More than two thousand years after her death, Cleopatra VII of Egypt remains the most famous woman in history. As Shakespeare wrote, “Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale her infinite variety.” I share the bard’s admiration, but my heart belongs to the Queen of the Nile’s less famous daughter, Cleopatra Selene.
Selene was born at the cusp of a religious awakening and she came of age in a dangerous political world. Like her more famous mother, Selene forged important alliances with the Romans and charmed her way to power. It may even be argued that she did so more successfully and without bloodshed. She would go on to have a long and prosperous reign as the most important client queen in the empire.
But triumph did not come easy and the tragedy of her story moved me. The more I learned, the more I came to love her. In fact, I came to love her so much that I wrote a series of historical novels about her life, starting with my debut novel, Lily of the Nile.
After her parents committed suicide, the ten year old Selene was taken prisoner and marched through Rome in chains. Her life was spared by Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, who would later be her political patron. As an orphan, Selene and her two surviving brothers were raised by Octavia, her father’s former wife, and the emperor’s sister.
Life can’t have been easy for Selene in Rome where her mother had been demonized as an Egyptian whore and her father so disgraced that the day of his birth was declared unlucky. Her survival was at the sufferance of the man who destroyed her family and who now held Egypt as his own private domain. She would go on to earn his trust, naming a city after him and founding a cult in his honor...but she never forgot her mother or her legacy. The relics of her reign give us a picture of a woman who found a careful balance between currying favor with Augustus and with Rome while honoring her disgraced family. In spite of all the tragedy in her life, Selene managed to build a sanctuary for the political and religious remnants of her mother’s court; she carved out a new life for herself in a new nation and that’s something I hope will be celebrated.