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Review: Kleopatra, by Karen Essex

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by Karen Essex
Warner Books
August 2001
ISBN: 0446527408
387 pages.

The more I found out about the historical Kleopatra, the more infuriated I became over the perversion of her legacy. Women have virtually no role models who have had Kleopatra's great power, and I could not accept the fact that perhaps the most powerful woman in history -- with the possible exceptions of Queens Elizabeth I and Victoria -- has been remembered only for the men with whom she slep, and has been blamed for their downfall.
-"Why I wrote Kleopatra," by Karen Essex
Kleopatra, published in August 2001, is only the first volume of Karen Essex' two-part fictional biography of the last pharaoh of Egypt. The second volume (Pharaoh) won't be available until August 2002. I can't wait.

With two thousand years of prolific histories and fictional literature on the queen, including plays based on the youthful Cleopatra, by George Bernard Shaw, and on the mature queen, by William Shakespeare, it is almost inconceivable that there should be more to say. Yet each generation needs to retell the legends of its great heroes and heroines, interpreting them in light of new values and discoveries. It takes a gifted writer to suit the ancient story to modern sensibilities without making it appear revisionist. Although she actively revamps Cleopatra's reputation, Karen Essex does nothing more egregious to the historical douments than use them to tell a gripping story.

The plot of Kleopatra centers on the development of Cleopatra from a small, impetuous three-year-old to the capable monarch of Egypt and ally of Rome. The story starts as Cleopatra's mother, the wife of the obese King Ptolemy Auletes (the flute-player), lies dying of fever. Cleopatra's oldest (half-) sister, the fifteen-year-old virgin Thea, siezes the opportunity to jump into her stepfather's bed in order to assume the powerful position her mother will soon vacate.

Thea disapproves of her new husband's pro-Roman policy, as do many at the court, including Cleopatra's other sister, the eight-year-old Berenike. But it's not just because Cleopatra agrees with Ptolemy Auletes that he values his third daughter. Since Cleopatra has a gift for languages, knowing Arabic, Syrian, Troglodyte, Egyptian, Hebrew and Latin, as well as her native Greek, she can act as his interpreter. In her position by his side (or in his lap when she is still little), she meets Pompey, Clodius and Mark Antony. Even when her older sisters and her father die, the factionalism continues unabated. The children of Thea and Ptolemy share their mother's hostility to both the Romans and Cleopatra, while Cleopatra still believes the only way to maintain Egyptian independence is to accede to Roman demands. After Cleopatra makes an autocratic decision, her brother's advisor puts her under house arrest. Resourceful, Cleopatra takes the occasion of a visiting Roman dignitary to escape and flee to exile. Court intrigue provides the pretext for the famous gift Cleopatra offers to Caesar, of herself wrapped up in a carpet.

Karen Essex tells the story of a brilliant, resourceful, youthful Cleopatra without making it appear a feminist rant. Indeed, Cleopatra's early nemesis is her sister, the strong, muscular, amazonian (feminist?) Berenike, while Cleopatra, in contrast, spends her time bored in exile learning to apply makeup. This is not to say Essex' Cleopatra in any way resembles Elizabeth Taylor's rendition of the femme fatale, but Essex decides the currently controversial question of Cleopatra's beauty by suggesting the queen had a certain allure, rather than conventional beauty, which she enhanced with judicious applications of kohl and brown spices for shading -- and an almost bottomless pocketbook.

Karen Essex
Photo courtesy of Warner Books.
Although a journalist and screenwriter by profession, Karen Essex spent five years traveling to the lands in which Cleopatra lived and studying the queen. She even participated in an interdisciplinary graduate program at Vanderbilt University. Essex deliberately spells the queen's name Kleopatra (literally, glory of the father). While she doesn't explain the motivation, it would seem to link Cleopatra to her Macedonian Greek heritage, since it is central to the story that the Ptolemies are all Greek. Of all the family, Cleopatra is the only one to learn the language of the people among whom she and her family have lived since Alexander the Great.

Accepting the gossip put forth by the Roman historian Suetonius, Karen Essex takes the stand that Caesar was the catamite of Nicomedes, king of Bithynia. She also accepts the idea that Caesar's wife did indeed have an affair with Clodius, and it was for this reason Caesar divorced her. Others believe the homosexuality was an empty rumor and that Caesar divorced his wife not because she had actually committed adultery, but because she had been in a position where it would have been possible -- hence, Caesar's wife was not above suspicion. The affair didn't adversely affect Caesar's friendship and political relationship with the incestuous Clodius, though.

Essex weaves in other contemporary stories, including those of Clodius' adoption into a plebian family and his death on the Appian Way. Catullus' scurrilous invective titillates the young linguist who categorizes the Latin language as the best at vulgarity. Because of her knowledge of Catullus and his obsession with Clodius' sister, Cleopatra is delighted to be able to catch a glimpse of the lovely Lesbia. Cleopatra watches from the sideline as the conspiracy to murder the last surviving stragglers of a delegation to Rome of 100 philosophers (to protest the rule of Cleopatra's father) unfolds. All these stories -- sans Cleopatra* -- are familiar, not only from the data of history, but from the well-crafted plots of historical fiction writers Colleen McCullough and Steven Saylor. Essex, showing the tumultuous period of Roman history from an outsider's perspective, now deserves a place between them.

The second volume, Pharaoh, will, presumably, take Cleopatra from her first encounter with Julius Caesar through her desperate attempts to preserve Egypt from Roman conquest, ending in her relationship with Mark Antony and suicide.

Also see Irene Hahn's review.

*We don't know for sure where Cleopatra was during her father's exile. Karen Essex chose to show her accompanying her father and witnessing events she probably did not actually see.
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