world—as much as thirty percent of the population were slaves. Although it may seem strange to us, the idea of slavery being morally wrong was inconceivable to the ancients. Indeed, questions about the morality of slavery as a practice did not emerge until the 16thcentury. According to Keith Bradley, professor of classics at the University of Notre Dame and an expert on ancient slavery, “Slavery in Rome was not regarded as a moral evil that had to be suppressed, and it produced no abolitionist advocates of the sort prominent in the modern history of slavery.” Owning other human beings in the ancient world was accepted as either the natural order or fated by the gods. There were, of course, slave revolts — Spartacus’s is undoubtedly the most famous of the ancient period — but in those cases, the revolts were against abusive slave owners and not against the practice itself. In Stephanie Dray’s historical fantasy trilogy on Selene’s life—Lily of the Nile, Song of the Nile, and Daughter’s of the Nile (2013)—Selene inherits not just her mother’s political abilities, but her devotion to Isis, which manifests and is expressed through Egyptian magic. Dray’s is the only portrayal that follows Selene all the way through adulthood, queenhood, motherhood, and death. The last book in particular gives a fascinating look at how Selene may have ruled Mauretania and how she may have managed the prickly relationship with Augustus, the man responsible for her parents’ deaths. Selene also shows up briefly in the novel, The Legate’s Daughter (2004), by Wallace Breem. However, in this book, Breem takes a page out of the “sexified” myth of Cleopatra and made Selene dangerously and intoxicatingly sensual. There are other depictions of Selene–mainly by self-published authors–for which I cannot vouch since I haven’t read them. Because we know so little about her, in many ways, Selene and her personality can be invented whole.
3. Was Selene anything like her father, Mark Antony? Mark Antony was said to be smart, but also a bit loutish. He was a great warrior who loved women and wine and partied hard. In my kids biography of Cleopatra (Cleopatra Rules! The Amazing Life of theOriginal Teen Queen , 2010), I described Antony as a kind of “Roman Redneck—the type of ‘good ol’ boy’ whose idea of fun was seeing how many soda cans he could crush against his head before passing out. He was a ‘guy’s guy’ who loved to fight, drink, and laugh.” Antony was quick to anger, but just as quick to forgive. He was also said to enjoy the company of many women. He married five times and he seemed to be attracted to strong women. His third wife—Fulvia—was a powerful woman who actually started a war in Rome on his behalf (it did not go well). He married Octavia—the sister of his enemy—in a bid to keep the peace, but that marriage fell apart too. His fifth wife was Cleopatra, Selene’s mother. If Selene’s personality was as boisterous and outrageous as her father’s, ancient writers would have likely mentioned it, which explains why so many authors tend to choose to portray Selene as more like her mother than her father. Antony had curly hair and was a big man, but again, most fiction authors tend to assume that she took after Cleopatra rather than Antony. As always, we will never really know.
|Coin minted during Cleopatra’s lifetime.|
Some people are convinced that Cleopatra VII was ugly because of coins that show her with a hooked nose and fierce expression. I suspect that her “fierceness” on these coins was emphasized, especially on the coins for her newly acquired provinces, because she needed to look strong and competent for her new people. Her people wouldn’t have felt as secure with a “soft and pretty” look. Another reason for that particular depiction is that (as a commenter points out below), Cleopatra likely emphasized the one feature that tied her to her illustrious family and history of rulers–the Ptolemy nose!
|Cleopatra Selene with elephant crown of Mauretania.|
|Some suggested that Selene (R) was the face of Liberty.|
Hollywood movies about the last queen of Egypt tend to portray Cleopatra VII as a shallow, sexy conniver. Propagandists for Octavian painted the queen as sexually dangerous and uncontrollable in order to incite fear and hatred against her. He scared Romans by swearing that the “scary queen wants to take over Rome and ‘unman’ us good Romans.” The ruse worked—nobody balked when he declared war on her. The war, of course, was really against a fellow Roman—Mark Antony—but Octavian would’ve never gotten funding for another civil war, so he made Cleopatra the scapegoat. It was a brilliant political move—to fight a civil war but blame it on the outsider woman—and it worked well for him in the end. Octavian emerged as the sole ruler of Rome and its empire.
|Jolie as the great queen?|
|Bronze bust of a young Juba II.|
Juba had been saved by Julius Caesar when he was a baby after his father—the king of Numedia—mutinied against him. Caesar was famous for his policy of forgiveness against enemies and, most likely, Octavian wanted to be seen in the same light. Plus, Juba and Selene shared similar histories: both had been orphaned after invasions by Romans and both had been reared by Octavia in his home. Romans could puff up with pride at their largesse in not only saving these royal children, but giving them the chance to rule on their behalf.
7. Was she a figure-head or did she really rule as queen? Again, it’s hard to know, but evidence seems to indicate that she ruled alongside Juba.
|Selene’s tomb in today’s Algeria.|
Selene’s image was minted on coins along with Juba’s, suggesting that she ruled as an equal partner. Juba, known for being a scholar, penned multiple books on Latin history, Greek history, geography, painting, and theater during his reign. Pliny the Elder says he was a better scholar than a king, which also suggests that Selene handled the administration of their kingdom while Juba hit the books. Another indicator of her power is her mausoleum, which can be found between the cities of Algiers and Cherchell in today’s Algeria. She and Juba were buried together in a mausoleum that echoes the construction of Octavian’s/Augustus’s tomb. Unfortunately, their bodies have not been uncovered—it is not even clear it the tomb itself has been excavated. Still, it implies that she was powerful and revered. For a fictional account of how she may have ruled as queen, read Stephanie Dray’s Song of the Nile and Daughters of the Nile.
|Bronze bust of Selene’s child.|
Because the ancients ignored the lives of women, we don’t know whether Selene and Juba had daughters, though there does seem to be some indication that she had at least one. She definitely had a son named Ptolemy who—after her death—ruled alongside his father and then took over as king when Juba died.