Lineage matters: Cleopatra’s daughter led a life as eventful as her mother’s
The record of her deeds lost in the heady accounts of the civil wars that convulsed the entire Mediterranean at the time.
By SHADI BARTSCH-ZIMMER
NEW YORK: Not many can boast of knowing that Cleopatra had a daughter, Cleopatra Selene. There’s good reason for this.The historical and archaeological evidence for her life is scanty, and the record of her deeds lost in the heady accounts of the civil wars that convulsed the entire Mediterranean at the time. Antony and Cleopatra, of course, are familiar figures to us: principal actors in the Roman Republic’s final showdown, the battle of East versus West at Actium in 31 B.C. — even if, in the aftermath of Octavian’s victory, they were portrayed as depraved and doomed lovers who took their own lives.
Had they not lost the fight at Actium, the elite couple — one Roman, one Egyptian — would have had the chance to shape Rome in their image, to align Western Europe with North Africa and Asia Minor, to subvert the simplistic propaganda pitting Roman austerity against the decadent luxury of the East. But it was not to be. It’s no surprise that, once the Roman West triumphed over the exotic East (the binaries are old ones), the daughter of the suicidal queen of Egypt earned few mentions in the ancient texts, despite the notable fact that Octavian (later Augustus) let the 10-year-old Cleopatra Selene live, presumably because he saw her as a valuable political pawn. (To others, he was not so merciful, hunting down and killing the son Cleopatra had with Julius Caesar, Caesarion, even though Caesar had been Octavian’s adoptive father.)
We know only that Cleopatra Selene was eventually married to Juba, a Numidian prince and fellow hostage in Octavian’s Rome household, and that the pair were packed off to rule the newly minted kingdom of Mauretania in North Africa, where she died around 5 B.C., while still in her 30s.
This, essentially, would be the extent of Cleopatra Selene’s story, were it not for “Cleopatra’s Daughter,” a labor of love by Jane Draycott, and her attempt to bring the obscure Mauretanian queen to life. For all her hard work, Draycott, an archaeologist and historian, delivers something slightly different from a biography. Hers is an account of Rome and Alexandria at the turn of the first millennium, packed with fascinating information, sometimes droll, about Roman and Egyptian culture, Antony and Cleopatra’s relationship and their daughter’s possible descendants.
Draycott gathers evidence from whatever sources she can find — frescoes, mosaics, jewelry, marble busts, coins, a silver dish — and deploys her considerable erudition to paint a vivid picture of the historical context. A brief glance at the index reveals entries on animal worship, Arretine tableware, birthing stools, Cleopatra Selene’s fondness for crocodiles and her mother’s sex with Antony, alongside many more traditional topics.
The protagonist of Draycott’s study remains stubbornly unknowable, a black hole in a more knowable universe. The first four chapters — almost half the book — are devoted to Antony and Cleopatra, their defeat at Actium and its aftermath, while the last two chapters focus on events that followed their daughter’s death. In between, we read about how Cleopatra Selene might have felt at a given moment (terrified as she walked next to the effigy of her dead mother in Octavian’s “military triumph,” or celebratory parade, in Rome in 29 B.C.) or how others might have reacted to her (watching her for signs of witchcraft; after all, her mother had supposedly bewitched two prominent Roman generals, luring them to her bed). I don’t mean to be disparaging: There’s no other choice for a historian wishing to resurrect a woman for whom there is meager proof of existence.