Warning: ramblies, lots of them.
I have to keep repeating to myself: This project is a sketch at best.
After three hours of research for every hour of writing (at a minimum), I have piles of stuff to read though. Among other things, I am not very well grounded in naval tactics of the first century BC., and I’m going to learn some of the physics I never reached in the course of my formal study.
Saturday’s reading covered the ritual and order-of-march of Roman triumphs, so I can reconstruct Julius Caesar’s quadruple triumph of 46 BC, as witnessed by Cleopatra, presumably from some Roman version of the skybox. (Her sister Arsinoe was one of the captives, and was spared by Caesar’s decree; amazing potential for some dramatic moments there). SOP was to execute the captives, though not in public, if I’m reading the record correctly. I’m struck by a certain family resemblance to straightforward rituals of human sacrifice. No wonder the Romans were so sniffy about the northern barbarians and their wicked Druid ways.
Then there’s the question of how anyone negotiated the ordeal of divine kingship, Greco-Egyptian style, and remained sane. How can you be an incarnate goddess and a fallible human? (The Isis-cult was big; even before Cleopatra’s time it was becoming one of the major religions in the Roman sphere of influence. Incidentally, Isis survives in the names Isidore and Isidora — gift of Isis.)
Saturday afternoon, I wrote the design conference in which Cleopatra brings in the shipwrights, the temple artificers, the embalmers, and the metalworkers–and settles the inter-service rivalry with ample supplies of wine. We’re working on steam power, and Greek fire (not actually deployed until Byzantine times) might just be workable if we get them all talking. The recipe is lost, but it’s likely to have contained crude or refined petroleum (some characterize it as an early form of napalm). It’s possible anyplace where you had petroleum seeps reaching the surface–and there were such in Egypt. Bitumen was a key ingredient in the mummification process.
(Incidentally, one of our key informants on tactical use of Greek fire is the Byzantine princess and diplomat Anna Komnene–pretty formidable herself. I have downloaded the English text of the Alexiad for entertainment and possible later project.)
In this story, I spare the library at Alexandria. As a fiction writer, I love lost libraries, because I can populate them with convenient books–such as a treatise on automata, which she is reading to while away the hours during the Alexandrian civil war. I have learned that Heron of Alexandria lived after Cleopatra’s time; his dates are given as 10 AD – 70 AD. But steam technology is attested by Vitruvius, so I’m OK historically.
Aside from fun with technology, there’s lots of office politics in this one. In real life, I hate office politics. As a writer, I love writing it as long as it’s happening to someone else. The sacrificial arena is vastly entertaining at a distance. Up close–well the blood on the sand is not so amusing when it’s one’s own.
History has already written for me the court intrigue among the Ptolemies: sibling rivalry exponentiated to lethal levels. While yet in her teens, Cleopatra saw her oldest sister’s severed head presented to the court as an example of why not to usurp dad’s throne in his absence, fought a proxy civil war with her next younger brother, ordered the assassination of her sister, and (it’s suspected) had her last brother poisoned. Not that brothers and sister didn’t conspire against her in turn.
In a supreme gesture of official optimism and plain wishful thinking, Cleopatra’s father had her and her siblings collectively deified and designated as the New Sibling-Loving Gods. They had at each other as soon as he was dead, egged on by the little courts (tutors, men-at-arms, etc) surrounding each one. And they were young: Cleopatra took the throne at 18 alongside her 10-year-old brother, Arsinoe revolted against her older sister at 14, the aforementioned brother (age 13) ordered the assassination of Pompey the Great, and the last brother died at 15.
The Ptolemies make the Borgias look like Ozzie and Harriet, and are precocious into the bargain.
It’s a real challenge, writing a novel about these people. Even opera would underplay them; consider Cleopatra’s divine summit with Mark Antony (she dressed as Isis, he as Dionysus), and the pearl-in-wine story, for example, which is pure performance art and one-upmanship.
And reading about Egyptian sex roles–interesting. Ancient Egypt was definitely more like the rest of Africa. The market-women had a dominant role in the economy, and the Greek new-arrivals took to it like ducks to water. No more ‘submissive Greek wife’ for Alexandrian women.
The Ptolemy queens are scary smart. The cultural confluence of Egypt, Macedonia, Syria, Persia, and the kingdoms upriver on the Nile produce these impressive and powerful queens. I’m taking the Afrocentric thesis that Cleopatra’s ancestry was really mixed. Because we don’t really know one way or the other; this thesis produces the most interesting result, and that’s what I’m after as a novelist.
The women who fight their way to the top of structures tipped against them are terrifyingly capable and ruthless. See: Elizabeth I of England, Catherine II of Russia, Queen Victoria, your Irish and Chinese pirate queens…
… not to mention dowager empresses time out of mind. Cleopatra VII was named after two or three really formidable Cleopatras before her. You only win a game stacked against you by a combination of constant vigilance, extreme smarts, and numerous lucky breaks–which you are primed to take advantage of.
As I work on this story, I realize that I have consciously educated myself for Life After the Multicultural Revolution, which is to say the triumph of first-gens everywhere. 🙂 The struggle with entitlement is an endless fight. Paradoxically I’m writing that under the mask of a queen who has been raised as the incarnation of a goddess. She manages to sail between the rocks of hubris and madness to emerge as a capable politician and diplomatic player. Nothing short of a miracle, and something of a tribute to those who must have been her teachers.
Special thanks to my good writing buddy and beta-reader TruantPony for the conversation that gave birth to this blog post.