If you like historical novels, here’s another author to add to your list of must-haves – Margaret George. Ms George relates the story of Cleopatra as if it was the Queen of Egypt herself who is writing her autobiography. It is so expertly and beautifully written that while I was reading it I kept forgetting that it is in fact a work of fiction. Mind you, it is a work of fiction that is based very strongly on actual facts. Margaret George includes an author’s note at the end of the novel, explaining what is fact and what she has invented. Apparently, a lot of the things I assumed to have been fictional have actually been documented by the ancient historians Suetonius, Plutarch and Dio Cassius (no, I’d never heard of then before either, but I thought I’d throw them in here to make my review sound good!). The book has been really well researched, and, as a result, there are very few events in the book that did not actually take place, and these few are all admitted in the author’s note. There is a wealth of detailed description here on everything from the cities of Rome and Alexandria; the battles and campaigns of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony; the splendour and luxury of Cleopatra’s palace; the history of the pyramids and the Pharaohs, and so much more. Margaret George paints a wonderfully clear and vivid picture of each character. Cleopatra herself is portrayed as an intelligent, fair and loving woman, yet ruthless in her determination to retain the throne of Egypt and protect her children. She both loved her husbands and hated her enemies with an intense fierceness, even ordering the execution of her own sister who was plotting to dethrone her. You cannot help but admire her strength as a politician within her own country and in the face of her enemies abroad. She was such a young queen and achieved so much that it is not surprising that her name has remained famous throughout the centuries.
The books begins in 62 BC, when Cleopatra is seven years old and the Romans have invaded virtually all of Europe and are making their way east. It tells how, following her ascension to the throne after her father’s death, her younger brother, to whom she was married (as was the custom!), seizes power and declares her deposed. In order to try and regain her power, she has to ask Julius Caesar for help. She hides herself in a rolled up rug that is presented to Caesar in his private quarters. Out she rolls, and it is love at first sight for both of them. Caesar fights Cleopatra’s usurpers and restores her to the throne. They eventually marry and have a son, who is nicknamed Caesarion (meaning ‘little Caesar’). After Caesar’s betrayal and murder, the book focuses on the power struggle between Mark Antony and Octavian (who was later renamed Emperor Augustus), and from this point it becomes a really gripping read. Octavian was Caesar’s great-nephew, but Caesar adopted him as his son in his will. He was ruthless and unscrupulous yet a poor general who relied on his friend Agrippa’s expertise to win his wars. Mark Antony was one of Caesar’s oldest and most loyal friends. He was a born leader, who won many battles for Rome, yet his honourable character made him a poor politician. His honesty and trust were to be his ultimate downfall. Antony and Cleopatra fall in love, eventually marry and have three children. Antony was so smitten with the Queen of Egypt that he spent too much time away from Rome, enabling Octavian to blacken his reputation in his absence. Cleopatra stands by Antony after his defeat in Actium and his subsequent breakdown. Octavian eventually invades and conquers Alexandria. Antony kills himself and Cleopatra intends to do the same, shutting herself away in her mausoleum (pyramid) with the intention of letting an asp bite her. The Roman soldiers ma
nage to prevent her from doing this and take her prisoner. The Roman custom after a conquest is to return to Rome and hold a Triumph, a huge procession through the streets where the conqueror shows off the spoils of war and any political prisoners he has captured. Cleopatra learns that she is soon to be shipped off to Rome and paraded through the streets in chains, and rather than face the shame and degradation, she again plots her own death. She manages to fool Octavian into letting her return to her mausoleum where Antony is buried, finds the asp that was overlooked by the Romans the first time, and this time her suicide is successful. Octavian always denied that Caesarion was Caesar’s son, but just to be on the safe side he hunts down Caesarion, who Cleopatra had sent to India for safety, and kills him. The only blessing is that Cleopatra died believing that he had escaped safely. Cleopatra’s other three children are brought up in Octavian’s own family. I grew so attached to the characters in this book that I really felt heartbroken as each tragedy unfolded. The parts that affected me the most were the occasions on which Antony was betrayed, his defeats, breakdown and death. Somehow, Antony is the one I became the most attached to, maybe because he was a genuine honest soul who trusted blindly and loved Cleopatra unreservedly and unashamedly. I loved this book, and recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who likes historical novels. You’ll finish the last page with a sense of satisfaction of having enjoyed a beautiful and exciting story, and shortly afterwards you will become aware that you have learned a great deal of the history of ancient Egypt and Rome, and of course, of the Queen of Egypt, Cleopatra.