A Conversation About CLEOPATRA UNCONQUERED with Helen R. Davis

This week, I spoke again with Helen R. Davis, who has written several books on powerful historical women. I wanted to talk with her about her work on Cleopatra VII, the amazing Egyptian queen who - like Anne Boleyn - has been treated terribly by fiction.



Lissa: Tell us about your book on Cleopatra.
  
Helen R. Davis: Books is a better question. CLEOPATRA UNCONQUERED is the first in a series that imagines the world after Antony and Cleopatra VII triumph at the Battle of Actium over Octavian. Told in my style of first person as though the queen were my confidante, the first in this series covers Cleopatra VII's life until the Battle of Actium, although I have moved that battle back 6 years from 31 B.C. TO 37 B.C. to coincide to when Cleopatra's second husband, Marc Antony, was beating Octavian in the propaganda war. CLEOPATRA VICTORIOUS will tell of an imagined life with Antony and Cleopatra after their victory. This title will be released late 2017 or early 2018. CLEOAPTRA MAGNIFICA and CLEOPATRA TRIUMPHANT are sequels written about a fictional great-granddaughter of Cleopatra VII, known as Cleopatra X.

 Lissa: What led you to write about her? Was there a particular part of her story that intrigued you?
  
HRD: I sensed a kindred spirit in Cleopatra VII. Like her, I am intellectual and enjoy politics. I also sensed a woman who was strong but very womanly.  In other words, she was classically beautiful but smart. What a great combo!   I was always intrigued by her demeanor and legend.  I also don't buy that she wasn't pretty. Sorry, but she had to have been something to snag Caesar and Antony.

 Lissa: I wonder if - like Anne Boleyn - it was her charm and  personal magnetism that made her beautiful. I've met some women like that in my own life. To look at a photo of them, you wouldn't think they were particularly attractive, but when they're chatting and laughing, they are just lovely. I imagine Cleopatra was a wonderful conversationalist. As educated as she was, I imagine she was well-read (probably having people bring her books from the Great Library before it was destroyed) so she must have been incredible to talk to.

HRD: There is an aspect of that too. Personalities can add to people. Some people do have all of the outer looks and none of the inner beauty to match.
  
Lissa: Cleopatra was an amazing woman. She managed to survive the attempts of her siblings to wrest the throne from her, and made two strategic marriages to the rulers of Rome that managed to keep her country independent for years. Why is it, do you think, that she isn’t seen in the same light as European queens who also survived rebellions and made strategic alliances for their nations?

HRD: I think it's because she was seen as a bad woman trying to keep Egypt independent from Rome.  Many people project modern values onto historical characters, or even onto certain contemporary characters who they don't like.  Part of it is also that her death was the end of ancient Egypt, unlike Isabella or Elizabeth I, whose reigns were the 'births' of modern Spain or England.

Lissa: That may be it... She was the closing chapter. And until modern times, there was an aura of judgement or condemnation because she was seen as sexually liberated. Of course, there's no evidence she ever took a lover outside of marriage, but she still had that reputation because Rome saw "the east" as being immoral.

HRD: Cleopatra was actually more monogamous than some of the women Rome held up as examples. She was likely only intimate with Caesar and Antony. 

Lissa: If you ask most people to imagine Cleopatra’s life, they think of her lounging around on silk pillows all day. But she was a very hard-working queen. Can you tell us about some of her accomplishments?

HRD: Yes. She spoke 9 languages, possibly more. She was the first in her dynasty to learn the native tongue of the people. She cared for the poor and made laws stopping tax collectors from gouging them. She donated to the Jewish population in Alexandria, helping build a synagogue. She likely authored several books on cosmetics. She was a devoted mother, unlike other members of her dynasty. She was, for all practical purposes, the world's first career woman.


Lissa: Let's expand a little bit on her domestic side. She does appear to have been a very devoted mother. Do you think that had anything to do with her religious feelings? She regarded herself as an incarnation of Isis, the mother goddess. Do you think that was "publicity" or do you think she internalized it and really did feel herself having a special affinity with Isis? 

HRD:  She was very devoted to all four of her children. Part of it probably was she internalized being an incarnation of Isis, but earlier Ptolemaic queens had done so and they were certainly not devoted mothers! Cleopatra III saw herself as an incarnation of Isis but she had her daughter, Cleopatra IV, killed. There is no evidence of Cleoaptra VII killing her children.  Probably she actually was the devoted mother and  loyal wife she portrayed herself as.

Lissa: Do you think Cleopatra had any emotional attachments to her brother or sisters before politics tore them apart?

HRD: That is a question I can't answer. The age differences between her and her older sisters probably prevented any closeness. I have written Tryphaena as a shallow, older woman, but we know very little about her. Berenice IV, her second oldest sister, was a woman who ruled Egypt on her own. Arsinoë IV was much younger, and my portrayal of her is as a wicked, evil woman—much as the Romans wrote Cleopatra. Her younger brothers she was forced to marry she likely had no affection for—imagine being forced to marry, for example, a bratty immature kid from elementary school.   If she did, I would imagine her being close with Berenice IV or Arsinoë IV.


Lissa: Ptolemy does seem "bratty," and either he had poor impulses, or his advisers did. I've always cringed a bit when I read the part about him presenting Caesar with the head of Pompey. Such a tragic mistake - a mistake I can't imagine Cleopatra making.

 HRD: Exactly. I couldn’t have said it better myself!

Lissa: It seems like Cleopatra’s father chose her to be his heir when he took her to Rome with him, then elevated her to be his co-regent after Bernice was defeated. Why do you think he chose her over his sons or Arsinoë ?

HRD: Cleopatra was Ptolemy XII's favorite daughter. I think he chose her because he saw her potential. He also did favor her over her sisters, as the historical record shows.

Lissa: Had things turned out differently, do you think Arsinoë  or Ptolemy could have kept Egypt independent from Rome? Would either have been a decent ruler?

HRD: Arsinoë came across to me as very spoiled, as did Ptolemy. Cleopatra VII brought Egypt much more time than either of them would have.

 Lissa: Do you believe the historical record that Cleopatra asked or ordered Marc Antony to have Arsinoe slain in the temple? I've always found that detail to be a little jarring for her character. It doesn't seem like something she would do - so publicly, so sacrilegiously.
 
"Cleopatra Dissolving the Pearl"
An example of how each era reinterpreted Cleopatra
through the lens of their own era.
HRD: It's not impossible, but it does seem very out of character for her.

Lissa: If Caesar had named his son with Cleopatra as his heir, how do you think things would have turned out?

HRD: Much better for all involved. I cover that in my alternate history series.

Lissa: Why do you think he didn't? Ceasarion was his only son... the only one he would ever have. He had already shown himself to be bold and willing to break rules that seemed inviolate, such as crossing the Rubicon. Why do you think he held back in this respect?

HRD: I actually did read in one biography that Caesar had a copy of his will where he named Caesarion as his heir, but that it was destroyed by Octavian. I think it was in Cleopatra: Goddess of Egypt, Enemy of Rome by Polly Schoyer Brooks.  I don't know why Caesar held back. Possibly he did not foresee his assassination. But he was a bold man, and I've kept the copy of his will in my alternate history.

Lissa: We know the sad fate of Ceasarion. What about Cleopatra’s twins and her son Ptolemy Philadelphos? Their stories fade into the mists of history. Do you think Octavia was kind to them? We know Cleopatra Selene married, but what do you think happened to the boys?

 HRD: I think Octavian probably had the boys killed. If he killed Caesarion, why wouldn't he kill Antony's sons? Cleopatra Selene was no threat to him. It's become popular to portray Selene as some kind of modern woman living in the ancient world, but I don't believe in the happily ever after fantasy about Selene.  As for Octavia,  she was a kind woman, but it could have been propaganda by Octavian that she was nice to them. After all, what better way to make Antony look like a jerk and Cleopatra like a slut?

Lissa: I'd like to believe she was kind to them. Those poor children... To lose their parents and their kingdom in the way they did! I'd love to speak to Selene. I wonder if she inherited her mother's cleverness.

HRD: Oh no, I'm not saying she wasn't kind to them. I'm just saying how convenient for Octavian!

 Lissa: Hollywood has failed Cleopatra more than any other queen. She’s usually depicted as a wanton or hedonistic creature. Do you think Rome “won” in this respect, and their scornful depiction of her has managed to rob her of the respect she deserves?
  
HRD: Sadly, yes.  Many people think of Cleopatra as Liz Taylor and Richard Burton.  Rome's portrayal of her, though, says far more about Rome than it does about the great Cleopatra. I hope this series will shed light on who she really was and who we are now by imagining what we might have become.

Lissa: Have you ever read Margaret George's book on Cleopatra?

HRD: Absolutely. I read it in college, but I felt it could have been about 100 pages shorter.I had seen the TV series it was based on beforehand. I hope to do my own movie where I play Cleopatra in the future, only I want to play her as the victorious queen she deserved.


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You can find CLEOPATRA UNCONQUERED on Amazon or directly from Savant Books.
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