As an ancient Egypt nerd, I will read pretty much anything and everything about that particular era in history.
I keep turning back to Stacy Schiff’s non-fiction Cleopatra: A Life and recommend it to every history geek I know because it’s a breezy read of the famous Queen’s life that presents dry facts as something interesting. I also adore Stephanie Dray’s Lily of the Nile trilogy because it combines history and magic to create an enthralling series that sums up Cleopatra Selene II’s mission to honor her mother and her goddess.
However, one novel has always stuck with me and that particular piece of historical fiction is Margaret George’s The Memoirs of Cleopatra.
To begin, I absolutely adore the author’s attention to detail. Historical research can be a bore, but she took two years to write the novel. Plus, not only did George take regular trips to the British Museum, Collections Canada mentioned she also visited Egypt four times in order to make sure she perfectly captured Cleopatra’s world. George’s attention to detail and her desire to research every facet of Cleopatra’s life also led the author to visit Rome, Israel, and Jordan.
But unlike Collen McCullough’s The October Horse, The Memoirs of Cleopatra doesn’t bog the readers or the story down with dry facts. Instead, George uses everything she’s learned in her research about the queen’s life as a palette to create a beautiful portrait of Cleopatra’s life from childhood until her tragic death.
While I appreciate Margaret’s attention to detail and her dedication to bringing Cleopatra’s world to life, it is her portrayal of the queen that I love the most. Thanks to Octavian’s Roman propaganda that started after he won the battle of Actium, Cleopatra VII has generally been seen as a “home-wrecker” who destroyed two noble Roman generals. It’s the age-old “Madonna/whore” dichotomy—Cleopatra was the evil seductress who stole Marc Antony away from his darling wife Octavia, that paragon of Roman virtue.
In actuality, Cleopatra wasn’t evil. Nor was she some sort of beautiful seductress who preyed on men. The last reigning Queen of Egypt was, in fact, a brilliant ruler and a cunning politician who did everything she could to prevent Egypt from falling into Roman hands.
Another reason why I absolutely adore The Memoirs of Cleopatra is because George strips away the Roman propaganda. Her version of the ancient Queen is as close as we’ll ever get to the historical woman, and with every turn of the page, the author humanizes a very controversial figure. George’s Cleopatra is not a femme fatale; instead she’s a very human woman who strives to do what is best for her country and her children.
In fact, one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the entire novel is when Cleopatra suffers a miscarriage only a few short months after Julius Caesar was assassinated. The Queen’s grief is so real that it almost feels as if George went back in time and took a video of Cleopatra. By showing off the human side of the ancient Queen, George gives her readers—especially women of Mediterranean descent—a phenomenal heroine. After all, here is a woman who wasn’t a Victoria’s Secret’s model but still managed to win the heart of two Roman generals just based on intellect and sheer charisma.
Cleopatra also defied expectations of a royal female by naming herself sole ruler of Egypt and proving that she was every bit as capable as her male counterparts.
In the end, George’s novel turns away from the tired old stereotypes about the Queen and instead presents her as a lovable heroine with an iron will who fought against all odds to preserve her country.
Since I’ll never have the opportunity to meet the real Queen and no one knows where Cleopatra was buried, I’ll keep returning to The Memoirs of Cleopatra year after year when I find I am in sore need of a strong female character to inspire me.