Cleopatra’s Daughter

Written by Michelle Moran
Review by Bruce Macbain

In 30 BC, after the defeat and suicide of Antony and Cleopatra, their twin children, Alexander Helios and Cleopatra Selene, were taken to Rome as captives by Octavian (the future emperor Augustus). The boy thereafter disappears from history. Selene was raised in Augustus’s household and was eventually married off to Juba, the client king of Mauretania. And that is about all we know. Out of these scant materials, Moran has attempted a fictional biography. The novel, however, is a disappointment.

We are asked to believe, for example, that the young Selene has such a prodigious gift for architectural drawing that she is taken on as an assistant by the great Vitruvius, with whom she helps design the Pantheon (!). Then there is the love triangle, involving Selene with Augustus’s bitchy daughter Julia and his handsome nephew Marcellus, in what reads like an offering from Gossip Girls, except that here raging hormones are reduced to limp and repetitious dialogue. (There is a lot of shopping.)

Add to this, a subplot in which a mysterious Robin Hood-like figure, calling himself the Red Eagle, darts about the city freeing slaves. It won’t be giving away too much to say that his identity, when revealed, is historically preposterous.

The novel is further marred by misinformation and errors in Latin. To mention only a few examples: Selene did not have the blood of Alexander the Great in her veins; her shock at Roman infanticide is uncalled for (the practice was just as common in Hellenistic Egypt); actum, the word used repeatedly for the Red Eagle’s proclamations, does not have this meaning (the correct word is libellus); the celebratory shout at Roman weddings was Thalassio, not thalassa (a Greek word meaning “sea”); and finally – students of Latin be prepared to wince – “pleb” is not the singular of plebs.

All this could be forgiven if the story itself were compelling enough. It isn’t.