Cleopatra's Daughter: From Roman Prisoner to Egyptian Queen

Image of Cleopatra's Daughter: From Roman Prisoner to African Queen
Release Date: 
April 18, 2023
Reviewed by: 

“Draycott gives a careful, clear history that presents the historical facts as best determined from the very incomplete and prejudiced fragmentary Roman sources. The events spread over decades, not in the short order implied in the entertainment media.”

The epic story of Caesar, Anthony, Cleopatra, and Octavian in the last days of the Roman Republic is a timeless tale in Shakespeare’s plays and later epic modern media. We relate to it because the story represents how the politics of ambition and power triumph over the needs of society. Yet the story of the real Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and Mark Antony has more.

Jane Draycott begins Cleopatra’s Daughter by asking how such a biography could be written. More than 100 works were written by women and they created many works of art but even “successful women” “are virtually invisible in ancient historical texts” in the overwhelmingly male-dominated Greco-Roman world. Roman historical literature, such as survives, has huge gaps and is highly prejudiced.

Cleopatra Selene, the subject of this work, lived in the public eye and as part of the epic story of her parents Cleopatra VII and Marcus Antonius. Much though remains invisible and the author warns that she has to fill in the gaps with contextual information from “literary, documentary, archaeological, and bioarchaeological evidence.” Draycott successfully tells this story by blending these tools with personal experience.

The author learned much from how Romans remembered stories in coins, frescoes, jewelry, paintings, statues, and even poetry, with various complicated allusions to gods, history, ideals, and the natural world. Even pottery shards used by the common people in Egypt for their daily communications provide important information.

Cleopatra Selene had two full siblings and various half-siblings. Descendants of the latter by her father became emperors of Rome. She married the later King Juba II and became queen of his North African kingdom of Mauretania. Her eventful life “offers us a glimpse into an alternative Roman Empire, where women could be empowered and influential.”

The Greek Ptolemy dynasty of Egypt, at least political heirs to Alexander the Great, ruled an overseas empire from their great capital of Alexandria with its great center of learning and its famous lighthouse.  This kingdom disappeared as Rome steadily grew to the point that by the time of Cleopatra VII, this family ruled a debtor cosmopolitan Egyptian state, dependent on and in Rome’s shadow.

The Ptolemy women were sometimes the powerful rulers and often influential co-rulers. Draycott uses a simple, straightforward organization to first provide basic background on Cleopatra Selene: on Alexandria and the Ptolemy family; the familiar tale of Anthony and Cleopatra; and then finally the sequel in the story of Cleopatra Selena. Draycott uses details effectively, when they exist, such as the famous meeting of Cleopatra and Anthony on the Egyptian queen’s lavish barge. Draycott even describes clothes, entertainment, materials, and pearls!

The union of two of the Mediterranean world’s most powerful rulers, Cleopatra representing the East and Mark Anthony of the East, had huge political consequences as represented by the birth of their daughter. Draycott gives a careful, clear history that presents the historical facts as best determined from the very incomplete and prejudiced fragmentary Roman sources. The events spread over decades, not in the short order implied in the entertainment media.

The eldest children of Cleopatra were put to death by Octavian, the victor over Anthony and Cleopatra, but the younger children by Anthony were brought to Rome and raised around constant reminders of Octavian’s success and power. Of these children of Cleopatra, only Cleopatra Selena survived childhood.

Draycott continues with details of the subject’s life such as the jewelry children would have worn. Serena entered puberty in a society for the primary, sometimes only purpose, of women was to have children.

As a princess in Alexandria and the daughter of one of the most educated rulers of the era, the author explains, Cleopatra Selena would have been surrounded by intellectual opportunities. In the most important household in the Roman world, however, she was “taught the traditional Roman crafts of spinning and weaving.”

Cleopatra Selena, Draycott writes, “had two competing visions of how to be a powerful woman in the Roman world.” She “could aim to be an independent and assertive woman” like her late mother or “dependent and submissive” as Octavia, the stepmother (of sorts) who raised her. “Rome was full of strong women,” however.

Children raised Roman were molded on models of persons representing the Empire’s ideals of their respective sex, past and present. The author raises, in detail, what Cleopatra Selena, because of the notoriety of her parents and politics, would have known of their history and of Egypt after she left it forever when taken to Rome. When later a queen, she commemorated her famous mother.

Gaius Julius Juba, like Cleopatra Serena, had also lost his royal parents to the Romans and was raised as a political asset in the household of Octavia in Rome. They married and would rule Mauritania, roughly modern Algeria- Morocco, a Roman client state.

By marrying the man who became Juba II, she added connections to African royalty to her own blood of so many great dynasties. The author again provides an engrossing education on Roman-era North Africa including material history. Draycott, in Cleopatra’s Daughter, even explores if Cleopatra Selena had Black ancestors as well as African birth and an African husband.

The prose of this work makes for a good way to learn Roman history or at least a part of it. It includes a bibliography, endnotes, illustrations, and notes on literary sources.