Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Michelle Moran Guest Post - Why Cleopatra's Daughter?

It began with a dive. Not the kind of dive that people take into swimming pools, but the kind where you squeeze yourself into a wetsuit and wonder just how tasty your rump must appear to passing sharks now that it looks exactly like an elephant seal. My husband and I had taken a trip to Egypt, and at the suggestion of a friend, we decided to go to Alexandria and do a dive to see the remains of Cleopatra’s underwater city. Let it be known that I had never done an underwater dive before, so after four days with an instructor (and countless questions: Will there be sharks? How about jellyfish? If there is an earthquake, what happens underwater?) we were ready for the real thing.

We drove to the Eastern Harbor in Alexandria. Dozens of other divers were already there, waiting to see what sort of magic lay beneath the waves. I wondered if the real thing could possibly live up to all of the guides and brochures selling this underwater city, lost for thousands of years until now. Then we did the dive, and it was every bit as magical as everyone had promised. You can see the rocks which once formed Marc Antony’s summer palace, come face to face with Cleopatra’s towering sphinx, and take your time floating above ten thousand ancient artifacts, including obelisks, statues, and countless amphorae. By the time we had surfaced, I was Cleopatra-obsessed. I wanted to know what had happened to her city once she and Marc Antony had committed suicide. Where did all of its people go? Were they allowed to remain or were they killed by the Romans? What about her four children?

It was this last question which surprised me the most. I had always believed that all of Cleopatra’s children had been murdered. But the Roman conqueror Octavian had actually spared the three she bore to Marc Antony: her six-year-old son, Ptolemy, and her ten-year-old twins, Alexander and Selene. As soon as I learned that Octavian had taken the three of them for his Triumph in Rome, I knew at once I had my next book. This is how all of my novels seem to begin – with a journey, then an adventure, and finally, enormous amounts of research for what I hope is an exciting story.

Life and Libraries in the Classical Age

One of the most frequent questions I’m asked by readers is what life was like two thousand years ago when Julius Caesar walked the corridors of the Senate house and Cleopatra visited Rome. Surprisingly, life for the ancient Romans was not unbelievably different from today. The Romans had many of the little luxuries that we often associate exclusively with the modern world. For example, baths were to be found in every city, and public toilets were viewed as a necessity. The toilets depicted in HBO’s Rome Series are copies of those discovered in Pompeii, where those caught short could find a long stretch of latrines (much like a long bench with different sized holes) and relieve themselves next to their neighbor. Shops sold a variety of wigs, and women could buy irons to put curls their hair. For the rain, there were umbrellas, and for the sun, parasols. Houses for the wealthy were equipped with running water and were often decorated quite lavishly, with elaborate mosaics, painted ceilings, and plush carpets.

In the markets, the eager shopper could find a rich array of silks, along with linen and wool. You could also find slaves, and in this, Roman times certainly differ from our own. While some men spoke out against it, one in three people were enslaved. Most of these slaves came from Greece, or Gaul (an area roughly comprising modern France). Abuse was rampant, and the misery caused by this led desperate men like Spartacus to risk death for freedom.

For those few who were free and wealthy, however, life in Rome provided nearly endless entertainments. As a child, there were dolls and board games to be played with, and as an adult, there was every kind of amusement to be had, from the theatre to the chariot races. Even the poor could afford “bread and circuses,” which, according to Juvenal, was all the Romans were really interested in.

For those more academic minded, however, there were libraries. Although I don’t portray this in Cleopatra’s Daughter, libraries were incredibly noisy places. The male scholars and patrons read aloud to themselves and each other, for nothing was ever read silently (the Romans believed it was impossible!). Other cities were renowned for their learning, too: Pergamum (or Pergamon) was the largest and grandest library in the world. Built by the Greeks, Pergamum became Roman property when Greece was captured and many of its people enslaved. The library was said to be home to more than 200,000 volumes, and it is was in Pergamum that the history of writing was forever changed.

Built by Eumenes II, Pergamum inspired great jealousy in the Egyptian Ptolemies, who believed that their Library of Alexandria was superior. In order to cripple this Greek rival (and also because of crop shortages), Egypt ceased exporting papyrus, on which all manuscripts were written. Looking for an alternative solution, the Library of Pergamum began using parchment, or charta pergamena. For the first time, manuscripts were now being written on thin sheets of calf, sheep or goat’s skin. The result of this change from papyrus to parchment was significant. Now, knowledge could be saved by anyone with access to animal hide. Manuscripts (although still quite rare) were now available to more people. Alas, so impressive was this vast Pergamese library of parchment that Cleopatra asked Marc Antony to ship its entire contents to her as a wedding gift. This transfer marked the end of Pergamum’s scholarly dominance, and is the reason why, today, we remember Alexandria as possessing the ancient world’s greatest library.


  1. What a great post Michelle. I found it very interesting how you got your inspiration for the subject of this book. You certainly did have an adventure. I eagerly look forward to reading your book.

    tmrtini at gmail dot com

  2. I, too, love hearing the inspiration for your story. I didn't even know Cleopatra's city is now under water. How cool to visit it! I love how you took an unknown historical figure and bring her to life. I am looking forward to reading your books!

  3. Michelle has the best Guest posts!
    And we also have Michelle at The Burton Review with the giveaways of her two latest books, both signed, both contests open worldwide.

  4. Wow Michelle, what an adventure!

    I had no ideas they had running water. So many culture after that didn't seem to have that luxury.

  5. During our trip to Egypt, we made it to Cairo, Luxor, and Aswan but failed to make it to Alexandria. Darn...guess we'll have to go back :) I'm dying to do that dive and see the new Library. I too thought her children were killed so I was so surprised and happy when this book came out and I found out they weren't. Thanks!

    nycbookgirl at gmail dot com