Sunday, Oct 11, 2015 05:00 AM PDT
Cleopatra's shadows: The sisters who could give "Game of Thrones'" women a run for their money
The author of a debut novel sidelines Cleopatra in favor of her sisters, powerful protagonists of their own dramas
The story of Cleopatra has been told many times over, in many different ways, though there's a certain consistency to the tale's key elements — the seductiveness, the asp, the sultry kohl eyeliner. In her new novel, "Cleopatra's Shadows," Emily Holleman decided to break free of the clichés dogging the last great pharaoh of Ptolemaic Egypt, the better to see her fresh. The book is the first in a planned series of four that will tell of Cleopatra's rise and famous fall, but Cleopatra herself hardly appears in it; we glimpse her, in the opening pages, not as some Elizabeth Taylor-esque glamazon sure of her erotic power, but as an 11-year-old girl, setting sail from Alexandria with her father, Ptolemy Auletes, to seek support from Rome against her half-sister, Berenice, who has taken the throne for herself.
Berenice, 19 and in charge of holding together an unstable kingdom, is one of the shadows of the title. The other is Arsinoe, Cleopatra's younger sister, left behind in Alexandria to fend for herself in an environment of political and familial treachery. The book's title turns out to be slyly deceptive; Arsinoe and Berenice might be confined to the shadows of history, but here they are squarely in the limelight, powerful protagonists of their own dramas. They could easily give the women of "Game of Thrones" a run for their money. I first met Holleman when we were about as old as Cleopatra is as she leaves for Rome; recently, I sat down with her at a coffee shop in our shared Brooklyn neighborhood to talk about heroines and Hellenistic Egypt.
Tell me how you got interested in this: Were you interested in trying to find a different way of approaching Cleopatra or did you start at a point of interest with her sisters?
I started at a point of interest with her sisters. I was reading Stacey Schiff's book about Cleopatra right before going to Egypt with my family. Toward the beginning, there's this mention of Arsinoe, and Stacey Schiff describes her literally in a footnote, something like, "Very little is known about Arsinoe's motivations but that hasn't stopped even the most illustrious historians from trying to figure them out," and then quotes something from [a] French guy who's like, "If Arsinoe hadn't been jealous of Cleopatra, she wouldn't have been a woman, let alone a Ptolemy." [A] very pre-World War II French historian thing to say about her motives.
That really caught my eye: this idea that all women must be by default jealous of any sort of sexual successes [of their peers]. He, of course, was talking about Cleopatra's relationship with Caesar, which is much later than what we cover in this book. That was what really intrigued me: the idea of taking this woman whom we see always from the perspective of her lovers, from the perspective of Rome, and flipping that on its head and looking at it through the eyes of her sisters whom we now have completely forgotten in popular culture.
From the point of view of historical fiction, it seems to me that it's kind of a dream because you have one subject so many people have focused on in so many different ways — in history, in fiction, movies, a true icon — and then you have these shadows surrounding her whose names we know but we have no sense of what their lives were like in any of their particulars.
It is kind of ideal. I think the best historical fiction is that stuff that you're like, "Oh, this sheds light on something that we can't really explore through history in a meaningful way …" There's not enough [in the historical record] to write a history book about Arsinoe, or really about Berenice.
In your book, you have almost a dueling banjo situation between Arsinoe and Berenice, which is so interesting because they come from such opposed points of view and motivations when the book begins with their father, Ptolemy the Piper, fleeing to Rome and Berenice seizing power and the youngest, Arsinoe, waking up to find that she has been abandoned to her fate and to the mercy of her older sister. So Berenice in particular begins from a really unsympathetic point of view. She seems cold and dominating and at least I — when I began — sympathized very much with the scared little girl. And yet you give Berenice equal time and equal perspective.
I can't remember when I first decided I was going to write from two perspectives, because the idea behind this book — which is going to be the first in a planned set of four — was to tell Arsinoe's story. From almost the very beginning, I started writing from Berenice's perspective, and at first it was as a foil in a lot of ways, right? I have this child's perspective who doesn't know what's going on, who's very much disenfranchised in every meaning of that word — she has no knowledge, she has no power, she has nothing.
But then the more I wrote from Berenice's perspective, the more I became fascinated with where she was coming from, what brought her to this point, because obviously Berenice starts, not at her pinnacle, but at the beginning of her own rise. The more I was exploring that, the more I decided that this was another almost Greek tragic story to tell, and one of the struggle for power and what it means to have power. I think a lot of the conversation is both of these women — well, a woman and a girl — figuring out how they can operate in a system that is in many ways weighted against them, no matter how high or low they are in any particular moment.
One thing that is so interesting to me in the book is the way that each of these characters — the girl and the woman — have to surround themselves with advisers and have to make the best sense that they can of the advice that they're given. Berenice has her circle of advisers. She and Arsinoe have their own eunuchs, which I love as a relationship: eunuch pairing with a young woman, meant as this sort of guide through the world and through knowledge. But, as we see with Berenice, the relationship can become quite twisted when she has to trust him for political advice despite having her own ideas about how to operate.
It's not just with young women although obviously that's where it comes in here. Ptolemy the brother, who comes in as a character in the next book, also has a eunuch. It was probably especially important for young women because it's a non-threatening — scare quotes non-threatening — male figure, or pseudo-male figure. And the other thing is that for these eunuchs, this is the only way to power. They have so much invested in their mentees, right? They can't have their own families.
They'll never be able to marry into the throne.
They'll never be able to marry into the throne. They can't marry into any kind of aristocracy. On some level there's a paternal relationship but also one where there's this constant fear of being displaced, either by a husband, or by a new adviser, or by a child or by all these other "natural" family ties. For the eunuchs, it's best when [the mentees are] kids and as soon as they stop needing them or relying on them as much — that's their whole livelihood, that's their whole life.
Berenice in particular is at this interesting juncture between her childhood and her adulthood. And the eunuch plays an interesting role in that because we see in flashback how much she once relied on him, how he was the source of support when her father left her mother for his concubine, the mother of Cleopatra and Arsinoe and their younger brothers. You give us the sense of how she's always had to rely on this eunuch, this other person to carry her through and advise her and support her in her own path to power.
I'm not saying that the Ptolemy kings and queens did not have any relationship with their children, they definitely did — King Ptolemy the XII obviously seemed to have had a much closer relationship with Cleopatra than he did with his other children.
Which you paint as a favoritism relationship. That he was kind of swept up. When she was born, he cast aside Berenice, his older child.
Certainly, he had a favoritism relationship with [Cleopatra]. The fact that there is evidence that he took her and her alone and not either of his sons who, granted, were quite young at the time, with him when he fled to Rome.
That is fascinating to me, because — as you do stress in the book and as all of us who have become accustomed to thinking of ancient times know — the boys are the more powerful. Berenice as a female ruler has to make some sense of that and think of the risk that her younger brothers might pose. But it is true that Ptolemy takes Cleopatra with him and Cleopatra, of course, rises up to become this famous last of her line.
The Ptolemies are a very interesting set in terms of the relationship between men and women and power. Berenice ruled by herself, largely, for two and a half years. [And] there is sort of this history [among the Ptolemies]. It's not common for women to rule alone, but it's common for them to have, if not equal, nearly equal partnerships with their brother-husbands. So while boys were favored and certainly had more default power, there was some history of women ruling almost on their own or de facto on their own.
There's a great scene where Berenice remembers seeing the tomb of Hatshepsut and seeing the queen shown with beard. She remembers going with her father and asking where's the queen, and he says that's the queen. And she realizes to rule, your queen has to be a king.
Right. Hatshepsut of course was one of the pharaohs of the New Kingdom. There is no [word] for queen in the Egyptian language, in the native language, so Hatshepsut really turned herself into a man in her official portraiture. And there's certainly evidence that Cleopatra took on certain roles that would traditionally be played by Horus — Horus being a male deity — when she went to do various activities along the Nile to placate the local cults.
You give such a vivid sense of all these different political concerns and religious concerns that the rulers had to incorporate for strategy. In this book, it comes across really clearly that these monarchs really are the rulers of these two kingdoms. You have the Ptolemies who are of Greek lineage, who don't speak the local language, who have this 300-year history of rule. At one point, you have Berenice going to placate the people of Upper Egypt because the Nile has not flooded and the grain has not come. And she is not quite revolted but certainly put off by some of the coarseness of the local culture and the local deity cults.